It was only a matter of time before I wrote a piece about Drake.
We can start this story a few ways. We can talk about Drake's first big break as a teen-star on Degrassi. We can talk about Lil Wayne's cosign that led to the creation of So Far Gone. We can even dive into his Toronto roots.
But we won't.
Instead, we're starting with Soulja Boy.
Everyone remembers Crank That, the song that took the internet by storm and amassed record-breaking digital downloads — the most by any rapper at the time. Before ever signing to a label, Soulja Boy's debut single had people everywhere posting YouTube videos "doing the Soulja Boy." There were tutorial videos, parody videos, covers — one way or another, everyone was crankin' that Soulja Boy.
It wasn't until recently that I realized what a tipping point that time was:
Crank That dropped in May 2007. A month later, the original iPhone was released. Later that year, the first iPod Touch. America had just cracked 50% home internet access. Throw that all into a pot, mix in Soulja Boy's simple, catchy lyrics, hook, and dance, and you've got the makings of the first hip-hop video to go viral on the internet.
Today, we take that for granted. We've had Teach Me How To Dougie, Hotline Bling, Watch Me (Whip, Nae Nae), Single Ladies... but Soulja Boy did it first. And in hindsight, it foreshadowed what was to come.
The Nature of Virality
Disclaimer: this isn't a formal theory or anything — I don't have the technical chops for that. This is just my best shot at describing how things go viral in the Internet Age.
In my mind, there are three main lenses we can use when describing virality. We can mix and match them because they're not necessarily conflicting. And they're not all completely true or provable. Nonetheless:
1. Stop Copying Me!
I read a piece this week by writer David Perell called "Peter Thiel's Religion". Thiel, the billionaire investor, co-founder of PayPal, and infamous Trump supporter, has an almost cult-like following as a public intellectual. The article (which is well worth the read, regardless of your opinions on Thiel), delivered a spiritual perspective on Thiel's worldview.
Inspired by his mentor Rene Girard's Mimetic Theory, Thiel is quoted as saying that humans are just "gigantic imitation machines."
I've been thinking about that a lot lately. I do believe that many of our desires and behaviors are rested on imitating others: we like what others like, we want what others want, etc. That's the only way "trends" and "fashion" exists.
In fact, when I wrote "Nobody Cares Until Everybody Cares" last week, I talked about why people believe in things and how we can influence others to think the way we do:
If I see a bunch of people who I consider "like me" believing something, even if I don't believe in it, I'm more likely to challenge my own beliefs. Nobody has to convince me of anything — I'll question myself because people who I identify with have beliefs that fly in the face of mine.
When I wrote that, I was thinking along the lines of spiritual and political beliefs. But it seems to be relevant to cultural desires as well.
We like things that people who are similar to us like. We're gigantic imitation machines.
2. On Fire!
(If you've never really been exposed to the idea of networks and diffusion, I recommend Kevin Simler's interactive piece, "Going Critical" — it is hands down the best introduction to the topic that I've seen, and the format is amazing.)
In a really oversimplified model, ideas rely on two factors as they spread throughout a network:
- Transmission rate. When we're talking about music, this should just be how good the song is. The song will get more popular if more people like it enough to share it. But it's also how easy it is to share: internet infrastructure, presence of social media, etc.
- Immunity. Some people just aren't going to like a certain genre or sub-genre of music. The higher the immunity rate, the less likely the music is to "go viral". Those who are immune will never share your song.
So if the song is good enough that people want to share it, and it's not niche enough that people are "immune" to the style (or have some irrational reason to hate anything the artist does), it'll go viral!
Again, it's not that simple. But it's a really useful mental model when thinking about how ideas spread.
This one is sort of builds on #1 and #2.
What if transmission rate wasn't just "this is a good song, I'll share it!"? What if it was also "this is a good song, and other cool people are talking about this song, so I'm going to share this for the clout!".
In his essay "Status as a Service," Eugene Wei argues that people are "status-seeking monkeys", and that social media is popular mostly because it allows people to be status-seeking monkeys.
Clout, or "social capital", is valuable because it is finite: people have a limited amount of attention.
You don't get shares or retweets because you provided something valuable or cool to your audience — you get them because you provided something to your audience that their audience will see as cool, and therefore will associate that coolness with them!
The more us monkeys are able to associate ourselves with what's hot, the more social capital we get in the eyes of others.
Essentially, if people gain clout by liking and sharing an idea (or song), it's more likely to be shared.
The Making of a Star
Back to Soulja Boy.
Soulja Boy succeeded for three main reasons:
- The internet and new technology made it easy to share. Again, YouTube was just getting hot, the iPhone just came out, and home internet was reaching critical mass... "viral videos" wouldn't have been possible without that huge increase in transmission rate.
- Low immunity. It doesn't matter whether you enjoy hip-hop or not, most people can't deny that Crank That is just a catchy, stupid, fun song. And the dance was even more fun! Very low immunity.
