Music

Dear Big Brother: The Man From Toronto

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Every other Friday, Michael Alexander writes letters to one of the biggest influences on his life: hip hop.

Dear Big Brother,

I hope I didn’t bore you with my last letter; I just felt like I needed to get some things off my chest. Writing to you is a form of therapy for me. It allows me to give the million and one thoughts I have racing through my head an outlet. I have nothing but love and respect for you. Matter of fact, one of your newest students taught me a few lessons about respect.

I still remember it like it was yesterday when I was introduced to the Toronto rapper. It was senior year of undergrad, traveling to the Horseshoe Casino to play the $1/$2 cash game hoping to secure money for “textbooks.” It was a mix cd that Cellus had in the little space between the driver seat and passenger. I spotted it, popped it in the disc player. Trey Songz’ “Replacement Girl” came on, with an opening verse from some youngster with a controlled and enticing flow. We had this thing when we heard a crazy beat or some tough bars, where we made the ugliest face possible by squinting our eyes really close together and yelling “oooo.” To say the least, we were very impressed. We got back, did some research and found out it was some artist named Drake.

So I went and sought out his work. I started with the Heartbreak Drake mixtape, followed up by one of my favorite mixtapes to date in So Far Gone. The one thing I immediately noticed was how very different his music was. On one track he could ride the beat and deliver crazy punchlines, and then follow it up with him singing like he was a lost member of Jodeci. Big Bro, remember the Jodeci cassette tape Pops gave me back in the day? I didn’t understand why in the hell he would give me some R&B group’s music that sounded like they were crying to women, but I definitely get it now. Anyway, I couldn’t remember a modern-day artist fusing rap and R&B so intricately.

I was confused. I couldn’t really figure him out. Was he a singer or a rapper? I got into an argument last spring with a girl about Drake. She said, “When it comes to music, why does it always have to be political? Why can’t you just like the music without all the politics?” I’m not going to lie, I have a gift for stirring up arguments, but what she said made me shut up for the rest of the night. But I love music; that’s why at times I get really personal about it. I remember having to defend listening to Ja Rule after 50 Cent debuted with “Wanksta.” Sadly, I’ve never seen an MC put another artist into early retirement quite like 50 did to Ja Rule. Either way, maybe that’s how my little stepbrother felt when he was trying day and night to convince me to listen to Drake’s debut album Thank Me Later. For a while I had given up on him, I just couldn’t figure out what he was about. But my stepbrother wasn’t having any of that explanation, and snuck the album on my iPod anyway.

I’ve tried my best to hate him. I have tried to talk myself out of listening to his music. I mean, he was the handicapped kid from a Nickelodeon-affiliated television show. Maybe it was a mixture of listening to critics who called him soft, fake or just plain trash. I never thought he was completely trash; he was just super-emo, and maybe fake was the wrong characterization. Maybe, like myself, he was and still trying to figure out his own identity. Riding around in music videos with a leopard-print North Face and batting gloves doesn’t help the situation. I just felt like he was trying to fit in everywhere. But that’s not my battle to fight. I can’t define who the hell another man is, that’s his job. So I re-listened to his old music and really dug the “depressing music” phase he went through last year with “Marvin’s Room,” “Trust Issues” and some tracks he did on The Weeknd’s recent projects. I’m done trying to define the man who played “Wheelchair Jimmy Brooks.” Done with trying to label him “soft” or “hard.” That shit gets exhausting. I’m beginning to see the subtle life lessons you continue to teach me, Big Bro. I think it’s time I ended my boycott on Take Care. Maybe I’ll find another gem similar to “Light Up.” Or maybe I’ll hate it. Either way, I have to at least give it a chance out of respect. After all, it did win a Grammy.

From your little brother,

Mike