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Drake Is Too Big to Fail

Drake dominates fan attention, preys on smaller competitors, and colludes with other superstars for his own gain. Regulators must break up this monopoly while they still can.

Over the last decade a single man, preternaturally gifted at engaging people on the internet, has been building a digital empire based on Likes, shares, and clear violations of privacy. I’m speaking, of course, about the meme-generating, chart-skyjacking, zeitgeist-devouring media enterprise colloquially known as “Drake.”

Drake, née Aubrey Graham, was once a semi-famous child actor who could sort of rap and—get this—also sort of sing. He was not invented in a dorm room but he soundtracked countless nights in them. As Drake acquired listeners and sales, though, his reach extended far beyond indie sample flips and Cash Money posse cuts (what a time). He grew to dominate rap, R&B, and pop, using his popularity in one genre to capture market share in another. In the last two years he has leveraged his power to enter even more sectors, including grime, dancehall, and most recently bounce, via the preordained hit “Nice for What.”

While Drake should be congratulated on building a true American [checks earpiece] … North American success story, his unrestrained market power poses a threat to healthy competition in the music industry. Drake monopolizes fan attention, acquires nascent competitors in a predatory fashion, and colludes with other superstars for market share. That’s why I’m formally recommending that both Congress and the U.S. Justice Department investigate the operations of Drake and consider the only logical remedy—a breakup of his creative enterprise.

Let’s consider the evidence. Thanks to streaming and social media, Drake has entered a virtuous cycle of network effects that magnify his influence over time. When a new Drake song premieres, social media users drop any in-progress conversations about literature, global affairs, or Love & Hip-Hop to immediately critique his work, earning him additional exposure via various “trending” lists on social networks. On Spotify, Drake songs immediately receive prime placement on prominent playlists with millions of followers, granting him passive listens from users who may not be actual fans. My colleague Lindsay Zoladz, who we’re also going to say is a legal scholar, recently found that the January single “God’s Plan” appeared on six Spotify playlists, including the trend-setting Rap Caviar. “God’s Plan” is now in its 11th consecutive week atop the Billboard Hot 100, a record for Drake and a worrying streak for people who value a competitive creative marketplace (for more on Drake’s streaming success, refer to my earlier study The Drakeover, which is awaiting peer review).

Drake’s chart dominance alone is not grounds for antitrust enforcement. However, the artist also has a chilling tendency to hop on every hot track and claim it as his own. The most recent example is “Look Alive,” a song ostensibly by the young Memphis rapper BlocBoy JB but mostly by Drake (currently no. 5 on the Hot 100). There are plenty of previous cases, including Fetty Wap’s “My Way,” iLoveMakonnen’s “Tuesday,” and, if we’re being really real, DRAM’s “Cha Cha.” After a brief stint in the spotlight, these collaborators earn only a modicum of Drake’s popularity, though they do help him maintain his reign even longer. Even on his own label, OVO Sound, where Drake would have a financial interest in his labelmates’ success, artists often find themselves writing songs for the boss rather than themselves. Former Noisey writer Craig Jenkins (also a legal scholar) once mused that OVO was “Drake’s personal hit factory.” In the alternate reality where Drake pursued an acting career and starred as a less threatening Killmonger in Black Panther, the startup acts that he acquired may have had an opportunity to flourish into legitimate stars independently.

Finally, Drake has shown a proclivity to collude with major celebrities for his own benefit. The “Nice for What” video is just the latest example, featuring cameos from big names such as Issa Rae and Tracee Ellis Ross—but thankfully not a reanimated Aaliyah—to bolster his feminist credentials. He has previously used high-profile collabs to boost his trap, nerd, and “I hooked up with Rihanna” credibility, to varying success. Through these efforts Drake amasses an outsize amount of cultural capital, thereby ensuring that his next partnership will attract even more attention from an ever-widening audience of people who feel they have something in common with him. Drake’s “friends,” aware that this strategy could eventually attract legal scrutiny, have at times sloppily tried to cover their tracks. When asked about the platinum-selling mixtape he and Drake recorded in 2015, Future once told investigators, “It never happened, you know what I’m saying. It never happened.”

Given all these examples of anti-competitive behavior, the Justice Department must call for a breakup of Drake under the Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890. The artist’s works should be divided into two independent performing acts. The self-pitying millennial malaise will be placed under the ownership of “Aubrey,” while the upbeat braggadocio will continue to be released under the alias “Drake.” (The fate of “Nice for What,” a song that samples ’90s R&B in classic Aubrey style but turns it into a frenetic bounce remix with Drake-level energy, would likely be determined at a later date in an appellate court.) Furthermore, Drake and producer Noah “40” Shebib’s proprietary audio technology, which makes that cool “the studio is now underwater” sound, should be placed in the public domain.

Free-market libertarians and Take Care stans will argue that Drake’s dominance is a result of his own ingenuity—he started from the bottom, after all. They’ll note that other music options are merely a click away for listeners, and that Drake should not be punished for innovating highly meme-able dance moves. Drake himself will probably release a SoundCloud track called “6 A.M. in D.C.” with oblique lyrics like “Losing my mind up in here while they try to squash the boy’s fire / Bring on the war, Theodores, cuz I’m a Ruff Ryder.”

But these arguments miss the larger point—unless we stop Drake now, we’ll never have the opportunity to find the next Drake. His reign has been engineered by the internet to have no end. His dominion has disrupted the natural ebbs and flows of stardom that guides an artist’s career. The longer he accrues playlist placements and tweetable lyrics, the harder he will be to unseat. For the good of memes, for the good of the music industry, for the good of America (and Canada?), the government must curtail Drake’s power. But if you’re reading this, it may already be too late.