13 November 2023

"First Person Shooter" by Drake ft. J. Cole (2023)

One of the ways in which the rap game has evolved throughout the years is that back in the days, collaborations were rare.  Or more specifically, if distinct rappers collaborated, that usually meant that they were somehow connected, i.e. being homeys, part of the same clique and/or from the same 'hood.  Or another way of looking at it is that emcees considered teaming up with other artists as sort of an artistic privilege or favor.  The most-extreme example of that frame of thought was probably the Wu-Tang Clan during their early goings.  But later on, they also served as an example of how being too exclusive can hurt your brand, as it became obvious that fans need more variety from time to time.

But now, as we head deeper into the 21st century, most rappers have become increasingly dependent on collaborations.  I think there's a number of reasons why this is so.  For instance, the game is no longer as regional as it used to be.  Also, collaborations, especially if you team up with someone of equal or higher standing, tend to generate more buzz.  And with that in mind, I believe the monotony of the genre has also become a factor.  In other words, with everyone now rapping about the same things, the need for occasional diversity is more pressing than ever.

Drake and J. Cole don't regularly collaborate,
but they've been homeys for a minute.

Drake has been prolifically dropping albums of late, and while researching them, I did find it odd that he has teamed up with most of his A list contemporaries but not J. Cole, who's one of the few emcees that can actually hang with Drizzy.   It got to the point where I was even speculating that the two of them may have beef, which is not a completely unfounded notion since J seemingly dissed Drake, albeit nearly a decade ago, on his track January 28th (2014).  But apparently that was just my imagination running wild, as they do have a terse collaboration history as well as, it would appear, a friendship or at least mutual admiration of each other.

Up until last month, J. Cole and Drake had only dropped one song together many moons ago, that being a 2010 track titled In the Morning.  That song wasn't a single, and it came out before Jermaine blew up and while Aubrey only had one studio album out.  Beyond that it was featured on a mixtape, Cole's Friday Night Lights, which would further explain how In the Morning flew under the radar.

So now finally, with the release of Drake's album For All the Dogs in October of 2023, we have a new collaboration between he and Cole, which is First Person Shooter.  It likewise was not issued as a single, but it is the only track from that album to have topped the Billboard Hot 100.  Or put otherwise, it has proven to be the best-received tune from For All the Dogs.  And the fact that it did reach the summit of the Hot 100 is pretty amazing, when you once again take into consideration that it isn't even a single.  And as sorta implied by Drake, this was a last-minute addition to the project.

Concerning For All the Dogs, it didn't do particularly well (commercially) as far as Drake albums go.  So it can definitely be gleaned that Drizzy finally featuring Jermaine was a timely move, one that produced the sole chart topper song from the LP, furthermore during a year in which rap hasn't been doing particularly well on the Hot 100.

THE LYRICS

Drake and J. Cole are arguably the two best lyricists currently in the rap game.  Drizzy may or may not be as consistent as he was in times past, but he still shows out on occasion, and he tends to shine more when collaborating with other emcees.  Meanwhile, Jermaine is considered to be the top 'conscious' rapper, i.e. one who regularly focuses on more pertinent issues than the standard self-glorification.  So these two teaming up, at least in the opinion of listeners such as myself, is met with high expectations.

The term "first-person shooter", as generally understood, is a classification of videogame, the type of which, like Doom for instance, the player goes around shooting enemies from the perspective of the character he's controlling.  However, it becomes abundantly clear from the intro, as held down by J. Cole alongside Drake's five-year old son, Adonis, that the title of this song is not meant to point to gaming.  Rather, the homeys seem to be implying that they named it so as a metaphor for their superiority over opps.  But it also reads like, at least during Part I of the track, that said superiority is in reference to that of the lyrical/rapping variety.

With that in mind, Drake starts off the first verse alluding to a couple of realities I mentioned earlier in this post.  First is that, when he teams up with others, he tends to outperform them.  Second, when it comes to debates about who's currently the best rapper, at the top of the list is usually 'just (him) and Cole'.  That said, the verse in and of itself is far from being anything lyrically exceptional.

In the following verse, Jermaine also sorta acknowledges an idea I mentioned earlier, that analysts, including myself apparently, "start looking too deep" into his lyrics, interpreting some as alluding to beef when in reality they don't.  Or as Cole goes on to imply, if he were to diss someone, it wouldn't be in an ambiguous, indirect manner.

He also names "K-Dot", aka Kendrick Lamar, as being one of the top rappers, alongside himself and Drake.  When Kendrick's dropped his most-recent album, Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers (2022), I was tasked with going through just about the entirety of it (working on behalf of another blog).  And whereas he is considered to be an all-time great, i.e. the only rapper to have thus far to have won a Nobel Peace Prize, Lamar has arguably lost a step or two, which I'm mentioning as a reminder that no reign is indefinite.

Meanwhile, the entirety Part II is held down by Drake, which is understandable, since this is his song.  And in terms of this segment, the titular term "shooter" can be taken more literally, as Aubrey starts off by apparently threatening opps with gun violence.

He then proceeds to harp on another one of his favorite topics, which is basically bragging about the innumerable ladies sweating him.  And Drizzy closes out the verse by focusing on his ridiculous professional success, how for instance Grammys are meaningless to him, and he's just "one away from" having just as many Billboard Hot 100 chart toppers as Michael Jackson (1958-2009) himself.  In fact he did tie MJ in that regard with the success of First Person Shooter, as they are now the two solo-male artists with the most Hot 100 number 1s (at 13 a piece) and are both fourth on the list overall.

Drake concludes by interpolating one of such MJ tunes, 1983's Beat It, in the outro. It's sorta funny because, just before researching First Person Shooter I was thinking to myself how I can't recall any rap songs that have sampled a Michael Jackson solo track.  I would presume that's because Jackson's legal team, even after his passing, is no joke.  But obviously, Drizzy is of a high enough standing to garner such a privilege.  And it's sorta prophetic that he did it on this particular track, which did go on to tie Michael's record.

THE AUDIO

One thing about music, which differentiates from other forms of writing, is that at the end of the day, the ultimate judge of what makes a good piece is how pleasing it is to the ears.  And as for this track, it definitely sounds better than it reads on paper.  That's a testament to the fact that Drake and J. Cole are not only exceptional lyricists but are also skilled in delivery.  But a shoutout should also be relayed to Boi-1da and the rest of the producers (Coleman, Oz, Tay Keith, Vinylz and Finatik & Zac) since, besides providing a hype instrumental, they're all also credited as co-writers.

CONCLUSION

The likes of Drake and J. Cole may be the lingering rap G.O.A.T.s from the 2010s, but times are changing.  In fact Drizzy recently announced, fresh after the dropping For All the Dogs, that he was going on hiatus.  The stated reason was health issues, but it has also been speculated that doing so is his way of acknowledging that he's not as poppin' as he used to be.

One of the things I learned as a researcher of the music industry is that this business is by and large a youth game.  Practically every famous musician became professionally active while in their teens, and many of their most-loyal fans are their agemates.  Or another way of looking at it is that trending musicians are often those popular with younger generations, and youth are more partial towards their own.  Therefore no one stays hot forever, and that's probably truer for rappers than any other genre, which would logically explain why many adult emcees harp on the same subject matter as their teenage counterparts (a standard which Drake has recently been criticized for).

But the current struggles of rap music on the Billboard Hot 100 and Billboard 200 are probably indications that fans are growing weary of this type of monotony.  So it feels like there's going to some type of change soon, but it remains to be seen who will become the next G.O.A.T.s as Drake and co. slowly but surely began to fade away.