Maybe Canadian-born rapper Drake has never read Rainer Maria Rilke’s advice in Letters to a Young Poet: “Do not write love poems; avoid at first those forms that are too facile and commonplace: they are the most difficult, for it takes a great, fully matured power to give something of your own where good and even excellent traditions come to mind in quantity.” Or maybe he has chosen to ignore it.
In “Shut It Down” Drake writes, “Baby, you finer than your fine cousin / And your cousin fine, but she don’t have my heart beating in double time” and later asks, “Why do I feel like I found the One?” Drake was 24 when he composed these lines. He was by any definition, even T.S. Eliot’s in “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” a young poet. Yet his rhymes flow so easily.
In fact, according to a report at SOHH.com, Drake did not write “Shut It Down” with pen and paper, but rather composed it orally to lay over a beat in a studio. He created it out of the ether, as pure music, perhaps without Rilke or Eliot in mind at all.
Whatever their creator’s process or posture towards German Romanticism and Modernist criticism, the lyrics in “Shut It Down” are, arguably, rather dope. But are they among the dopest? A quick survey of love poetry written by male poets will help us find the answer. Let us journey backwards in time, beginning with Rilke himself, whose themes of blindness, shadow, nature, and the soul position him poorly to address a young woman in a nightclub:
It was a girl, really—there is a double joy
of poetry and music that she came from—
and I could see her glowing through her spring clothes:
he writes in “Sonnets to Orpheus.” But then: “she made a place to sleep inside my ear.” Should the young woman in the club decide to give this sonnet sequence a chance, she would discover that she has “no desire to be awake”; “When will she die?” asks the poet. “Do not be afraid to suffer,” he later writes. Scratch.
French poet Charles Baudelaire wrote poems often in prose and loaded with symbols, among them one particularly memorable love poem that begins, “Long, long let me breathe the fragrance of your hair. Let me plunge my face into it like a thirsty man into the water of a spring, and let me wave it like a scented handkerchief to stir memories in the air. If you only knew all that I see! all that I feel! all that I hear in your hair!”
The poem goes on and on about hair. By love-poetry standards, Baudelaire gets carried away and kills his subject. He’s enthralled, it would seem, not with the woman herself but with the memories and sentiments she evokes. By symbolizing her he objectifies her. The young woman in the club has heard this before and desires not to hear it again.
A century earlier Alexander Pope sat at his desk in a small, dingy attic room, “gnaw’d his pen, then dash’d it on the ground, / Sinking from thought to thought” (his own self-caricature from “The Dunciad”) while writing mostly satiric verse and, just occasionally, a love poem. “On a Certain Lady at Court” begins with a backhanded compliment:
I know a thing that ‘s most uncommon;
(Envy, be silent and attend!)
I know a reasonable Woman,
Handsome and witty, yet a Friend.
Not warped by Passion, awed by Rumour…
Then concludes by saying that this woman has one “fault”: “When all the World conspires to praise her, / The Woman’s deaf, and does not hear.” This form of compliment, though it presages Rodgers’ and Hart’s popular “The Lady Is A Tramp,” is just too witty for the woman in the club. Not to say she doesn’t get the wit, but to say it’s just too witty, too circumlocutory, whereas Drake gets straight to business: “These girls ain’t got nothin’ on you. / Say, baby, I had to mention / that if you were a star you’d be the one I’m searching for.”
Also in the 18th century, we find Robert Burns who lit up Scotland with not only sexy verse (sometimes downright pornographic) but scandal, and ultimately collapsed under the weight of his own continually multiplying passions. He gave the world
Oh my Luve’s like a red, red rose
That’s newly sprung in June.
Oh my Luve’s like the melodie
That’s sweetly played in tune.
He promises to love her “Till a’ the seas gang dry … and the rocks melt wi’ the sun” and finally refers to her as “my only Luve,” but Burns loved love itself more than the woman to whom this poem is addressed, as Robert Crawford’s astute biography, The Bard, amply illustrates, should the woman in the club take time to check it out from a library and read it. Burns had numerous short affairs throughout his life, frequently paid for sex, and died in despair. A true gangsta.
A century before Pope and Burns (now we’re in the 1600s), the Metaphysical and Cavalier schools produced poems even more wit-driven—clever constructions that, like origami boats, are fun to unfold. They’re also provocative and extremely sexual. John Donne’s “The Flea,” which includes in its first stanza the memorable line “It suck’d me first, and now sucks thee” (hey now!) proceeds to craft an argument that the woman addressed should also be the woman undressed—an argument based in clever logic.
While many readers revel in Donne’s wit, and cherish his later religious verse, too, there’s no way his love poetry is not overconceived for today’s audience. The woman in the club won’t entertain a contrived, if humorous, argument. She’s busy laughing with her girlfriends and checking her iPhone.
So what about Robert Herrick? Same century, a bit more direct, he liked to describe clothes and appearances, attempted to define beauty, but wrote nary a poem directed toward a singular maid. There’s no sense of uniqueness of one person, one beloved, in either Herrick or Donne. They were mesmerized by their own inescapable logic.
It’s tempting to spend some time discussing the medieval Italian poets Petrarch and Dante who, a few centuries earlier, had written of their loves Laura and Beatrice. But these were women who served as muses only. The great Italian poets’ love, about which they sang and sang and sang, was unrequited. So they, like others mentioned here, wrote about love only, love’s effect, love’s halo, its glow—not about a singular other, a beloved, the way Drake does.
