Drake Plays the Blues: “Down South” and the Black Imaginary in “Worst Behavior”

December 31, 2013

“Down South” is a ubiquitous trope in the black American imagination, used to conjure actual and fictive remembrances of a space and time removed from and outside of modernity, the anti-present. It’s an imagined space through which one, usually a seasonal migrator or former southerner, or an altogether non-southerner, can safely navigate a number of complexities of personal history, home, memory, and angst. With the 10-minute video for “Worst Behavior” Drake uses the notion of Down South, and Memphis in particular, to narrate broader ideas about authenticity, masculinity, fatherhood, home, and longing.

man, muhfuckas neva loved us

Cash Money Records afforded Aubrey Drake Graham, the middle class biracial Jewish Canadian kid of Degrassi fame, a black audience and black working class authenticity through proximity to some New Orleans hot boys. This proximity, along with his rap prowess, has afforded Drake some space to blossom in a game that seemed to not yet have room for him. Still, jokes about Drake abound, with the rapper frequently making the problematical Top 10 Softest Rappers in the Game list and an infamous meme about his Dada outfit circulating through the interwebs in summer 2013. Further, Cash Money has not completely eradicated the artist’s authenticity troubles. Grumbles about “Started from the Bottom”–how dare a middle class Canadian kid talk about starting from the bottom?–revealed the intraracial class dynamics of the prerequisites for authenticity. That is, one might now be extraordinarily wealthy, but as long as she or he started from a legible bottom–say, the Hollygrove neighborhood of New Orleans–one can enjoy unlimited authenticity, no matter how pop one becomes.

always hated the boy/but now the boy is the man/muhfucka i done growed up

In “Worst Behavior,” Drake stretches beyond the prepackaged authenticity offered by his label affiliation by offering up his own biological, geographical, and intellectual lineage. The video begins with his father, Memphian and musician in his own right Dennis Graham, in a session inside the famed Royal Studios with the Hodges, where Willie Mitchell, Teenie Hodges, and Al Green made musical history and futures. This is a conscious re-writing of musical history, as Drake writes his father into the center of a space to which the elder Graham might have actually been tangential and therefore writes himself into the center of a game in which he might have otherwise always been an outsider. After some opening shots of vacant lots, shotgun beauty salons, boarded-up homes, and the most gangsta stray black dog you have ever seent in your *life*, the beat drops and Dennis Graham, clad in a white three-piece suit, is lip-syncing to his son’s rap as Drake’s uncles, also clad in three-piece suits with coordinated gators, are posted up outside of pink Cadillacs. Outside of Marlowe’s restaurant. On Elvis Presley Boulevard. This is, in effect, an authenticity gauntlet, one supported by the Hodges, Royal Studios, Willie Mitchell, Al Green, the whole of Memphis R&B and soul, and a daddy who will lip-sync-rap “muthafuckas neva loved us.” It could not get more real if the video were scratch and sniff.

Directed by Drake and Director X, “Worst Behavior” is at once an angry love letter and a defiant autobiography, operating visually in the vein of Brewer’s Hustle & Flow and the much-anticipated film Memphis. Here the “us” who never received love from the “muthafuckas” is represented implicitly, explicitly, and variously as Drake the rapper, Drake the outsider, the city of Memphis, working class and poor black Memphians, black southerners, black neighborhoods, and southern rappers. Pimp suits, do-rags, Cutlasses, gold teeth and chains, Marlowe’s, Royal Studios, Four Way Grille, Juicy J, Project Pat, Unsweet Tea, jookin, MJG, Beale Street Flippers, neighborhood kids, college students, and boarded-up shotgun houses are the backdrop against which Drake works through his relationship to Down South, as well as his father, and his past.

When we first see Drake, however, the jokes come flooding back. At the center of the shot and the discourse, seeing Drake saying “muthafuckas neva loved us” in front of stoic, silent Memphis men in their Caprice classics on 24-inch rims and little boys in their school uniforms seems the cruelest turn of the Down South aesthetic, one in which black southerners are still not speaking for themselves. The cars and the boys, like the boarded up house behind them, are props, perfectly placed for the best shot. At one point, Drake picks up one of the boys and carries him as he raps and walks towards the camera, a communal fathering that is still centered on him, perhaps not unlike the ways his father may have picked him up as a thought and afterthought. The camera centers Drake in a shot of LeMoyne-Owen College students and struggles to center him when he is mobbed by a group of fans. Yet, this is Drake’s story, in which Memphis is a character. Even still, Drake is an insider in some ways–he spent summers and time in Memphis, after all–and endeavors to speak to, through, and for the images the video offers.

they used to neva wanna hear us/remember?/muhfucka neva loved us

Several notions of “down South” operate in the video for Drake’s “Worst Behavior,” and concepts of rearing and fathering are central to Drake’s South. Memphis is at once his ontological cocoon, a site of home and family, of paternal heartbreak and longing, a site of angst, and of freedom in something that was so far and so close. Straddling regional, national, and racial boundaries, Drake locates a home in the South, and Memphis in particular, and in blackness, and in southern blackness specifically. Though Drake’s Grandmother Summers in the sticky humidity of Memphis were a world apart from his life in Toronto, to his soul, perhaps, “the city of blues and booze and bad news” has made and continues to make sense as home. Clearly, for Drake, there are elements of Memphis that built a nest in his soul, camped out there, and have him doing things that don’t make sense to nobody else but make every bit of sense to him. By cloaking himself in the Down South–enduring vitriol against the region, like East and West Coast rappers’ continual attempts to invalidate southern rappers or the collective black intellectual loathing of Tyler Perry–Drake can work through his regional, national, racial, and aesthetic outsider-insider statuses. Read against the backdrop of Memphis, then, Drake achieves a blues narrative of the outsider, of love withheld, a song of the unwanted, an archaeology of a haunted past that interrupts the present, and a demand to be remembered–by Memphis, by his father, by the game.

Remember? Muhfucka?! Remember? 

When you leave a place, or somehow become different within a place, making sense of your relationship to the place can be difficult. Our place attachments are simultaneously overt, like familial ties, and intangible, flashes of something metaphysical, an intergenerational sense of déjà vu. Black southerners, especially in the post-civil rights South, are sometimes inside and outside of place, written over, out of, or rendered props in their own histories, presents, and futures. Yet, seeing a present written and appreciated in ways you see and appreciate it, even if an outsider working through his own relationships to place is at the helm, can trigger a recognition of something unseen or obscured–a recognition of something like home. 






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