Rappers and Russian Writers

  • By Nick Bruce '17
  • nbruce13@amherst.edu

Volume XXXVII, February 21, 2014

Bruce Article

While Count Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy did not start from the bottom before he got here, neither did Drake Aubrey Graham. While both have made it, both also hail from affluent backgrounds. Tolstoy was born into a noble family from Russia’s Tula region. Drake, a Toronto, Ontario native, lived his teen years in the wealthy Forrest Hills neighborhood. And while Drake may very well have argued with his mother every month, such antagonism would have been to Tolstoy a great joy, had he the chance. Tolstoy’s parents tragically passed away during their son’s early childhood, leaving the novelist-to-be in the care of relatives. While Drake never finished high school, pursuing instead acting as Jimmy, the disabled basketball star on the Canadian television smash hit Degrassi, neither did Tolstoy finish college. He elected instead to join the army with his brother. It was in the service that Tolstoy began to write. Drake, while acting on Degrassi, penned the lyrics to his debut mixtape.

In his essay “The Hedgehog and the Fox,” an examination of Tolstoy’s philosophy of history, intellectual historian Isaiah Berlin divides thinkers into two categories. Hedgehogs possess a single vision and order their idea within “a single, universal, organising principle.” He argues that Dostoevsky, Nietzsche, and Hegel fit this description. Foxes “entertain ideas that are centrifigul rather than centripetal.” They do not attempt to fit their experience of the world into a coherent system of organization, realizing instead the often-contradictory and endlessly complex shape of events; Shakespeare, Pushkin and Joyce are foxes. Berlin argues that Tolstoy is a natural fox who wants to be a hedgehog, who was “oppressed by the burden of his intellectual infallibility and his sense of perpetual moral error, the greatest of those who can neither reconcile, nor leave unreconciled, the conflict of what there is with what there ought to be.” 

Drake, like Tolstoy, is a fox who wants to be a hedgehog. The cinematic, even magical, ability to transcend reality—to create a work that seems to sparkle instead of merely exist—that we find in Tolstoy’s clear prose and Drake’s rhymes arise from their common perceptual precision. This in turn stems from exacting intellect. Their foxy minds are the kind that sees through to the essence of a phenomenon or thing. A thinker with this kind of mind describes what he sees without altering facts for the sake of polemic advancement. Neither Drake nor Tolstoy stand for a moral ideal, preferring to articulate, unencumbered by the blinders of ideology, the full range of human experience. In exploring, as Berlin does, Tolstoy’s philosophy of history, we see that Tolstoy’s approach to writing parallels what would appear to be the approach of Drake. So it would seem—the body of secondary literature on Tolstoy far outweighs that of Drake.

Tolstoy found political history insufferable on account of its deification of great men based on two faulty assumptions. First, the idea that great men actually impact history-making moments like battles, failing to sufficiently account for the equally important role of each individual soldier, not to mention the “chaos and uncontrollability” of battle. Second, while any professor can feasibly paint any great leader as good or bad without being correct or incorrect, history often fails to account for the spiritual events—the inner recesses of men and women. These events, when articulated in full color, constitute to Tolstoy the truest form of history. Hence his historically uncharacteristic tendency to elucidate the triviality and internal confusion of “great men,” such as, points out Berlin, in War and Peace. During Austerlitz, Prince Bagration knows nothing more about enemy whereabouts than do his subordinates, whom history ultimately views as less relevant than the conduct of their calm, courageous leader. In Anna Karenina, Tolstoy describes in great detail politician Alexei Alexandrovich’s deep, albeit compartmentalized sadness upon initially losing his wife to Vronsky. Anna’s deception throws even the feelings, the inner life and motivation of this politico, who seems more machine than man, into question: What capacity does history, traditionally understood, have to capture or illuminate these kinds of struggles?

Drake is similarly obsessed with the inner lives of men and women. Like Tolstoy, he excels at the art of heartwrenching and precise emotional portraiture. Songs like “Marvin’s Room,” “Doing it Wrong,” “Trust Issues,” “Fancy,” “Something”—the quintessentially “soft Drake,” for which so many macho men write him off—evoke the same magically realist, inner-life-centricity apparent in Tolstoy. These songs touch on the worldshattering, misery-inducing essence of heartbreak. The constant pain of being human and insecure in one way or another. The perverse happiness of freeing yourself from a stifling romance. The fear of plunging into a love affair; giving another person complete power over your heart. And also, the unparalleled attractiveness of a woman, or anyone for that matter, who possesses great self-respect. The joy of falling in love. This is Drake the fox, so confident in the precision and value of his holistic and uncompromising perceptivity that he leaves no stone unturned. Contra the I’m-a-great-man-on-my-own-account thesis of Drake’s self-aggrandizing content, the rapper’s thoughtful observation and analysis the inner life attests to what I see as his realization that we are beings who are tethered and driven by our feelings. He intervenes into the idea that we are autonomous, self-directed creatures who occasionally experience feelings, which don’t even matter on account of our machine-like executive capacities.

