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Does ‘Nice for What' signal the end of Drake’s emo sexism?

Drake at the Xcel in 2016. Photo by Mike Madison.

Drake at the Xcel in 2016. Photo by Mike Madison.

Mixing our basest club desires with our loftiest gender-based societal ideals, Drake’s newest single, “Nice for What,” is a jam with a message.

Of course, Drake has always rapped from both sides of the fence, acting as both bad boy and friendly shoulder to cry on. He’s rhymed about “bitches” and “hoes” as though that didn’t undermine his efforts to come off as the most thoughtful of guys. He’s a textbook example of emo sexism, treating women as possessions, then following up his bad behavior with overwrought displays of regret. He’s at once the bad boy and the friendly shoulder to cry on.

And yet, few but Drake could pull off a conceptual gumbo like the video of “Nice for What.” I watch Olivia Wilde and Tracee Ellis Ross—their carefree dancing, their strength and essence-deep beauty—and cry like I’m transfixed in front of a Matisse. But I’m also dancing and excited, ready to sprint to the club in the middle of the afternoon. Drake has made a pop classic—and maybe finally evolved past his contradictions.

The track opens with a sharp gender contrast: first a DJ bro shouting, then a sample of Lauryn Hill from “Ex-Factor,” asking her man “I keep letting you back in, how can I explain myself?” Enter Drake, who takes it upon himself to answer Ms. Hill. He’s well-qualified to speculate on why women put up with male bullshit, because he’s a male guilty of a fair share of bullshit himself.

Drake lists the admirable attributes of the women he encounters, the ladies who work hard, pay their bills on time, and “lay low.” He contrasts these characteristics with what he sees women exhibit when “letting that thang loose,” as he put it, explaining the periodic, primal need to “make that ass jump” and spend chunks of time with idiot boys or work selfie angles. “But it's alright,” Drake tells them, playing—and maybe evolving into—a nonjudgmental ally.

Though entertainment objectified women long before hip hop came around, some folks still act like black people somehow invented or mastered misogyny in the late ’80s. Drake’s made his career, his entire musical lane, setting himself up as the alternative to that bad reputation. He hasn’t done this by actively changing his behavior, but by refusing to justify it and by taking the time to explain his misadventures. There's always some value to emotional honesty, and when Drake showed us his pattern of manic strip-club trips followed by remorse and depression, it was the start of a career-long conversation.

Drake was super-suave in his early days, a young buck taking in all the world has to offer. He had yet to express the naked emotion that would come out through his lyrics and music. On Comeback Season in 2007, Drake was still working in the tradition of sexist sensationalism, with “Replacement Girl” cataloging his reliable sex accessories at different stops across the country and “Bitch is Crazy” lashing out at women who didn't understand what Drake considered their role.

On So Far Gone, which is not coincidentally his coming out party as a potential pop star, Drake begins developing in earnest. “Lust for Life” and “Houstatlantavegas” are prime examples of Drizzy’s emo sexist expositions. “And these days women make offers and who am I to say no?” Drake spits on “Lust for Life,” explaining some regrettable night by way of posing the question to the listener of how he (and all dudes) should proceed.

Built on the success of So Far Gone, Drake’s studio debut, Thank Me Later, was an entire record of emotional synths and even more emotional rhymes. On songs like “Fancy” and “Shut it Down,” he Trojan-horses his salacious pursuits within ostensibly fawning but actually slightly possessive portrayals of the women that spark his horny ire. Drake begins to see everyone as complicit, including the women that he says tempt and toy with him, and sighs. But he's not gonna stop.

Take Care Drake is peak look-how-evolved-I-am-about-letting-you-know-how-shitty-I-can-be Drake. “Thought I found the girl of my dreams at the strip club,” Drake rap-sings on “Over My Dead Body.” “Mmm mmm, fuck it I was wrong though.” Drake’s backhanded way of acknowledging that he doesn't deserve a loving woman is to invoke the stale old good girl/bad girl dichotomy, then to dismiss whoever comes on to him as a bad girl.

The typical way for a woman to earn Drake's respect is to confound him sexually, giving rise to rueful disappointment. In “Hotline Bling,” he admonishes a woman for not staying in the house, and, shrugging, admires her shiny coat and audaciously wily ways, and tips his cap. In this way, he lends some lady who wouldn't bend to his every (likely extremely exhausting) whim the nobility and mystery of Ahab's whale.

On “Shot for Me,” Drake scolds a woman for thinking her confidence comes from anything other than her connection to Drake. He then implores that she deserves to have fun with anyone and to take a shot—but for him. It's a mess, which is all Drake apparently aims to point out. Drake flaunts his every tawdry tendency, letting them splash like an oil leak, in order to yield ever deeper emotional fodder.

Drake is listening and learning, but change isn't going to happen overnight. The women in the “Nice for What” video are images of might, of cultural endurance, and this time, Drake is the one who has to work for their respect. It's a great step away from his traditional bullshit, and in the right direction. When Drake-level dudes join in asking why women are nice to the dumbest dudes. instead of nagging some woman for not blinging his hotline it matters. After all, some of those dumb dudes might be Drake fans.