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-- By Kameron Hay
“This is like the first time in Grammy history where I actually am who I thought I was for a second.”
These were the words uttered by Aubrey Drake Graham after accepting the award for Best Rap Song for “God’s Plan” at the 61st annual Grammy Awards. One can interpret that quote as him believing that he is not only the biggest rapper out now, but one of the biggest rappers that hip hop has seen. After eight Billboard 200 chart-topping albums, seven Billboard hot 100 chart-topping singles, and a slew of other accolades and hit singles; his legacy has been solidified. Drake’s standing in rap over the past 10 years has been one of the greatest runs by a musician in not just hip hop’s history, but rather in the history of music period. And that 10-year run can be traced back to its beginnings of February 13, 2009 when he released his groundbreaking mixtape So Far Gone.
In order to fully delve into the significance of So Far Gone at the time of its release, we need to paint a picture of where Drake was in his career in 2009. With two projects under his belt, 2006’s Room for Improvement and 2007’s Comeback Season, the Toronto based MC and singer had already began to show promise as a gifted artist who was able to craft songs that centered around topics that the everyday man could relate, while also displaying a charm and wit that allowed him to draw in listeners of the opposite sex with ease. But, the sound of Drake wasn’t one that was generally synonymous with hip hop’s biggest stars up to that point. Just four months prior, one of hip hop’s biggest stars at the time, Kanye West, took a huge risk releasing 808s & Heartbreak, an album that completely drifted away from the traditional sample driven, rap heavy sound that carried West to pop music’s summit. While other rappers, particularly from the south, such as Lil Wayne, Jeezy, T.I., and Rick Ross were wildly popular acts; who were experiencing their star turns in the spotlight; their content was still still widely accepted as the norm. Their particular sound had become the status quo in hip hop.
Enter Drake. For a relatively new artist, there was a lot of hype and anticipation for Drake’s third mixtape. Drake’s rise coincided with hip hop’s legendary blog era, which spawned the careers of artists such as Wiz Khalifa, J. Cole, Big Sean, Curren$y, Wale, Mac Miller and more. _So Far Gone served as one of the peak moments of the blog era, where one of the internet’s new darling rappers was on the cusp of a monumental moment. There were the infamous Ben Baller vlog entries that previewed snippets of songs from the project, and a buzz within the music industry that sensed that something big was potentially on the horizon in the form of Drake. This was his make or break moment: Deliver the goods and you become a star, or falter and potentially fall to the wayside, and be passed over for the next backpack rapper to catch the internet’s attention. So Far Gone would serve as not only Drake’s third body of work placed at the footsteps of hip hop listeners, but it would also serve as the game-changing, breakthrough record that changes artists lives and catapult them into superstardom overnight.
So Far Gone not only delivered, but it showcased the vast spectrum of talents he possessed and highlighted each skill that made him one of the most promising young voices in music. So Far Gone covered every base. The opening track showed Drake’s potential as a dual threat artist who can hold his own as a singer and writer; while there were introspective records such as “Say What’s Real” that showcased the paranoia, insecurities, and angst that has become a staple in Drake’s music. His appreciation of Houston’s culture was also on full display on this tape with “Uptown” featuring Bun B and “November 18th,” which samples legendary Houston producer DJ Screw’s chopped and screwed version of Kriss Kross’ record “Da Streets Ain’t Right.” One minute Drake would be rapping his ass off and then, on the next track, he could sing about the perils of love -- while on some other tracks, he would do both. The tape also featured a heavy cosign from the biggest rapper in the world at the time: Lil Wayne. Wayne appeared on four songs on the project, “Successful,” “Uptown,” “Unstoppable (Remix),” and one of the true standout songs on the project “Ignant Shit,” which was the Drake and Wayne remix to JAY-Z’s “Ignorant Shit” from the Brooklyn rapper's album American Gangster.
So Far Gone was also the world’s first taste of Drake the hitmaker. “Best I Ever Had” was the entry point for Drake into mainstream pop culture’s conscience -- a proper introduction of sorts -- and what an introduction it was. The song is the perfect rap/singing single that is as charming as it is goofy, and showcased the type of songwriting and crafting that immediately made Drake a superstar. It also provided evidence of his crossover appeal. It was a song for women -- about women -- and that men could also relate to, which shows the genius of Drake. “Best I Ever Had” wasn’t a reinventing of the wheel because rappers such as Nelly, Ja Rule, and West made huge hip hop records that featured them rapping, as well as singing the hooks. But, this felt different. It was a style that had been incorporated in hip hop already, but perfected, which made it a find tuning of sorts. Anybody can plug themselves into one of his songs and feel like it applies to them. This was even more the case when Drake had yet to blow up into the iconic figure he is today. "Best I Ever Had" would go on to peak at No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100 and become such a smash hit that West would volunteer his services to direct the music video, though that might have ended up being the one misstep surrounding this project. “Best I Ever Had” would be followed by “Successful” featuring Trey Songz and Lil Wayne as the next single, which would go onto peak at No. 17 on the Billboard Hot 100.
The level of success from So Far Gone led to a bidding war by labels for Drake’s services, where he would eventually settle on Young Money, the imprint label of Cash Money. By doing so, he helped form one of the strongest label crews in modern rap history alongside Lil Wayne and Nicki Minaj. At the time, this was the biggest release under the label from an artist not named Wayne, and helped establish Young Money’s credibility as a label. This proved that it was more than just Lil Wayne’s pet label and an actual roster with viable talent outside of its superstar frontman. The tape was such a critical and commercial breakthrough that Young Money/Cash Money repackaged So Far Gone as a condensed seven-track EP. "Best I Ever Had" would also go on to receive a Grammy nomination for Best Rap Song at the 52nd annual Grammy Awards. This was an unprecedented level of reach for a mixtape and signaled a shift in hip hop.
The influence of the tape helped change the soundscape of hip hop and R&B, blurring the lines even, and making it acceptable to be emotionally transparent in rap. He wasn’t the first to do this. But, he was the first to do it on such a large scale. It was a certain level of self-awareness from an artist that was refreshing, but also unorthodox to an extent. The breakthrough single from the tape is half singing and half rapping from Drake about his appreciation of his girl. Artists such as Bryson Tiller and Tory Lanez have become stars using this same blueprint that Drake laid the groundwork for on So Far Gone. The success of the tape also made Canada a viable hotbed for hip hop and R&B talent in a way that it wasn’t before with artists such as The Weeknd, PartyNextDoor, and the aforementioned Lanez helping to put Canadian hip hop and R&B on the map -- helping to leave a lasting imprint on the genres.
So Far Gone isn’t just a great body of work. But, it also served as one of the truly important moments in hip hop in the last 10 years. Widely regarded as a classic body of work and one of the crown jewels in Drake’s discography, there is no telling what would've happened to Drake if he hadn't hit a home run here. A full decade later, there seems to be no end in sight for Drake’s run of dominance. In fact, he seems to only be getting bigger and bigger as one of the most iconic figures in hip hop and pop music. And that success can be traced back to a mixtape that would change everything. After its release, Drake was truly so far gone.
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