Get dressed, says Drake, speaking with authority to the woman he desires:
Put those [cussword] heels on and work it girl.
Let that mirror show you what you’re doing.
Put that [cussword] dress on and work it kind of vicious
like somebody’s taking pictures.
Shut it down, down, down,
you would shut it down, down, down
you be the baddest girl around, round, round,
and they notice, they notice.
You would shut it down, down, down.
Shut what down, though? This complex idiom connotes both taking complete control—as of a social situation, perhaps in a club or at a party—and giving complete satisfaction in a physical sense. Drake is saying that this amazing woman, should she get dressed and go out on the town, would not only silence her would-be competition (to borrow a rap-world idiom, “all them other hoes”) but deliver, to her mate, in this case Drake himself, the most compelling sort of physical intimacy possible between two humans. Drake is positing authentic spiritual and physical epiphany.
The romantic poets imagined this sort of experience in very different terms, alone in nature or in the darkling plains of their own souls. The 17th and 18th century poets, so full of ahems and asides, so blessed with their own rhetoric, threw darts in love’s outer rings. Maybe Burns nailed it, but he also badly failed it. Drake, though, hits the bulls-eye, and his song is precisely what the young woman at the club wants to—needs to, according to the design of her imago dei—hear. Conclusion: Drake’s poetry is indeed among the dopest.
It is not the dopest, however. There is one poet in history whose conception of love and ability to authoritatively address his lover exceed Drake’s—King Solomon. “The Song of Solomon” proceeds in much the same way as “Shut It Down,” almost point for point, but adds even more energy to the mix. Solomon compares his beloved to other hoes: “as a lily among brambles, / So is my love among the young women.” She, he imagines (the poem is structured as a dialog), sees him in a crowd “as an apple tree among the trees of the forest … distinguished among ten thousand.”
Solomon admires his beloved’s clothes, jewelry, perfume—her hair, eyes, lips, neck, torso, everything. She, too, desires him physically: “While the king was on his couch, / my nard gave forth its fragrance. / My beloved is to me a sachet of myrrh / that lies between my breasts.” Loving him exhausts her to the point that she requests, “Sustain me with raisins; / refresh me with apples, / for I am sick with love” (so many double meanings here). She sees him as food, and she’s hungry for him. “His mouth is most sweet” she says. She “goes down to the nut orchard / to look at the blossoms of the valley” and becomes disoriented with desire. This language is both sexual and symbolic, plainspoken and complex.
From Solomon’s point of view, his beloved is “My dove, my perfect one, the only one … The young women saw her and called her blessed.” In short, she shuts it down. As a result, he wants to get with her. She responds in the affirmative, suggesting they “break out of this fake-[cussword] party” (to borrow a line from another rapper, Kanye West) and “go out early to the vineyards / and see whether the vines have budded, / whether the grape blossoms have opened / and the pomegranates are in bloom. / There I will give you my love.” Drake concludes his song along similar lines: “Take those [cussword] heels off, it’s worth it girl; / nothing is what I can picture you in, / so take that [cussword] dress off, I swear you won’t forget me. / You’ll be happy that you let me lay you down, down, down … / you still the baddest girl around, round, round.”
Solomon and Drake are not unique in their descriptions of how attraction becomes desire, desire becomes love, and love blossoms into euphoria. But they are doper than most in their positioning of the beloved as the one who, in both her finery and beauty, outshines all the others and shuts down the party. From now on, imply both poets, it’s just me and you. You are the one. It’s a message of hope and, as the rest of the Bible teaches, ultimate healing. The image of God in us needs total love and total satisfaction and will settle for no less. If we seek other loves, stopgaps, placeholders, we rain down destruction on ourselves.
For those of us of the Christian faith, what makes God’s love unique is that we believe he regards the Church as his bride, the exclusive, despite our earthly whoring. Drake reflects this in another song, “Practice,” in which he says “I taste pain and regret, / In your sweat / You’ve been waiting for me, / I can tell that you been practicing /… All those other men were practice, they were practice / for me, for me, for me, for me.”
As full of sorrow as these lyrics are, they suggest the message of Hosea, in which God summons his beloved Israel from its worship of idols—false gods in place of the real one. “I will make you lie down in safety,” he says, forgiving them and assuming his position as only lover once again. This, too, might be a message the young woman at the club needs to hear, even as does the rest of humanity. Despite our falling so far short of the perfect lover for whom we were created, by His mercy, we’re still “the baddest girl around.”
I suspect English majors will quibble with the preceding argument as follows: “Drake is a rapper. His ‘poems,’ if you want to call them that, are verbally thin and embarrassingly direct. They lack artfulness. Maybe they’re entertaining, even somewhat moving, when accompanied by music, but Drake is no Rilke. And Drake is no Pope or Burns, crikey!” To which I will reply, you are correct. Drake might not find a place in a future edition of Harold Bloom’s Western Canon, but he still has something that many English and American poets lack: cojones.
A second objection might be: “Drake, forreal? He’s not a one-woman man in real life!” And again, perhaps that’s right, but he has something else poets lack: charm. He writes, he says in a recent MTV interview, “just to make women feel special”—necessary, affirmed, wanted. He tells them, it’s okay to dress up and try to be noticed. Drake is as charming as Solomon, whose wives, it is said, numbered in the hundreds. We can appreciate that Drake, like Solomon and—fine, whatever—Burns before him, writes poems that celebrate “the one”—the perfect beloved whose love, requited, outshines all else. We should still be allowed to believe in that.