- Clout. Those Crank That dance videos that were everywhere? That was social capital. It was cool to make those and share them. It was cool to dance with your friends. Pure clout.
Eventually, his star-power died. But his formula for success in the Internet Age lived on: highly transmittable (read: quality content that's easy to share), widely-digestible music that allows listeners to build clout.
For better or worse, artists have tried to take that formula and run with it. But nobody does it quite like Drake...
A few months ago, UK rapper Wiley took to Twitter, calling Drake out for being a "culture vulture".
In the midst of his Assassination Vacation tour, Drake had shocked fans at a Loski (an up-and-coming UK rapper) concert with a surprise performance of his own. Wiley's remark wasn't made off of this one incident, but it was the straw that broke the camel's back.
The call-out made big waves. This wasn't a new topic for hip-hop fans, but it wasn't often that other artists actually called Drake out.
So Drake responded:
"I hate that people think that me being into music of these kids that are trying to make it... is some "culture vulture". Like... what does that even mean? Would you rather me not acknowledge anything or support?"
He went on to say that he didn't understand how hopping on a smaller artist's song wasn't something "admirable".
But again, Drake's self-proclaimed "support" of less popular artists has been a point of contention among hip-hop fans for years. While Drake insists that these features and guest performances are simply "admirable" acts of promotion, critics see a massive brand trying to stay relevant by feeding off of the newest fad.
But... he's doing something right -- his brand is absolutely inescapable.
In 2018, he accounted for 1.2% of all American music streams across all genres. He surpassed Elvis Presley as the best selling male solo artist in U.S. history. He sold out 7 back-to-back shows in London's O2. There is no arguing Drake's commercial success.
Drake fans (like myself) might look at those numbers and attribute them to pure artistic talent — the man oozes charisma and makes good music!
But benevolent or not, Drake's ability to ride the newest waves is what has kept him alive for so long. He has perfected the formula.
Editor's Note: remember how the last theory wasn't a formal theory? This one is. Call it Drake's Law.
Drake's Law says that a brand reaches maximum success by putting out a high-quality product and lowering immunity to the brand so that a customer's association with the brand increases their clout.
Drake basically checks every box we discussed above, no matter how you look at it:
- Transmission rate. Drake took advantage of streaming like nobody else. He had a few exclusive deals with Apple Music when they launched. His long albums are well-suited for an age where people aren't buying albums. And his transmission rate increased rapidly because streaming made it easier to listen and share. Part of this is lucky timing, but part of it is great foresight. Plus, very few people think Drake makes objectively bad music. His average career Metacritic score is a 76/100, which is pretty solid. He's got countless hits, a few Grammys, and arguably a couple of classic albums. If nobody had ever heard of Drake, and his label dropped God's Plan or One Dance, it would probably still be pretty popular.
- Lowering immunity. Here's where the wave-riding, or "culture vulturing," comes in. Remember "nobody cares until everybody cares": when people like us enjoy something, we're more likely to enjoy it, too. So let's say Drake fans and Migos fans don't have much overlap. Drake hops on the Versace remix, it becomes a hit, Migos fans like the song, and bam!... a few Migos fans start to like Drake. Immunity decreases. Repeat the cycle.
- Association with clout. And then it compounds. If I'm a Migos fan, I'm looking around and saying, "hey... maybe Drake isn't so bad after all!". I'm going to start sharing my love for Drake as a means of gaining social capital. It becomes cool to like Drake! Which accelerates the cycle, because now there are two forces at play: social pressure and social capital.
While every aspect of the formula is important, I'd argue that "lowering immunity" is mission-critical. Drake makes music for everyone. His albums are long and bloated because no two people will have the same favorite songs — and almost nobody can dislike every Drake song. He rides every wave: dancehall, trap, Houston, Atlanta, London, etc.
Does this turn off some fans? Definitely. But on net, it's working tremendously. Drake's brand has maximized success by managing to stay consistently popular and grow in fame despite his size. Yeah there are haters, but it's the age of social media! People are getting cancelled every day!
Outside of Beyonce and JAY Z, I don't think anyone that big has managed to stay so relevant and popular for so long... and Drake's music is selling better than both of them.
It's because Drake plays by his own rules. That's Drake's Law.
The Future of Brands
Despite what it looks like, the point of this piece wasn't to talk about how great Drake is — I do that every day.
The point was to show that tomorrow's brands will simply be built on the back of consumer trust. 40 years ago, as long as you loved the songs or the products or the customer service, that was enough. High transmission rate was enough.
Today, the most successful brands are being build on the back of social capital.
I could write another whole piece on how bad that is psychologically, but it's reality.
The next time you're at a store or listening to music or reading a book, think about what that brand means to you. Think about what it means to everyone around you.
Think about Drake's Law.
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