Sneakbo was 19 when Drake shouted him out on Twitter nearly three years ago. Not long afterwards, while on tour in Europe, Drake told several reporters that he had admired the young Brixton rapper since first discovering him in a documentary about London gangs. Many months later, Sneaky still couldn't contain his smile when he told an interviewer that, according to Drake, he had directly influenced two songs on 2012's Take Care. On Drake's "Cameras," the drawn-out refrain and the repeated rhetorical question How you mean? How you mean? are both nods to Sneakbo's 2011 track "How You Mean." In his interview, a visibly thrilled Sneakbo mentioned another reference, allegedly on Rihanna-featuring single "Take Care," but, despite combing through the track, he was unable to pinpoint his own influence.
Sneakbo was neither the first nor the last performer to get a public, multi-pronged co-sign from Drake. In the five or so years since he found his own success, he's been a vocal endorser, cheering on artists, producers, and athletes so often that the habit has come to be significantly linked to his brand. At this point in his career, Drake is known for his influence as much as his chart dominance—in a recent article for Gawker, which reaches the conclusion that Drake is the "Taylor Swift of rap," Jordan Sargent described Drake as having a Midas touch of sorts. His co-sign, Sargent argued, is "the industry's most important stamp of approval."
Drake's effect is undeniable, resulting from a power combo of a huge built-in audience—fans, detractors eager to skewer him, a pop culture press machine ready to make a meme out of every courtside outfit—and the perception that, for all his fame, he remains in touch with what's next. At this point, this influence extends beyond music. Consider, for instance, how quickly Torontonians began to adopt the admittedly silly and very much Drake-approved "the 6" as a new informal moniker for our hometown. Consider, also, this quote from Mike Zig, owner of a trendy coconut distribution business that received a Drake co-sign. "He helped us out tremendously. We got, like, 2,000 followers on Instagram from one picture," Zig told First We Feast. "It's the Drake effect… All Drake does is promote his homies. It's like a gang—he knows his people. He knows his power."
Often, Drake's nod is worth something like 2,000 followers—it's a reliable way to get a temporary bump in a 24-hour news cycle that's always looking for the next story. But new followers don't always stick around, and sometimes a bump from Drake is temporary. Let's revisit Sneakbo's case: in 2012, Drake's approval handed him press and public attention. "Drake loves Sneakbo, and that's good enough reason for us to feature him here, because we love Drake," wrote the Guardian's Paul Lester. But while steady UK buzz and a couple of singles that were London dancefloor mainstays followed, long-term success did not. Two years after inspiring Drake, he's yet to release an album.
Some beneficiaries of Drake's approval, though, have leveraged his early support into full-blown careers rich in album sales, tours, and related income. "Drake was the first person to put [me] on before anybody… It was just like, 'You gotta shine and I'ma see to it.' I forever, forever owe Drake," A$AP Rocky told a Philadelphia DJ last year. After his first recordings were posted on Drake's October's Very Own blog, The Weeknd left the OVO fold, signed with Republic, released top-selling albums, and headlined arena shows in the UK.
There are more recent success stories, too—Migos and iLoveMakonnen both stormed the gates of hip-hop traditionalism with Drake-remixed singles. "[Drake] wanted to help bring ["Tuesday"] to the light and I'm thankful that he did," Makonnen told Sway this past August. "If he put a stamp on it, that must mean it's hot," Sway replied. Now, Makonnen's an official member of Drake's OVO crew, and with OVO parent label Warner Music Group's push behind it, the single is a Top 20 hit. (It remains uncertain whether Warner will invest in releasing an entire Makonnen album.)
In contrast to "Tuesday," the Drake-assisted version of Migos' "Versace" never went up for sale on iTunes. Drake didn't sign Migos to his own label, and never gave Migos' label Quality Control clearance to sell the "Versace" remix. "It was a gift and a curse," Quality Control co-founder Pierre "Pee" Thomas told FADER this year. "Sometimes I really wish he had never jumped on it—it was gonna blow without him." Pee's correct to say Migos would have been okay with Drake's boost. After all, Drake's helpful, but he's not a magician. Artists he pushes must ultimately be able to stand without him. What matters most after a good co-sign is another hot song. Migos had plenty of those, which is why they're still famous.
When I asked a friend, a DJ active in the music industry in Toronto, whether Drake's respective cosigns of iLoveMakonnen and Migos made him pay more attention to either of those acts, he said, "It made me think they got next." Significantly, he also took the co-sign to be a positive reflection of Drake's taste: "It made me respect Drake more as someone credible, as someone who has his ear to the streets."
A Drake co-sign pulls an artist up a rung on the ladder, and if an artist follows that moment up with something great, they can stay at that rung, or start to climb higher. But ultimately, a Drake co-sign is a good look for Drake. His support of Migos hastened their already-likely success; in return, he got access to their bubbling cachet and the implicit permission to borrow their now-infamous flow. (FWIW, he pilfered Makonnen's delivery on the "Tuesday" remix, too.) And while his beneficiaries get temporary increases in attention, Drake gets the accumulation of all of those bumps, like recurring pings every few months to remind you that he's permanently relevant. If you like the artists Drake likes, maybe you're more likely, over time, to buy one of his albums, or an OVO jacket, or tickets to a Raptors game.
I don't mean to suggest that Drake's co-sign is simply a selfish, vulture-like operation. But it is, like everything else in Drake's career, no accident. That boy manifested it.
Oliver El-Khatib, Drake's manager, longtime friend, and OVO co-founder, rarely gives interviews. But during an appearance at this year's NXNE festival in July, he talked about his and Drake's intentions for the original OVO blog, their original, crude co-sign, a way to put on people and things the crew was into. "We knew that no matter how big his career would get and how big his celebrity would get, we wanted to offset that with something that always reminded everybody and us of what we set out to do," El- Khatib said. The sentiment still applies.