Earlier this month, Drake dropped “Started From the Bottom,” the first single from his upcoming album. He released it by posting a Soundcloud embed underneath a vaguely-worded blog post explaining that he did, in fact, start from the bottom, and all those other guys who say he didn’t start at the bottom are haters (or something). He also mentions that “I didn’t feel I needed any interviews or radio or press to launch this song,” probably because, if he had, he would have been bombarded with easily fact-checked questions about his upbringing as an upper-middle class child in Forest Hill.
After I first heard the song, I quickly wrote two tweets, the first was the unnecessarily snarky “STARTED FROM DEGRASSI MORE LIKE IT” and the second was a more reserved “forest hill is not the bottom” (sic). Something irked me about the sentiment of the song, something that obviously irked a lot of other people as well. “Why is Drake trying to be something that he’s not?” was the question being asked, but the more relevant question would have been: Why do we care? I mean, I don’t really care, and I even kinda like the song itself divorced from that context, but I was bemused by Drake’s pointless attempt at building a rags-to-riches narrative for himself that obviously isn’t true. If anyone doesn’t know that Drake was an actor on Degrassi: The Next Generation by now, then they probably aren’t his audience.
Before the fallout of countless tweets and blog posts could take hold, Drake proceeded to call bullshit on himself by releasing the video, in which he presents his idea of “the bottom” as a managerial position at Shopper’s Drug Mart. It’s not true, but at least it’s plausible that a kid from Forest Hill might have a menial job in the service industry in his early 20s, rather than living in the abject poverty that the word “bottom” implies. The “bottom,” as it exists in the context of hip-hop, is a very low bottom indeed, and the idea that Drake’s upbringing was even remotely similar to that of Jay-Z or Notorious B.I.G (both raised in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighbourhood of Brooklyn during the crack epidemic) could, given the socio-economic factors in play, be considered not just untruthful, but offensive.
The struggle to rise above poverty is a pretty standard narrative in hip-hop, even when it’s not true. Ice Cube was raised in a middle-class neighbourhood and studied architectural drafting before reinventing himself as a Compton native with NWA. More recently, photographs surfaced of Rick Ross in a prison guard outfit. Ross ignored the photos and doubled down on his dubious claims of being a grandiose Scarface-esque drug kingpin, earning some of the best reviews of his career in the process. We don’t mind if larger than life hip-hop stars lie about their past and provide themselves with non-existent street cred, but we apparently do mind when their invented pasts start to contradict what we already know.
Hip-hop is a genre that lends itself to self-mythologization. “Started from the Bottom” is a song that belongs to that tradition, even if Drake doesn’t. Drake’s been insecure about material wealth since before his rap career stopped being a joke. Back when the only thing that made Drake noteworthy as an up-and-coming rapper was his attachment to DeGrassi, he was busy rhyming about how lonely it was being rich and famous. His first widely heard mixtape, So Far Gone, had him claiming that any girl who kissed him would end up on TMZ, and that was recorded and released before “Best I Ever Had” launched him to legitimate stardom. He engaged in a sort of aspirational rapping, romanticizing the lifestyle of a sad, wealthy man until he became an actual sad, wealthy man. The reason it’s odd to see Drake rewriting his history is because he began his hip-hop career acting like he didn’t have a history in the first place, even though DeGrassi was on everyone’s lips.
So maybe (definitely) we shouldn’t get ourselves worked up about this track. Hell, I think it’s pretty good. “Started from the bottom” is an earworm-y little catchphrase (It’s no “YOLO”, but it’ll do), and Mike Zombie’s beat is sparse and effective in all the right ways. Still, even though Drake’s been pretending to be a globe-trotting superstar since 2006, he’s more likeable when embracing his Jewish middle-class upbringing (see: the “re-Bar Mitzvah” in his “HYFR” video). The most enjoyable moment of the “Started from the Bottom” video captures the world-famous rapper dancing like a clown with a couple of white dudes in a confetti-strewn Shopper’s aisle. The generic party scene at his opulent California mansion isn’t nearly as fun, and with the “No New Friends” mantra he’s adopted lately, his idea of the “top” appears to be a sort of tragic existentialism. If Drake misrepresents his past, it’s probably not for any nefarious reason, it’s probably just because he wants us to think he’s cool.
Alan Jones is a Toronto-based writer whose work has appeared in Exclaim!, AV Club Toronto, and Toronto Standard. You can follow him on Twitter at @alanjonesxxxv