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Drake's 2018 represents one of the most dominant years of any pop star — perhaps ever

Whether breaking records or igniting viral dance crazes, Drake has become the North Star in the pop constellation.
Image: Drake
The year of Drake.Adrian Lam / NBC News

Six months ago, Drake was left for dead.

Pusha T’s dis track “The Story of Adidon,” released May 29, took a scalpel to Drake’s public persona and cleaved fully through, portraying a hypocritical man haunted by racial insecurities, a secret love child and a chilling familial history. The song transformed the debate over Drake from a musical into a moral one, threatening to obliterate a self-actualization narrative that Drake had been building for more than a decade.

But while “The Story of Adidon” could have been the asteroid that pushed Drake’s career into a nosedive, he turned it into a footnote. This year, Drake has racked up three Billboard No. 1 hits and a platinum album, “Scorpion,” starred in unforgettable music videos, dropped pristine guest verses and ignited viral dance crazes.

Drake has racked up three Billboard number-one hits and a platinum album, “Scorpion,” starred in unforgettable music videos, dropped pristine guest verses and ignited viral dance crazes.

The artist’s banner year has been cemented this fall by “Mia,” Drake’s Spanish-language collaboration with Bad Bunny that cruised into the Billboard Hot 100's top five this week. The song shows him to be a chameleon with Godzilla proportions — a man who mimics, absorbs and then shifts the pop paradigm in one fell swoop. And if you still cling to the perception that Drake is nothing more than a toothless cornball, you need to pay more attention. “Mia” is the cherry on top of one of the greatest individual years in pop music of all time.

It’s easy to prove Drake’s 2018 dominance by the numbers. When Drake’s fifth album “Scorpion” was released in June, he broke single-day streaming records on Apple Music and Spotify and was the first artist to have their album pass 1 billion streams in its first week. He broke the record for most songs simultaneously in the top 10 of Billboard’s Hot 100 (seven) and the top 100 (27). And “Mia” is his 12th song to crack the top 10 this year, pushing him past the Beatles for the most in a single year.

“Scorpion” received far less love from critics, who felt that the album fell short in the context of several expectations: that Drake would use it to respond to Pusha, evolve sonically, and create a conceptually cohesive project following the wandering bloat of 2016’s “Views” and 2017’s “More Life.” That he failed to achieve any of the three made the album easy to dismiss for some reviewers.

The whole may have been a bit scattershot, but many of the individual songs were clinically brilliant. It’s likely that someone told you that they only loved their bed and their mama this summer. It’s even more likely you heard the springy bounce of “In My Feelings” relentlessly blasting from moving cars, boomboxes and stadium sound systems. B-side tracks like “Nonstop” and “Mob Ties” stormed charts across the world before even getting released as singles, with LeBron James gushing over the latter in a recent episode of HBO’s “The Shop.” And “Nice For What,” the album’s crown jewel, may be one of the best Drake songs of all time, with even Lauryn Hill signaling her approval by flipping back her own sample in concert.

Drake knew that many critics wanted a certain structure and narrative, but he ignored them: “N----- want a classic, that’s just ten of these,” he rapped on “Sandra’s Rose.” He was right. “Scorpion” thrives precisely because it doesn’t conform to the platonic ideal of the album, which was originally conceptualized because of physical constraints. “Dark Side of the Moon” captivated audiences in 1973 in part because of the listener’s forced captivity — there’s no skip button on a vinyl record.

“Scorpion,” on the other hand, isn’t really meant to be listened all at once. Drake understands that the modern structure is more fungible, and that people will listen in bunches or on shuffle; as part of playlists, videos, memes, workouts or barbecues. In its flexibility and ambivalent attitude toward itself, “Scorpion” feels like the first masterwork of the streaming era.

Other artists on Drake’s level, like Adele, Taylor Swift and Beyonce, operate on strict album cycles, in which they descend from the heavens once every few years to bestow a neatly packaged product before vanishing again. But Drake has done the exact opposite, making cameos in a dizzying array of musical contexts.

He took victory lap verses with fellow rap royalty on 2 Chainz and Quavo's “Better Than You” and Quavo’s “Flip The Switch,” and supercharges Travis Scott’s “Sicko Mode,” one of the most formally inventive songs of the year. On Lil Baby and Gunna’s “Never Recover” and Blocboy JB’s “Look Alive,” Drake reinforces his hunger to help facilitate rap’s future by treating three of the genre’s fastest rising stars as his equals. He sounds invigorated by their youth while asserting his own supremacy through unrelenting volleys of syllables.

Drake understands that in 2018, rap’s outer blade is just pop’s next doughy center; he wields the power to both predict a young superstar’s rise while simultaneously helping to propel it. This ability is especially meaningful when it comes to “Mia,” his collaboration with Bad Bunny. Drake is far from the first Western star to turn his eyes to Latin America; Justin Bieber, Demi Lovato and others have already walked that path.

But while some of those have felt like interlopers, Drake’s presence on “Mia” feels natural — his gliding syllables fit the beat snugly, and the lilting melody is so, well, Drake-ian. And while Bad Bunny doesn’t need much of a lift — he already went No. 1 this year on Cardi B and J Balvin's “I Like It” — “Mia” is irrevocable proof of Latin trap’s ascendance into the American mainstream.

While some might be cynical about these forays into foreign territory, Drake has time and time again proved his commitment to the idea that modern pop music is inherently global. He sang in Spanish with Romeo Santos in 2014 and has constantly drawn from Caribbean rhythms in songs like “Passionfruit” and “One Dance;" he’s a Toronto emcee that has diligently worked to become fluent in London grime, Jamaican dancehall and Houston chopped and screwed tempos. This year, Drake broke records, rewrote structural norms and united the edges of music across the globe. In the process, he's become the North Star in the pop constellation.