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‘I’m a young man of substance,’ says the former cast member of TV’s Degrassi: The Next Generation. ‘I don’t like chasing empty connections.’ (JENNIFER ROBERTS/JENNIFER ROBERTS FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL)
‘I’m a young man of substance,’ says the former cast member of TV’s Degrassi: The Next Generation. ‘I don’t like chasing empty connections.’ (JENNIFER ROBERTS/JENNIFER ROBERTS FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL)

Arts person of the year

Drake: So far gone, he's arrived Add to ...

Most successful pop musicians will eventually make a song or even a full album about the drawbacks of fame and fortune. Drake is a little unusual. He tackled the subject even before his debut album was done.

What might have looked like hubris in someone else, however, turned into prophesy for the 23-year-old Toronto singer, actor and rapper. Since the beginning of 2009, Drake has become hip hop's new golden boy. His mix tape So Far Gone was one of the hottest music releases on the Internet this year, his single Best I Ever Had became a No. 1 hit last summer, and he's competing for two Grammy Awards against the likes of Eminem, Jay-Z and Kanye West. All this, and Drake still hasn't finished making his first album.

"I had one of the craziest years of my life, maybe one of the craziest years in hip hop for any new artist," he said, sprawled on a distressed leather sofa in the prime downtown condo he bought last summer but has only recently had time to furnish. The decor - mostly hardwood, leather and sisal - is understated and frankly male. The view is easily worth a million or two, and seems to confirm that the multilabel bidding war that erupted around Drake last summer ended very much in his favour. (The winner, Motown Universal, released an EP of "extended-play selections" from So Far Gone in September.)

Drake, who grew up as Aubrey Graham, has been in show business since 2001, as a seven-season regular on the TV series Degrassi: The Next Generation . His move into music over the past few years may seem like an echo of his Degrassi character, Jimmy Brooks, but Drake says it happened the other way round: He began making music (his first mix tape came out in 2006) and then the Degrassi writers made Jimmy an aspiring rapper.



I went to a predominantly Jewish school, so to be half-black and Jewish wasn't something a lot of other kids could understand.


Drake's upbringing is a tale of two cities: Toronto, where he lived with his white Jewish mother in prosperous Forest Hill; and Memphis, where he spent summers with his drummer father, Dennis Graham, and his uncles Teenie Hodges (who co-wrote songs with Al Green) and Larry Graham (who played bass with Sly and the Family Stone).

"My mom is the Scrabble player, overly neurotic and organized, the epitome of a proper woman," Drake said. "All the rappers like my mom, Jay-Z and Lil Wayne, she's a great lady. And then you've got my dad, who's straight down-south, a real, true Memphis man, not glamorous at all. Very intelligent, but my mother definitely has him trumped in the class category."

Drake never felt completely at home in either milieu. He was a black kid in a white Jewish enclave, and a Jewish Canadian in a Southern black 'hood.

"I went to a predominantly Jewish school, so to be half-black and Jewish wasn't something a lot of other kids could understand," he said. "A lot of their nannies were black. They made me feel like an outsider, for sure.

"Memphis was like one of those wild theme parks in movies. We might be shooting guns in the back yard at my cousin's house, or drinking beer. My dad watched out for me, but he was like, 'Go ahead, see the world.' Crazy things would happen."

Outsiders are often good observers, and Drake was fascinated by the different forms of high life he saw in his two hometowns: the well-bred upscale women in his mother's set versus the flashy, bling-laden guys he saw at rap shows in Memphis. He wanted a bit of both for himself, but also sensed that the gold under the rainbow might not be enough.

"As a 23-year-old kid, that's what I strive for: money, cars, clothes, now furniture - material things," he said. "That's what we're conditioned to think happiness is. But are we on the right path? Is it possible to find love, to enable you to enjoy all this stuff? I'm a young man of substance. I don't like chasing empty connections. That's what my album is going to be about: my new situation, about me getting a firm grasp on it, and then trying to find the missing component."

He's been lucky so far, both in the timing and reception of his own work, and in the high-profile collaborations that have come his way, with Kanye West, Jay-Z, Alicia Keys and Mary J. Blige. He has a solid entrée into the top tier of the American hip-hop scene, above all through Lil Wayne, who took him on the road with his Young Money crew in 2008, signed him to his boutique label in June, and showed him what hard work really looks like.

"My mom always used to say, 'You've got to work hard, because when you're resting or you take a break, there's somebody else that chose not to,' Drake said. "Lil Wayne is that guy, who chooses not to ever take a break. When I'm tired at the end of the night, because we've done a show and an after-party, he's like, 'I'm gonna go on the bus and record some songs.'"

It's a timely lesson, because wonder boy Drake is still just getting started. With luck, his album may be out by the time he suits up for the Grammys.

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