If Drake in 2013 was all of the emojis at once—"the prayer hands, dancing girls, diamond ring, blown kiss, laughing through tears"—in 2015, Drake was your entire iPhone. At any given moment, he appeared as an Instagram thirstrap, a remixed Vine, your brother’s Facebook cover photo, a viral YouTube video your mom tweeted about, or the subject of your group message thread. He was the iPhone 6s God. Of course, this was no accident—Drake’s team have been trying out smart ways to raise up their champion into our collective hearts and minds for years. It’s working.
According to data provided to The FADER by Instagram, Drake literally made two emojis a thing in 2015. He also forged relationships with two of the most successful companies in the world, all while keeping his fans happy—but just less than overwhelmed. Here are some of the ways he managed to make it happen.
1. A smartly timed surprise album.
It’s been just over two years since Beyoncé released her self-titled album to the world without warning and although several artists have attempted to “pull a Beyoncé,” no one has had quite the same success as Drake had with the surprise release of If You're Reading This It's Too Late in February. Until Adele’s 25 was released in December, If You’re Reading was the top-selling digital album of the year, with over one million copies sold. Drake’s icy tone on songs you could turn up to at basement parties made sense for a chilly mid-February. And although there wasn’t any major press release before it, Drake did tease the release with a 15-minute film, letting his fans know that it was time to pay attention.
Rihanna, Kanye West, and Frank Ocean fans all had a frustrating year, as they waited for the delivery of long-promised projects. But Drake fans had plenty to chew on while waiting for Drake’s next album, called Views From The 6. The album still doesn’t have a known release date, but it’s been reported that it might drop in January. Drake released two substantial projects in 2015: If You’re Reading in February and What A Time To Be Alive with Future in September. Between those and after, he dropped a bunch of loosies, including “Right Hand,” “Hotline Bling,” and remixes (more on that in a second).
3. The power of Drake’s cosign is still very real.
Drake’s co-signing powers are well documented, and still expanding. In 2015 he joined Fetty Wap on “My Way,” gave love to his hometown by reworking Ramriddlz’s “Sweeterman,” and looked outwards on WizKid’s “Ojuelegba” by pairing with Skepta. “I just did it because I was in the moment,” Drake told The FADER this summer, speaking about that Wizkid remix. “I wasn’t thinking like, ‘Oh man, I gotta get my brand up in Nigeria.’”
Drake’s collaborations also raised eyebrows this year. “Hotline Bling,” his most successful 2015 single, was at least influenced by D.R.A.M.’s “Cha Cha,” and D.R.A.M. later wrote that he felt he had been “jacked.” In September, Fetty Wap’s use of the Drake-less version of “My Way” on his album could be a sign that the power of a co-sign will have limits in 2016.
Throughout Drake’s career, he’s kept his group of friends small. (In 2015, the circle seemed to get even smaller—it’s hard to say what it meant when onetime sidekick OB Obrien didn't appear in as many Instagrams as he used to, or shared the wrong cover art for a Drake release before it dropped.) But Drake forged two major friendships with artists in 2015: Future and Skepta.
Future and Drake are old frenemies, but took their relationship to new heights this year, after Future spent the first half of the year on an unstoppable tear. Like Future, Skepta offerered Drake cred—embracing grime is just good trenspotting—but there seemed to have been even more there. Drake got a BBK tattoo in October, and said this about Skepta in the summer: “I was a Skepta fan, but after meeting Skepta… we were brothers immediately. You don’t get that too much in this thing that we’re in, honestly. You don’t [often] meet somebody and actually feel like, ‘OK, we might actually still talk when we’re 35, 40 years old.’”
Drake gained over 9.7 million followers on Instagram this year. While his Facebook and Twitter account went mostly untouched, he seemed to rarely leave the platform—and his activity provided plenty of fodder for popular accounts like The Shade Room and Baller Alert. The most public acknowledgement of his rumored summer romance with Serena Williams was the emoji-filled messages the two wrote to each other in the comments section of his thirst trap instagrams. Later, when Justin Bieber posted a picture of throwback picture of himself and Selena Gomez, Drake was all over it, there to tell them to get back together.
While Beyoncé fans have been swarming comment sections with bee emojis since the dawn of the iPhone, in 2015 Drake sneakily mobilized his fan base by using emojis as stand-in descriptors for his releases. The cover art for “Charged Up,” which was released after Meek Mill tweeted some negative things about Drake, featured Apple’s code for a full battery. This gave Drake’s fans a simple, beyond-language rallying point to celebrate that song—the battery emoji. According to analysis from Instagram’s data science team, during the track’s week of release in late July, there was a 20% increase in the usage of the [🔋] battery emoji on the entire Instagram platform. Drake's account saw significant follower growth that same week, gaining more than 400k Instagram followers.
This strategy worked well enough, it seems, that Drake tried it again. When Drake revealed the artwork for his collaborative tape with Future, which featured a stock image of some diamonds, Instagram says there was a 15% increase in the usage of the [💎] diamond emoji on Instagram.
7. Watching memes, and embracing them.
The most theatrical moment of Drake and Meek Mill’s unexpected summer clash occurred at OVO Fest in Toronto. Drake opened his headlining set by performing “Charged Up” and “Back To Back,” in front of a PowerPoint slideshow of the most popular memes about the tracks. The move was stone cold and arguably kind of corny but it got people talking, and laughing, all over again.
The terms and compensation of Drake’s deal with Apple Music are still very unknown—it’s suspected that Apple paid Drake $20 million to be the public face of its streaming and radio efforts—but it seems like the arrangement worked out more than fine. Tim Cook sent Apple’s stock soaring when he announced the service had 15 million users in October and OVO Sound Radio has turned out to be one of the biggest successes of its radio service, Beats 1. Since its launch, OVO has made the bi-weekly broadcast a must-listen event, and platform for new releases.
Apple wasn’t the only giant corporation to solidify its ties with Drake. Back in 2013, Drake inked a shoe deal with Nike to produce a footwear brand for Jordan Brand. This fall, the OVO Jordans finally dropped this fall. The release was extremely limited but the white and gold designs were the perfect fodder for memes when he wore them at OVO Fest. Why move inventory when you have social caché?
Some of Drake’s videos have been filled with fun GIF-worthy moments—“Started From The Bottom” and “HYFR” come to mind—but none have been as fun to cut up and share as “Hotline Bling.” The video, which pretty much only stars Drake, spawned a number of Halloween costumes and the greatest wealth of Drake memes yet. It was canonized on SNL by (eep) Donald Trump. This was all part of Drake’s plan. The video’s choreographer Tanisha Scott talked to The FADER about the memes and remixes: “I think they’re hilarious, and he knew that was gonna happen,” she said. “He told me, ‘I already know I’m going to get so many memes from this.’ He was loving every part of it.”
11. Thirsting for Adele’s attention.
As “Hotline Bling” soared this fall, Adele began a historic run on the Billboard charts. Drake seized her moment, saying he’d want to collaborate with her after Adele expressed her love for “Hotline Bling.”
“I'd do anything with Adele," he said. “I’d literally go to Adele’s house right now and do laundry for her." He later posted a (stolen) fan illustration of them together. The dominance of Adele’s “Hello” might have stopped Drake from getting his first Billboard number one hit, but he knew how to win the moment anyway.