My father moved out when I was 10 years old, right around the time my childhood memories start to seem linear. Especially the routines that became a part of daily life—like making brown bag lunches for my brother and sister every night before school, layering turkey or bologna, which I hated, on top of Swiss cheese and wheat bread and tossing in some Pepperidge Farm Goldfish and an apple. I did laundry—soft cycle, always—and folded it. I raked in the fall. I mowed the lawn in the summer. I answered the door on dark nights. I weighed in on family decisions, even when it was unnecessary. After a confusing year that found me uncharacteristically acting out in school, I embraced the authority at home. It put distance between my sister, my brother, and I. They saw me as something a little different than a brother. And no matter how many nights I sat at the kitchen table with my mother, trying to figure out the month’s bills and how she felt about getting the rug pulled out from under her life and hashing out how I ought to feel (and how I really felt), my siblings saw me as some sort of lieutenant. My mother was king and sheriff. My grandmother, who we call Tots, lived in the makeshift apartment on the top floor of our house. Tots was second-in-command. When my father left, Tots assumed a new power—she was a kind, attentive ornament in our home until that point, unable to live on her own but capable enough to lead her own life. Then, suddenly, my mom was working two jobs and Tots was cooking dinner three nights a week, cleaning up after us, forced to wrangle a 10-, eight-, and six-year-old on a bad knee. She didn’t drive, or move terribly fast, but she was game. Also, Tots could hardly hear—it’s worse now—but she had a knack for spotting impropriety. A cat’s eye. It was tough to misbehave in that environment. She could scowl. She could flail. She could howl at you, and then deprive you of dinner. Sometimes this was a blessing. Her dinners were peculiar. Somewhere between the suburban staples our mother prepared (chicken cutlets, meatloaf, spaghetti and meatballs, etc.) and the worst food in the history of time (something called “cockets,” a Swiss noodle dish that featured buttered noodles and chopped beef. The cat never jumped on the table when we had cockets).
Naturally, my mother and I were close, but our relationship was something more like duty than affection. This was probably my fault. She had a boyfriend for many years, and then another one. I saw my dad often enough, every two weeks, out of obligation. But not enough to alleviate any concerns or assuage insecurity (this seems like a big part of being a parent, making the worst times seem not totally unreasonable). These men didn’t solve problems—they were decent, but ineffectual.
At the time, I thought of Tots as something of an inconvenience, imagining the possibilities of being a real latchkey kid. Imagine all the candy I could steal and trouble I could make and cigarettes I could not inhale properly. Sure, she gave me money to buy Kriss Kross’ “Jump” cassingle and prepared a separate stocking every Christmas morning and watched ballgames with us. (She loves the Yankees, which, what the fuck.) But she policed us. When my sister and I threw parties on Mom’s nights out—which were not rare—she’d amble downstairs, her wobbly gait betraying frustration, and attempt to bust it up. “Sean, you know this isn’t right,” she’d say. “This isn’t OK. Don’t take advantage of me.” Being raised by women is an unreal experience.
When I heard Drake’s “Look What You’ve Done” I realized why Drake makes sense to me. Rappers make Mom Songs and Grandma Songs all the time—it’s a sort of hip-hop rite of passage that arrives near the conclusion of albums, an acknowledgement that, at the end of 70 minutes of chest-beating and Horatio Alger, there is a person inside the beast. “Look What You’ve Done” is one of these songs, sort of. At first it sounds like the type of song people think Drake makes. “It’s like ’09 in your basement and I’m in love with Nebbie / And I still love her but it fell through because I wasn’t ready” it starts. This is a love song, and maybe Drake is creeping on a girl in her own house. But wait. It quickly becomes clear that Drake is using Drake things—romantic turmoil; plaintive emotionalism; melancholic piano chords—to talk to his mom, and his grandmother, and his uncle. He’s just using those things to frame a different story. It is about love, but a different kind.
And your back hurt, and your neck hurt, and you smoking heavy
And I sit next to you, and I lecture you ‘cause those are deadly
And then you ask shit and we argue about spending money on bullshit
And you tell me I’m just like my father, ‘My one button, you push it’
And that’s ‘Fuck you, I hate you, I’ll move out in a heartbeat’
It hurts a lot just hearing this. This is what single moms do, how they move and talk to their sons. Their sons never know how to talk to them.
Everyone has an uncle like the one Drake talks about in the second verse. For children of single parents, if they’re lucky, something alchemical happens with aunts and uncles; they identify a hole and try to fill it. They’re more tender, and they endure more than they might have otherwise. They encourage. They lie to you, in the good way. They buy you things and let you sleep over.
And my father living in Memphis now he can’t come this way
Over some minor charges and child support that just wasn’t paid
Damn, boo-hoo, sad story, black American dad story
Know that I’m your sister’s kid but it still don’t explain the love that you have for me
Drake is very easy to mock. So easy that sometimes it appears as if he’s doing things with the knowledge of how richly Drake-ian they are, and thumbing his nose at us. (The cover of Take Care comes to mind.) He has feelings and trades on them. He seems not to know how to do it any other way. This makes him the target of some very sad criticism. I laughed at the Big Ghostface review that seemingly everyone on the Internet had been hoping would happen, and then did. But it also made me feel bad about how Drake’s feelings have allowed the fading notions about homophobia in rap to worm its way back into the consciousness. Not to mention talking about feelings (imagine that) in a new way. It feels good when the biggest cultural thing in your life keeps moving forward. The Drake memes are fun, but there’s an implicit regression; a nastiness and a frustration. A settling for status quo because the way he expresses himself is unfamiliar and, yes, sometimes hard to reconcile, assuming corniness is an issue for you. I’ll take it over the alternative, I think.
“Look What You’ve Done” is doubly crushing because the song is built on a delicate foundation. Producer Chase N. Cache samples rehearsal footage of the late songwriter-producer Stephen “Static/Major” Garrett, as he works out “If U Scared, Say U Scared,” a song for Smoke E Digglera, his former bandmate in Playa. One of the last stories I edited at Vibe magazine was an oral history of Static’s too-short life—he was an extraordinary talent and the piece was a passion project for all involved. I’m proud of it. Static, 34, died just months before his biggest hit, Lil Wayne’s “Lollipop,” topped the charts. Before that, he was the secret musketeer in the vaunted Virginia sound, crafting indelible, almost shapeless but unshakable songs for people like Aaliyah, Ginuwine, and Nicole Wray. Drake and his musical partner Noah “40” Shebib are avowed Aaliyah fans—they know how important Static is. And to choose this production for this song is purposeful and something like heartbreaking.
The first time I heard the song’s closing, which features a voicemail from Drake’s grandmother, I dismissed it, regarding it a cloying replication of Jay-Z’s “December 4th.” Then I listened again. Then I called my mom and my grandmother. “All I can say, Aubrey, is that I remember the good times we’ve had together and the times I used to look after you. And I still have wonderful feelings about that. So God bless you and I hope I see you.” This is what any grandmother might say, but it is undoubtedly what my grandmother says every time we speak. “Look What You’ve Done” is the best of Drake because it’s the most like him. There are some vicious moments on Take Care and the presiding idea that he is “soft” is a fallacy. But when he’s “soft” is when it all makes the most sense. I like the lothario, but I want to talk to the other guy.
Sean Fennessey, Split Infinitives: Boo-Hoo, Sad Story