Death of the Critic

When Black is not Black Enough - Drake and Coding in Hip-Hop

Written by: Tom Blaich

There is a really big problem with gatekeeping in the hip-hop industry. We like to draw a sharp divide between “real” fans and most listeners, and that attitude frequently extends to the way we treat artists. This discussion is so often highly racially code. It is why Eminem is treated like a marvel, because he is the “one good white rapper.” There is a high barrier to entry to the industry and it is all about how “black” an artist can present themselves as.

Look at Drake, who makes good, if mainstream, hip-hop. He is constantly being hit with criticism that he is soft, or that challenge his masculinity, or somehow asserts that the music he makes is somehow not “real” hip-hop.

“I used to get teased for being black.
And now I’m here and I’m not black enough.”

It wasn’t so long ago that gangster rap was the only kind, and hip-hop was defined by who could be the loudest, angriest, and most aggressive voice around. It has only been eight short years since Kanye West’s
808s and Heartbreak transformed the hip-hop space from the war torn city blocks into an open soundscape that allowed rappers to branch out and express themselves in new ways. Rap used to be about the spectacle that the music brought, expressing themselves through violence, but the rough and tumble braggadocio has slowly been going away from the more mainstream music. Our biggest artists no longer brag about gunfights and bullet wounds but about arguments and broken hearts.

Unsurprisingly, some fans are still unwilling to accept this transition, and Drake remains trapped somewhere in the middle. His attempts to seem tough feel almost cartoonish and he’s found himself locked into the music he has created after its massive commercial success. And part of this attitude towards him is because of this fame. Rap came out of purposefully anti-establishment roots, block parties, and outcast communities coming together to make loud, proud music that lets them express themselves. It is here that the seeds of rap culture were sown and where gangster rap, the frequently highly political, racially charged, and anti-establishment music, was born.

Many modern rap fans grew up constantly hearing about how “bad” or “evil” the music was, and artists pushed back. Watching white reports decry the violence of rap music while simultaneously hand waving and ignoring the huge violence problems in inner cities. For rappers, this was their day-to-day lives, but to the moral majority, it was just another thing threatening to “corrupt” the youth of America.

Rap fans became used to pushing back against the mainstream, so in some ways it is no surprise that they would push back against the massive popularity of Drake. The weird thing is, Drake is far from the most popular rapper out there. Eminem is the highest selling rapper of all time, but he doesn’t have the same problems thrown at him at all.

Drake just doesn’t present as “black enough”. His skin isn’t dark enough, his lyrics aren’t tough enough, and high school girls like him. He doesn’t present in the same way rap fans expect a big name rapper to. He does not pass.

Hip-hop is a game of coding. Of passing as something that you aren’t. It is all about the spectacle to a lot of listeners, and many have irrevocably tied this spectacle to the idea of blackness.

“He Instagram his watch like #MadRichAlert,
He only wanna see that ass in reverse
Two thousand dollar bag with no cash in your purse.”

We’ve created this theater where the only way the public is willing to accept a black person as successful is if they fit a very narrow image. A big name athlete or a flashy rapper. We need them to show off their wealth, almost as if to prove that they are really successful.

Drake doesn’t quite fit this image. He has the flashy jewelry, the big parties, but his music is less gangster rap and more in tune with his feelings. Instead of pushing drugs and fighting cops he breaks up with his girlfriend and it’s probably his fault. He doesn’t make the most revolutionary hip-hop, and he’s far from the only one who does this, but due to his high profile he’s become the easy target.

Drake’s skin isn’t dark enough. His music isn’t rough enough. And hip-hop fans treat him differently because of it. It’s a problem in a lot of fan communities, where “hardcore” or so-called “real” fans want to prove that they are different, their tastes are better. It’s gatekeeping and it takes different forms across media. And with Drake, this critique revolves around a single point. His identity is different from what our image of his identity should be. He’s black. But he’s not what we as a culture think “black” should be. And that is a problem.

We strive to see every side of the issue, but at the same time, acknowledge that given our backgrounds, the views and opinions we carry might be different from others. If we missed something due to our inherent biases based off of our positions, we would love to discuss it further with you in the comments below, and we always appreciate any feedback you might have for us. Feel free to email us at

Tom has been writing about media since he was a senior in high school. He likes long walks on the beach, dark liquor, and when characters reload guns in action movies.

You Might Also Like:
LGBTQ Hip Hop: The Tantalizing Problem of Labeling

Anatomy of a Scene - Sicario

I Miss the Old Kanye

blog comments powered by Disqus