Ha ha hey: Drake is hip-hop’s king and its clown prince

Adam Graham
The Detroit News

There is a fine line between laughing at someone and laughing with them, which brings us to the art of being Drake.

This week, the Toronto rapper released a new video for his smash hit “Hotline Bling” in which he dances the cha-cha in a series of neon-lit lightboxes, looking like “Seinfeld’s” Elaine Benes (or your uncle) cutting a rug inside a Simon Says machine. He sports a turtleneck sweater with sweatpants, like Ron Burgundy lounging around on a Sunday, and generally makes a fool of himself for five straight minutes.

Or is he making fools of us?

Minutes after the video debuted online Monday evening, the Internet lit up with memes poking fun at Drake’s dancing. Some said his jerky hand movements looked like he’d just touched a hot plate straight out of the microwave, others compared his crouching dance steps to players in Wii Tennis (complete with footage of Drake inserted into the game). Within hours the footage had been repurposed as a remix to the opening credits of “The Cosby Show.”

Which is to say, on a night that also saw nothing less than the debut of the new “Star Wars” trailer, Drake won the Internet.

It’s not the first time Drake has positioned himself as an object of ridicule, and it won’t be the last. But Drake is no laughing matter: He’s the hottest rapper in the world and pop’s biggest male star, precisely because of his ability to make himself the butt of the joke.

Rap has never had much of a sense of humor about itself. It’s a genre built on being tough and gruff, where keeping it real means keeping it stoic. From rap’s beginnings its stars, from Run-D.M.C. to N.W.A. to the Notorious B.I.G., have maintained a rather serious self-image. Think about it: When’s the last time you saw Eminem allow himself to crack a smile?

In the game of street cred and authenticity, Drake was never going to come out on top. He’s a Jewish Canadian ex-teen soap star, which makes Vanilla Ice’s resume look like Scarface’s. Those three strikes alone should have killed his career before he eeked out his first verse.

But they didn’t. Drake never ran from his past, but he deflected from it by crowning himself a legend so early in his career that his past didn’t matter. “Last name ‘Ever,’ first name ‘Greatest,’ ” he rapped during “Forever,” a 2009 track which co-starred hip-hop heavyweights Kanye West, Lil Wayne and Eminem. It was released in 2009, one year before he even put out his debut album.

That debut, “Thank Me Later,” was released in 2010 and was a rather straightforward affair, but by the following year’s “Take Care” he was harnessing the power of what we’ll call Draking: The “Take Care” cover shows the rapper, apparently alone in some sort of gaudy, ornate restaurant scene, his eyes downcast and his thoughts heavy. It’s lonely at the top, he’s seemingly saying, and it’s hilarious. (The cover for his 2013 album “Nothing Was the Same,” is similarly goofy, a portrait of his profile against a blue sky that looks like it was created on Microsoft Paint.)

His music video gag reel is bountiful: ludicrously high-stepping atop a Toronto billboard in “Started From the Bottom,” dressing like Beetlejuice draped in Karl Kani in “No New Friends,” weirdly morphing into Oprah, Miley Cyrus and Justin Bieber in “Energy.” And on this year’s “Jungle” tour, the guy had a cheesy-looking campfire and a waterfall built into his stage set, looking like he was performing in a high school production of “The Blue Lagoon.”

But with each of these moments, Drake seems to anticipate the reaction and channel it in a way that benefits him, transcending the corny and making it cool. And after headlining festivals coast to coast and scoring two No. 1 albums this year, you can’t question his methods.

We laugh at Drake, and with Drake, because he wants us to. And he’s laughing all the way to the bank.