In May of 2009, a burgeoning unsigned rapper named Aubrey Drake Graham took the stage at Warehouse Live in Houston. Better known for his role in the Canadian teen drama Degrassi: The Next Generation than for his music, the Toronto native was unsure if anyone would actually show up to the concert. An empty crowd stings no matter the city, but this was Houston, and Drake loved Houston. He first met his mentor, Lil Wayne, in H-Town, and on his breakthrough mixtape, So Far Gone, he paid homage to the city by interpolating DJ Screw’s iconic “June 27th Freestyle” and securing a feature from Bun B. So, despite dreading a barren venue, Drake strode on stage and was greeted by a soon-to-be familiar sight: a storm of cellphone-waving fans who knew every word to every song. Drake would, of course, go on to trot around the globe and sell out arenas and break nearly every chart and streaming record imaginable—but this was before all that. No city had ever shown Drake love like Houston did that night, not even Toronto. It was this moment, he’s since said, that “birthed” his career.
For an artist obsessed with self-mythology, this is the sort of baptismal tale essential to the Drake narrative. I can practically envision the scene as a suspense-addled catalyzer in his inevitable biopic. Still, it’s fair to wonder why Drake credits this moment for changing the course of his career. Wasn’t he on a predestined path to fame and fortune? The show took place one month before he signed with Lil Wayne’s Young Money Entertainment label, where he was billed as the heir apparent to Weezy’s multiplatinum empire, a vowel-elongating rapper who could sing, act, and chameleonize himself across genres. And it wasn’t just hype: So Far Gone fundamentally shifted the direction of mainstream hip-hop. Heavily inspired by Kanye West’s 808s & Heartbreak, So Far Gone balanced sentimental R&B ballads with chest-pumping flex raps, even remixing songs by indie artists like Lykke Li and Peter Bjorn and John. Crucially, the record also had a hit single, “Best I Ever Had,” which peaked at number two on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100. Why did such a generational talent and unconventional rapper need Houston to christen him when he was already on his way to stardom? And why did a former child actor from Canada even want the city’s validation?
Drake became one of the most famous musicians in the world by appealing to an array of regional styles. By experimenting with (or appropriating—your call) sounds from the Caribbean, Nigeria, and the UK, he’s achieved a global reach unlike that of almost any other rapper, save for Jay-Z and Kanye West. Yet amid all of his geographical trend-hopping, Drake has remained resolutely loyal to Houston. Apart from Toronto, no city has pervaded his imagination or influenced his sound as much as H-Town, and he’s gone to great lengths to nurture his relationship with the city. From organizing Houston Appreciation Weekends to tattooing the Astros logo on his shoulder to incessantly referencing the city in his music, Drake has fashioned himself as a true Houston apostle, a dogged champion of the city’s culture. If we’re talking résumés, Drake’s done nearly everything in his power to prove he’s an honorary Texan.
I know what you’re thinking: The die-hard fan of Kentucky basketball who occasionally talks in a Jamaican accent is now also, perversely, a Texan? Point taken: Drake’s everywhere-and-nowhere relationship with place often appears disingenuous, a way to remain relevant or shamelessly promote content or amass even more fans than he already has. And while he certainly rides hard for Houston, it’s not as if Drake hasn’t also claimed a special connection to Atlanta, Dubai, Los Angeles, London, Miami, Memphis, and pretty much anywhere else he’s ever touched down. For this reason, he’s been labeled a “culture vulture,” a conniving capitalist who exploits cities, subcultures, and institutions for their most profitable idiosyncrasies—flow, fashion, lingo, et cetera—even though he rarely has any meaningful connection to these spaces. When Drake drops a bar like “Dubai embraced me like an Emirati” (“Lemon Pepper Freestyle”), it dilutes his hometown hero status in other cities, especially Houston. “Man, I know [Houston] like I come from it,” he rapped on 2013’s “Too Much,” and anyone, anywhere, would be forgiven for repressing an eye roll. Listening to Drake is almost like being on a date with someone who insists that they love you, that they can’t live without you, yet throughout dinner they’re not-so-subtly texting other people under the table.
Here’s the simplest justification for Drake’s antics: He is Canadian. In 2009, there was no precedent for a Canadian rapper crossing over into the global mainstream. For an artist as ambitious and scheming as Drake, Toronto’s insularity from American hip-hop presented a slew of hard-to-swerve roadblocks. In the rap world, geography serves as a precursor to credibility and identity. Hip-hop artists tend to emerge from a scene and embody that scene’s ethos, aesthetics, lingo, fashion, and affiliations, communicating and celebrating the struggles and experiences endemic to a place. But, as hip-hop scholar Murray Forman notes, “geographical boundaries [in hip-hop] . . . [are] never firm or immovable.” Tupac was born in New York, went to high school in Baltimore, and became one of California’s most iconic rap artists. DJ Khaled was born and raised in New Orleans but is now synonymous with Miami luxury rap. The rules of territorialism in hip-hop further shifted in the early 2010s, during a time now referred to as the “blog era,” a period during which music decentralized itself from the music industry and a direct-to-consumer pathway formed. There was no block on the internet, no code or tradition to adhere to, just a handful of websites posting free download links to whatever sounded good. Through these channels, rappers who were not tethered to a thriving scene or major label were able to insert themselves into the spotlight, including those from rap deserts like Toronto.