Thus Drake, as Tolstoy, perhaps wants to be a hedgehog, seeing the world through “a single, universal, organising principle”—that is, our fundamental connection to our feelings. Berlin writes about Tolstoy: “The unresolved conflict between Tolstoy’s belief that the attributes of personal life alone are real and his doctrine that analysis of them is insufficient to explain the course of history (that is, the behavior of societies) is paralleled, at a profounder and more personal level, by the conflict between, on the one hand, his own gifts both as a writer and as a man and, on the other, his ideals—that which he sometimes believed himself to be, and at all times profoundly believed in, and wished to be.” Which leads us to the paradox: to veer too deeply into the giving-zero-f***s paradigm is itself a concentrated endeavor that implies, contradictory to its desired end, extreme willfulness. On the other hand, to advance a nihilistic worldview centered on moral impossibility seems to run counter to any kind of substantial respect for the idiosyncrasies of the inner life. Simply put, as artists who produce and disseminate their work, both Tolstoy and Drake are in one sense categorically inseparable from the Napoleonic “great men” whom Tolstoy derides for deluding themselves into believing that their will alone and not the greater flow and orientation of the cosmos stand responsible for course of history.

Tolstoy was tormented by his understanding that denying the existence of free will was itself an intellectual endeavor possessed of its own will. So too, I would argue, is Drake. He seems tormented by the contradiction between his musical talent, his success, and his at-times grandiose sense of self, as against his looming awareness of life’s fleeting nature (YOLO). For Drake, the evolution of societies is a much more complex process than can be attributed to the will of any single individual. Ultimately emotions and pre-established social relations—growing up in Forrest Hills, Toronto and not Jamaica Queens, NY for example—play a larger role in life than the self-made-man thesis prominent in hip hop would suggest. Watch any interview with Drake and the awkwardly humble, fidgety man you see seems a world apart from the hubristic male chauvin who raps “I’m the fuckin’ man” (Verse 1, “The Motto”). Drake wants to believe with every bone in his body that he’s done things to earn his success. But at the end of the day, it is cockiness rather than confidence that seems to orient his more hubristic raps. Jay-Z raps confidently and thus believably about his own hubris. Drake is most confident rapping about human shortcoming, complexity, confusion—the deep emotion of love and loss that seems out of our hands, sharing with Tolstoy this deterministic philosophy.

As Tolstoy is to Drake, Dostoevsky is to Pusha T. Pusha T, whose recent debut album is titled My Name is My Name, beckons comparison not lyrically but philosophically and aesthetically to the work of Dostoevsky. For both, the underground life of the criminal is given melancholy effect through the cacophonous, riveting texture of production. Dostoevsky’s ability to detail the dark recesses of the human soul is mirrored in the production of My Name is My Name, which features, beyond the brilliantly gritty work of Kanye (who improved on his 808’s design) beat-laying from The-Dream, Just Blaze, No I.D., Nottz, Don Cannon, Nashiem Myrick and Carlos Brody, DJ Mano, Swizz Beatz, Rico Beats, Travi$ Scott, Hudson Mohawke, Young Chop and Sham. Both feature a pseudo-schizophrenic, often hysterical character that enacts his free will by acting irrationally, unapologetically, and out of line with self-interest. Pusha T raps about his own life; Dostoevsky has the Underground Man. Both are dark, lacking innocence.

This is just my two cents. I glue myself eagerly to the computer every Tuesday at 10 pm to listen to the hip-hop WAMH radio show of two of my friends. Those guys know what’s hot in hip-hop, not me. All I really know is just how little I know. Without Rabinowitz’s class I probably wouldn’t have fallen in love with Dostoevsky, or picked up on many of the nuances that make his work everlastingly beautiful. One could just as easily argue that Drake believes in free will—or that these thoughts haven’t entered his head at all. They wouldn’t be wrong.

At the same time, I want to echo a point made by Elias that opens this edition of The Indicator. Fear can be healthy when it stops people from being hubristic, when it serves to humble. It is an emotion that plays a legitimate anchoring role in societies predicated on equality that demand open and civil discourse. But fear also inhibits people from crossing boundaries and making connections that are otherwise natural. These are connections that could bear great fruit if articulated and forged. The threads that run silently yet strongly through this campus and form the structures in which we reside both socially and academically—in which we often entrap ourselves out of fear of the unknown or simply routine—remind me of what Rabinowitz described as Anton Chekhov’s nuanced understanding of “boxes.” These are the beacons of identity to which we cling—artist, intellectual, athlete, rebel, indie kid, conservative, activist, good boy, bad girl, party-goer, church-goer, et cetera. It’s only human to desire distinction and dish out labels with gossipy zest. These labels tend also to stand on simple dichotomies. Rabinowitz’s point was that one of Chekhov’s many gifts lay in detailing the tragic tendency for people to define others by virtue of their predominant label, and to structure their social interaction—or to not interact with them at all—by virtue of their understanding of the other’s “box.” Point is, we’re all severely complex. And we’re all identical in that complexity.