— 4 September 2023

12 Years Later, Drake’s ‘Marvins Room’ Is Still The Perfect Sad Boy Anthem

— 4 September 2023

As the Canadian rapper continues his North American It’s All A Blur tour — and we rapidly approach the rollout of his eighth studio album For All The Dogs — the recurring conversation of “the old Drake” is back in full force. Although the supposed drop in quality is not at all reflected in his popularity; Drake continues to harvest streams like nobody’s business, regardless of what someone like me has to say about the matter.

There is, however, an enduring appreciation for his earlier records that’s worth looking into with songs like ‘Marvins Room’ having left an undeniable impact on the landscape of 2010s Hip-Hop/R&B.

The line that separates old/new Drake is contentious (as is whatever the sentiment old/new Drake even means). But when Drizzy (real name: Aubrey Graham) recently teased a return to his “old” sound, ‘Marvins Room’ was one of the songs that immediately came to mind. More than anything, it reflects a time when Drake actually seemed like he was trying.

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“I’m just saying, you could do better / Tell me, have you heard that lately?”

In 2011, Lil WayneChris Brown, and JoJo all remixed the track with countless others contributing their own renditions in the years following. The song was eventually certified 3 x Platinum by the RIAA in 2018, and it has since become a staple of Drake’s setlist. And at the time of this writing, it’s his 40th most popular song on Spotify with more than 524 million streams (around 267,000 daily).

Not bad for a song almost excluded from Take Care entirely.

‘Marvins Room’ is, by far, one of Drake’s most unselfconscious and ambitious songs to date. This sort of overt emotional vulnerability may have made him the butt of a few jokes over the years, but it’s also what made him a household name.

There’s almost a universal quality to its lyrics and the song as a whole perfectly encapsulates the very melancholy it describes — details of a drunken, late-hour phone call to an ex that’s never condescending or under any delusions of being an elegant and unblemished act of beauty.

“The easiest thing to do is be like, ‘I’m the coolest guy, I get all the girls, I’m untouchable,’” explained Drake’s longtime producer, Noah “40” Shebib.

“The hard thing to do is be vulnerable and honest. [‘Marvins Room’] opened the doors for artists in Drake’s position to make music from their heart and not be so confined to self-imposed rules and regulations.”

Drake doesn’t receive enough credit for this song’s position in both his career and the history of the genre. Not only was ‘Marvins Room’ such a sonic anomaly from what was then the norm, but as an artist, he had plenty to lose at the time.

He was already dominating the charts with his debut mixtape So Far Gone reaching #6 on the Billboard 200, and his subsequent first studio effort Thank Me Later earning him his first #1 LP with three top 10 Hot 100 hits.

Granted, he never had some tough guy persona. Although many saw his sophomore outing as an opportunity to elevate himself among the genre’s heavy hitters. With this in mind, Drake then gave us a slow, considered, nearly six-minute-long track featuring minimal design elements; a crooning ballad on top of synth-swimming, single bass drum-thumping production.

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The song effectively utilises the art principle of “negative space,” which involves a lack of details around the subject to simplify a given work. It can be used to create feelings of peace, uneasiness, tension, or isolation depending on its context. In visual mediums — whether it be a painting or a film — negative space is easy to identify due to us perceiving space as a three-dimensional and tangible concept. Negative space in music is a little more difficult to describe.

In ‘Marvin’s Room,’ we are presented with negative space due to the apparent lack of production. We feel the space in the room as Drake messily calls up an old flamer and expresses his feelings of loneliness and angst, pondering on the times they shared, even attempting to persuade her to leave the man she’s with.

It frames his presence in a very small way, drunk, and helpless to his own mistakes. The washy empty mosaic of the beat also inspires reflection in the listener. There’s not enough auditory stimulation or sensory information to dominate your attention — people are effectively able to draw connections to their own similar situations on an almost blank canvas.

When Drake met 40 in Marvin Gaye’s studio (where the song derives its title), the beat we know today had been thrown together in a matter of hours and was pretty much considered unfinished. Drake immediately recognised its simplicity and uniqueness; and insisted that no further alterations be made. As 40 recounts:

“[Drake] comes in, like, ‘I’m using this.’ I’m like, ‘No, no, it’s not done yet. I just started.’ He’s like, ‘No, it’s done. Don’t do anything else.’ It stayed that way. My objective is to make him happy. If he says yes, then I’m good.”

What we’re left with is a simple 4/4 drum pattern with a lot of the high frequencies taken out. There’s a legato synth with no attack, it’s just a series of smooth and meandering notes all the way through. It creates a sort of gauzy, dreamlike quality that emulates the feeling of being drunk. The absence of an attack, in turn, leaves the song without structure or clear time markers. It’s just an intoxicated bloke in his feels and rambling to no end.

The song’s production also incorporates this harsh robotic noise that periodically imposes on the beat to create dissonance. While the notes may meander, this sound helps to create a juxtaposition with a sense of uneasiness; the phone conversation seems insignificant on the outside, but this inclusion reflects Drake’s inner conflict and feelings of loneliness, confusion, uneasiness, anger, and existentialism.

Drake’s actual flow also utilises the concept of negative space, adding to the narrative and thematic ideas of ‘Marvins Room.’ He rarely starts rapping on the downbeat of a bar. He lets you feel the first beat before he starts talking, adding a kind of authentic thought-like cadence. It’s like you’re hearing these ideas forming in real-time.

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“[Beat.] Cups of the rosé / [Beat.] Bitches in my old phone.”

His constant apologising and lustful begging are interrupted by the song’s blunt confrontation voiced by Ericka Lee (“Are you drunk right now?”). While Lee’s inclusion in ‘Marvins Room’ ultimately earned Drake a lawsuit, it’s an integral element that adds to the rawness and emotional integrity of the track.

The song already had a nostalgic quality to it by design, but over time, that has only compounded. Drake has gone on to become the most popular artist of his era, complete with his own cult-like fanbase and persona that he plays into.

Listening to ‘Marvins Room’ nowadays — a song that literally demands that its listener reminisce — also invites memories directly associated with the song over the last decade or so. Chilly Gonzales, the man responsible for the grand piano outro of the song, perhaps said it best when reflecting years after the initial release:

“I don’t think there’s anything intrinsic about emotion in music other than some artists capture it, and it’s not something you can teach… It happens like lightning striking. When it’s that direct — when there’s an involuntary visceral, physical manifestation of the emotional power of a song, that’s when you know you have something.”

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