Drake and the Philosophy of #YOLO

In "The Motto," Young Money rapper and former actor Drake raps in his lazy, Weezy-wannabe singsong manner: "You only live once/That's motto, nigga, Y.O.L.O./And we 'bout it e'ryday..." His lines always seemingly drenched in ennui, Drake was once best described by a fellow New Times writer as a guy who's depressed even while getting a lap dance.

One day, we will all properly blame YOLO for legions of unwanted pregnancies (pay up, Drake) and inexcusable foolishness by scores of cross-eyed frat guys with white powder all up in their nose hairs.

To say "you only live once" is kind of a big claim. And, as an ontological statement, there's plenty of room for argument. Like, what the hell does Drake know about the nature of reality that the rest of us don't?

As always though, it's fine to play with philosophy, it's when you get into the ethics of it that things get funky. If YOLO's the case, then why not just go and #YOLO all over the place? Ervin McKinness, an aspiring rapper, tweeted, "Drunk af going 120 drifting corners #FuckIt YOLO," before slamming his car into a wall and killing himself and four others. Yeah, well, you may only live once, but now #RIP.

There's a recurring narrative in rap that involves the artist going from rags to riches. He, or she, starts out eating mayonnaise sandwiches and ends up popping bottles and spraying bubbly on boobies. The experience of this real-life transition gives the artists and their songs integrity, something a new generation of MCs, like Drake and Odd Future, don't have.

The rhymes of these artists reference this theme, but from a very postgangsta world. The new narrative has no connection to the old. When Biggie said he was Ready to Die in 1994, that was because he'd lived a hard life, and he earned that enjoyment. His YOLOing was done with purpose. It was reflective, as represented by the classic line in "Juicy": "Birthdays was the worst days/Now we sip champagne when we thirsty."

Though YOLO was on the short list for Oxford University Press' "word of the year," it lost to GIF. Even Drake told MTV News it was "an epidemic," you know, like a disease. The year prior, swag gained the title of hip-hop word of 2011, at least according to NPR's All Things Considered. It was originated by Jay-Z and hyper-popularized by rap collective Odd Future.


Drake stays true to the old hip-hop vanguard, intent on spending Gs at every club in America. Odd Future presents a fresh alternative, though not particularly always pleasant, narrative that glorifies the hysteria of suburban adolescence. With their song "Swag Me Out," they talk about rape, cause, you know, that's what teenaged boys think is hi-lar-ious. Largely, their shock value reflects the same nihilism as YOLO. Tyler the Creator told Cool'eh magazine when asked to wade through all those swastikas and pentagrams and explain if his music is just "blatantly offensive," Tyler responded, "I don't know. It's the first shit that comes to our heads, seriously. I'm interested in serial killers' minds and shit, so I rap about it at the moment. Who the fuck knows, next week I can be rapping about oatmeal if that's what I'm into. And for the record, I don't worship the devil, I just hate religion." This led Pitchfork to say that for this "godless" rapper, "there is no compass."

And certainly, with no roots or compass, the bravado of Odd Future and Drake, has no depth or direction. Both YOLO and the "Swag Me Out" energy encourage a depressing sort of hedonism, one that festers on some middle class island with no attachment to the past. And for the record, there are still gangstas, but Drake and Tyler the Creator ain't them. In fact, there are no gangsters named Tyler or Drake.

Those like Drake and the Odd Future kids have less real life tragedy to lament than Biggie and Tupac, Jay-Z and Ice Cube. Gangsta rap was shocking, encouraged some bad behavior, and also employed the ethos of YOLO, but because it was grounded in real-life situations and stories, it didn't seem as cheap an excuse to be an asshole.

Drake was the guy in a wheelchair on Degrassi: The Next Generation, but he never ate a condiment on bread for dinner. Odd Future kids can rap about rape and sodomizing the Virgin Mary all they want, but they know little about earning real swag. The narratives of YOLO and Odd Future's swag are both attempts at uncovering a new direction for hip-hop. But without substance or history; thankfully, neither words are here to stay.

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