“Days in the East" by Drake
This is pure “Marvin’s Room,” Drake auto-vomitting all the biographical details of his life, barely able to take a breath and second guess the second guessing. Yes, this is about Rihanna, but it’s about Rihanna the way “Mine” is about Jay Z or “Bound 2” is about Kim; “Days in the East” is about Drake. The song’s middle is a list of esoterica that Drake thinks might mean he and Rih are finally forever: talking to Eyrkah Badu over tea and having her say when it’s love you know it when he already knows it; little moments where she let him in, how it might mean she loves him too. “I got a lot to say and that’s the last thing a n—-a wanna hear right now,” Drake admits in the first of the song’s six minutes. It’s almost painful to read his diary like this. Mazel though, I hope it’s everlasting.
As the whole Gioia mess winds down, I hope, there’s one thing that still bothers me - one that I don’t think I’ve seen anyone address head on (though there was a lot so maybe someone has?) Music criticism should always be tied to “lifestyle reporting,” because music exists as something beyond the technical aspects of a performance. It exists as a vehicle for the performer.
Classical composers had what we’d describe as stans and groupies, as did the crooners of the first half of the 20th century. And as modern pop became codified in the 50s and 60s, it baked personalities into the core of music. Take a look at the title of the best album of 1964 for a case in point: Presenting the Fabulous Ronettes Featuring Veronica not only centers the group doing the singing, but gives a specific focal point within it - lead singer Ronnie Bennett. Producer Phil Spector, one of the architects of modern pop, understood that the music was central - but that the power of the music depended on the image, depended on everything else around the music. Savvy artists seized on this quickly, which is why, for example, half the Beatles’ latter day catalog is obliquely about being the Beatles - yet oblique in a way that allows fans to understand the references, make the connections, and experience the music as part of a larger whole.
This incorporation of extra-textual artistic personas is a central and often-intentional part of pop music, and for writers to ignore it would be just as disingenuous as…well, as writers applying technical music theory to songs by artists who don’t know the first thing about it. Which the Beatles didn’t (to begin with.) Technical knowledge isn’t somehow the route to the inherent meaning of a song, the one true path that a skilled writer can excavate and illuminate for an audience. It’s a tool like any other, shaped by forces and biases, reliant on who wields it. And while I don’t think anything that potentially allows for greater understanding is necessarily bad, I think it’s worth pointing out that technical knowledge is arguably a weaker way to approach pop music than “lifestyle reporting,” since the latter at least allows for the context around a given song or performance.
That context is central whenever discussing pop music, because it’s context that determines genre, context that determines what website posts about what Soundcloud uploads, context that determines how a song is understood. MG mentions Kanye and Bey as two artists who’ve exercised a fascinating level of control in how their public personas, private selves, and music relate. I argued last year that Miley Cyrus’s career has been an extended effort at self-mythologizing. And Drake fits comfortably into this company, which is what makes “Days in the East” so interesting.
I’m on record as preferring goofy, “Or we could stare up at the stars and put the Beatles on,” Drake over his serious self. Here, he’s anything but goofy: this is the dark night of Drake’s soul, and it only matters because it’s about Rihanna. “Days in the East” is rambling, it’s self-pitying, it’s basically void of hooks. But it’s important because Drake is important, because his persona and his relationships matter to us (whether positively or negatively.) Drake knows this, otherwise he wouldn’t release six minutes of self-flagellation into the world. A six minute song describing the interior monologue of a person we know nothing about is meaningless; a six minute examination of the conflict within an artist we’re familiar with beyond music alone can be fascinating. It’s to our detriment to buy into the underlying argument that this is a bad thing.