What We Learn About Innovation From The Story Of Drake's New Hit

(This week’s Snow Report is best read while listening to this song.)

I’m gonna start this Report with the punch line, and then we’re going to back up:

All roads lead to Barbara Streisand.

There it is. 

And why does that matter? Read on:

In the first five seconds of the new song, “Nice For What,” we hear the voices of a legendary Bounce producer from New Orleans (Big Freedia), a pioneering female rapper from New Jersey (Lauryn Hill), and the 30-year-old half-Jewish Canadian superstar Drake.

And in the next few seconds, Drake drops references to Lil’ Wayne, beatmaker Murda, the state of Louisiana.

He then proceeds to make poetic allusions to the band Big Tymers, Dallas rapper Fabo, Instagram, the Mercedes-Benz C class car, the 2009 party song “Bend It Ova”, and the sexism challenges women face in today’s world.

Drake has released over 100 songs. His songs have been #1 on the charts dozens of times. And I would dare say that “Nice For What” is the greatest Drake song he’s ever made. 

But that’s what I said about the last song he came out with. And the last one. 

Seems Drake, unlike many other successful musicians, keeps getting more interesting with age. And his sound keeps changing. He’s versatile in the way that most musicians aren’t.

We all know this. That’s why we’ve listening to him on repeat on the radio for the last decade.

But the pattern in all these hits is instructive. Drake’s music illustrates a principle of innovation that we can all stand to practice a little better.

The thing is, each song Drake makes is not just a Drake song. It’s 10 people’s song. And not just that, each new breakout hit of his (whether we’re talking album-level or singles) tends to be a smashup of multiple genres. “One Dance” was reggaetón meets Drake—featuring Kyla and Wizkid. “Nice for What” is New Orleans bounce meets Drake—featuring all those things we just talked about.

As I explore in Dream Teams, the way that we become better than anything we’ve been before is by combining different perspectives and heuristics. A group of people can be smarter than its smartest member—but only if those members have different ways of thinking and seeing the world, and only if those things mix and match and smash together.

So say you’re working on your equivalent of a hit song. You want to break new ground. You want to go where no one’s quite ever gone before. How are you going to get there? 

I’d dare say, like Drake gets there.

In my book I quote the legendary leadership coach Keith Yamashita (he was Steve Jobs’s guy). He says that when we start a project, or we decide to tackle a problem, we need to think of it like a director. A director carefully “casts” the people that will be perfect for the different roles in a film. 

She doesn’t just grab whoever was on the team last time. And she doesn’t hire the 10 actors with the best college GPA. 

Casting is about finding the most interesting set of people for the job—often obscure, sometimes needle-in-a-haystack kinds of people. Yes, a big film has stars. (In music, enter: Drake. In business, enter: you!) But the process for deciding what combination of people gets cast is deliberate, and always custom.

The more we look at innovation in history, the more we see this. And the closer we look, the deeper we realize the pattern runs. The coolest inventions have the most of it.

Which brings us back to the set of shoulders Drake’s new song stands on:

“Nice For What” is an exploration into and an homage to NoLA’s bounce music, combined with samples from Lauryn Hill’s late 90s hit “Ex-Factor.” 

Care for me, care for me, you said you’d care for me
There for me, there for me, said you’d be there for me
Give to me, give to me, why won’t you live for me?
Cry for me, cry for me, you said you’d cry for me

The mashup of Hill’s crooning with the NoLA triggerbeat is arguably what makes the song so uniquely catchy.

Just like Drake is now sampling Lauryn Hill, to make “Ex-Factor” Hill actually sampled from someone else’s song herself. In this case, she added her own flavor to clips of Wu-Tang Clan’s “Can It Be All So Simple.”

And “Can It Be All So Simple,” it turns out, in turn sampled a Gladys Knight song called “The Way We Were/Try to Remember.”

And this song was a remake/remix of the 1973 song “The Way We Were.”

Performed by Barbara Streisand.

Much love,

Shane

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