“Toronto did not make Drake, like, at all,” Dalton Higgins, a lecturer who teaches a college course on Drake, told the New York Times early this year. Higgins notes that Black Canadian artists have been largely excluded from their country’s music industry; even Canada’s most prominent rappers have historically been relegated to independent or underground status (shout-out to Kardinal Offishall and k-os, whose music never fully rose to mainstream prominence). With no real Toronto hip-hop tradition to observe or even subvert at the time, Drake’s early mixtapes saw him experimenting with an array of disparate subgenres, from backpack and conscious rap to Memphis-inspired bounce (as a kid, Drake used to visit his dad and extended family in Memphis). Although the internet allowed artists to create a buzz without the support of a distinct community, an artist as motivated as Drake knew he needed to extend his reach beyond blogs and message boards. If Toronto couldn’t make him, another city would have to.
Enter Houston, hip-hop’s oft-overlooked mecca. In the late eighties and into the nineties, New York and Los Angeles overshadowed Houston on the national stage. As hip-hop’s largest markets, these cities housed several nationally recognized scenes, from mainstream radio rap to underground acts. Other cities, like Houston, were relegated to reductive regionalism. Despite the widespread success of the Geto Boys, most Houston rappers were shoved into the catchall category of “Southern rap.” In his Pitchfork review of UGK’s Ridin’ Dirty, Brandon Caldwell recalls that Brooklyn rapper KRS-One diminished the work of UGK’s Bun B and Pimp C as “country rap.” But thanks to the brilliance of Bun and Pimp—as well as many other pioneers of Texas hip-hop, like J. Prince, DJ Screw, Fat Pat, Lil’ Keke, and Rap-A-Lot Records, among countless others—Houston transcended its industry-imposed regional limitations and ballooned into one of the country’s most thriving and vibrant rap scenes.
In the early 2000s, Houston hip-hop announced itself as a significant mainstream force. Thanks to pop crossover tracks like Baby Bash’s “Suga Suga,” canonical bangers like Mike Jones, Paul Wall, and Slim Thug’s “Still Tippin’,” and the enduring legacy of the late DJ Screw, whose chopped and screwed sound installed itself in the dominant hip-hop imagination, Houston soon became synonymous with everything that was cool. Slabs, grills, candy paint, braids, the enviable Houston drawl—nowhere else in the world had a culture as triumphantly laid-back as that of H-Town. It’s no surprise, then, that Drake, a teenager when anthems like “Still Tippin’ ” and Z-Ro’s “Mo City Don” dropped, fell in love with the idea of the city. Houston’s rap scene was not as impenetrable as those of Los Angeles or New York, whose turf wars frequently led to blood feuds and career-ending diss tracks. Call it Southern hospitality, call it increased empathy after years of marginalization by the mainstream, but Houston was particularly capable of welcoming outsiders, as long as proper respects were paid.
Say what you want about Drake, but he is nothing if not reverential. When Lil Wayne first flew him to Houston, Drake felt an instant kinship with the city: “That was my first time in Houston and the culture and the city was so overwhelming. I felt like I hit Houston and got my swag back. I was single, I was with Wayne, and it was Houston. I was going nuts, sipping drank, smoking. It was fun to me.” Since this first encounter, H-Town has continued to serve as a place of escape and exploration for Drake, who uses his songs to name-drop women he’s met at the city’s strip clubs and recall memorable shopping excursions at the Galleria. Flip to any random track in his catalog and you’re bound to hear a line like “You a little Post Oak baby” (“N 2 Deep”) or “All my exes live in Texas like I’m George Strait” (“HYFR”). He’s not just shouting out the city; Houston has reshaped his art, claimed prime real estate in the texture and imagination of his music.
Toronto’s signature sound also relies heavily on Houston’s soulful yet bouncy style. Before Drake, Toronto rap was mostly just another subset of East Coast hip-hop, a city short on distinctive subgenres and lacking a cohesive musical identity. But with direction from Drake and his producer Noah “40” Shebib, as well as the Weeknd and his early collaborators Illangelo and Doc McKinney, Toronto achieved a definitive sound. Think “Marvins Room” or the Weeknd’s “Wicked Games”: moody, low-slung fusions of R&B, trap, and electronic that sounded like almost nothing that came before them. When Drake returned to Toronto after his initial visit to Houston, it’s clear that he was inspired by the city’s ingenuity. Here was a place whose music reflected its unique cultural sensibilities, a city that innovated within hip-hop in order to best represent the soul of its state. Drake took these lessons and applied them to his city, locating Toronto’s most innate qualities and integrating them into his music: cold weather, dark skies, multiculturalism, a cacophony of genres meshed into one.
It’s hard to remember, but Drake’s mainstream appeal used to depend on relatability. He wasn’t a particularly good singer, nor a technically gifted rapper, but he had an ineffable it factor, a greatness that somehow seemed both replicable and inimitable. His vulnerability and self-examination made him feel real, a person acutely attune to the burdens of being alive. More than a decade into his career, though, this relatability has all but evaporated. Drake now occupies an unthinkable stratosphere of celebrity, and his relationships with people and place seem mostly proprietary. Yet while he scours the globe searching for something to believe in, he remains grounded by the cities that birthed him: Toronto and Houston. Thirteen years ago, at Warehouse Live, Drake had yet to plot his pop-star takeover; he was too busy worrying if anyone would come to his show. Houston recognized and celebrated Drake’s greatness before any other city, even Toronto, and he’s never forgotten it. Whether we officially claim him as a Texan may be beside the point. This dude will “rep Houston till the day [he] die[s].”