Your voice is the entirety of your instrument as a rapper, and you have to make everything happen with it. This fact has always acted as a sneaky equalizer. At the upper reaches of the industry, you can buy a lot of skills that rapping requires: You can pay someone, or many people, to supply you with hot lines; you can enlist producers to wireframe song structures, hum ideas, or even record nearly-complete songs before you arrive. But the time must come when it’s just you and your voice in that booth.
Drake’s If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late and Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly are vastly different hip-hop artifacts, made by artists who use their voices in vastly different ways. And yet, in the gulf between them, something does emerge, something invisible but real. With both records, you hear two artists honing in on their message by exploring the outer reaches of the most elemental tool available to them.
Drake has had voice issues for years, at least as an MC; for someone with such a preternatural sense of his own star power, he has often sounded curiously uncomfortable or unnatural when rapping. On his earliest releases and up through his debut album Thank Me Later, his default mode was more transmission than flow. To take one example, “The Resistance” had him repeatedly picking up with a new thought at the end of each line:
Livin’ inside a moment, not taking pictures to save it, I mean
How could I forget? My memory’s never faded, I
Can’t relate to these haters, my enemies never made it, I
Am… still here with who I started with
This is a great way to sound conversational, to make listeners forget that there is a ticking meter pushing along your thoughts, but it only works if you can sound casual. Drake’s delivery, meanwhile, was a barrage of eighth notes, each syllable exactly the length of the one before it. The style prioritized legibility over spontaneity and ended up sounding about as natural as a “Degrassi” script. In his early career, the downbeat was an appointment Drake could not afford to miss, which occasionally gave his rapping a teeth-setting edge, like an assistant following you around a little too eagerly. The way his voice was mixed—high and clear, far above the muted music—served as an acknowledgment of his slightly formal, arms-length relationship with the beat.