Artist Feature: Drake

Despite his new album making him the most streamed artist on Spotify, Drake’s juvenile braggadocio is wearing thin after years of nonstop releases

Drake on his 'Summer Sixteen', source: flickr

Despite facing accusations of uninventive ghost-writing and over-singing on his tracks, Drake currently occupies 13 spaces on the Billboard 100. Drake is omnipresent: the radio is obsessed with ‘Nice for What’, social media was captivated by the #InMyFeelings challenge and Spotify is still obsessed with his image. It’s hard then, to imagine him before the fame – a teacher at my school nonchalantly spoke of going to school with the young Aubrey Graham, and disappointingly described him as a pretty normal guy. Whether ‘Fuckin’ Problems’ or ‘Take Care’ was more your taste, Drake has been a constituent figurehead of contemporary music for our generation.

This is, in part, due to his appearance on TV show Degrassi in the early 2000s, which cemented his popularity in native Canada before his music took off. He left the show after the release of his debut, Room for Improvement, in 2006, with particular standouts like ‘City is Mine’ showcasing his playful arrogance and establishing his allegiance to Toronto – a theme which continues to influence his music.

His 2007 mixtape, Comeback Season, birthed the OVO label, and a collaboration with Trey Songz on Replacement Girl brought him national attention. However, it was Drake’s remix of Lil Wayne’s ‘Man of the Year’ which could be seen as the beginning of his rise. Wayne invited Drake to join him on tour, spawning mixes together like I Want This Forever (the precursor to Drake’s popular song, ‘Forever’). This laid the foundations for Drake’s later signing to the Young Money Entertainment label.

His 2009 mixtape, So Far Gone, was his first taste of commercial success – ‘Best I Ever Had’ was his first top-ten single, and also earnt him two Grammy nominations. His celebrity had unmistakably launched.

It’s hard to deny that his debut album, Thank Me Later, demonstrated his innate early lyricism and easy flow, but perhaps its title was aptronymic in that his second studio album was much more deserving of the fanfare and dizzying praise associated with a debut. Take Care, as the title suggests, was more cautious and the production more consistent – the end result being an album that remains a firm fan favourite, despite numerous subsequent releases.

A project I could rant about easily, Drake’s sophomore album sees him finding balance. It delivered in all aspects, occupying the marginal gap between self-conscious maturity (e.g. on ‘Shot for Me’) and his regular brazen showmanship, seemingly accentuated by Lil Wayne on ‘The Motto’ and ‘HYFR’both of which are still weekly staples of the Park End Curve floor seven years later (if that’s any marker of success). It’s also the album which helped get a generation through heartbreak – ‘Marvin’s Room’ remains the pièce-de-résistance of long-time producer 40’s talents, for bringing his typical muffled synths and broody ambience to a head. Praise is also due for his work alongside The Weeknd on the mellow and introspective ‘Crew Love’. The album as a whole cemented Drake’s status, while the vulnerability and candour he brought was largely unparalleled by contemporaries, his emotive lyricism providing refreshing quality, resulting in a much wider audience for the budding artist.

2013’s Nothing Was The Same saw the return of Drake’s early boastfulness, with ‘Started from the Bottom’ and ‘Worst Behaviour’ showcasing a cocky attitude. It’s easy listening, but with actual merit besides the mellow beats and honey vocals provided by Jhene Aiko and Majid Jordan. Remembering to pay homage where it’s due, Drake successfully carries off a sample of Wu-Tang’s ‘It’s Yourz’ on ‘Wu-Tang Forever’, and the later ‘Pound Cake’ interpolates ‘C.R.E.A.M’ his talent is shown in the duality of his increasing experimentalism, with an ability to throw it back and expose the humble sensitivity of earlier hip hop.

What A Time To Be Alive, a collaborative album with Future, brought Drake back into the buzz with energetic beats, and Metro Boomin’s trap-inspired production. It’s probably fair to say that it’s an album which Future dominates, but ‘Jumpman’ was of course an immediate classic, and it’s a track which Drake navigates with authoritative confidence.

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2015 would perhaps be better celebrated as the year of If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late. Though ‘Madonna’ and ‘Now & Forever’ showcase his melodic prowess, and led to him being christened ‘the original sad rapper’ by critics, there’s an obvious harshness in tracks like ‘6 God’ and ‘6 Man’. ‘Know Yourself’ boasts of his possession of Toronto and its slang, which sadly took prevalence over the more emotive ‘You & The 6’, a softer devotional to his single mother which would likely be more at home with his earlier R&B moods, and deserves more hype for the honesty and perspective it displays.

Drake’s change with each album can again be charted with 2016’s Views, and honestly, it’s an album I’ve never been able to listen to in full. Like an autobiography set to music, Drake’s introspection becomes tiring, and his inability to settle on a mood for the excessively-long listing makes listening disjointed. His interest in dancehall here does bring something new to his discography – ‘Controlla’ and ‘One Dance’ are undeniably bops, and it’s a shame that their overexposure made them somewhat annoying. However, the emotion which made Drake sound different years earlier now came off as hollow. The album did well, as all of Drake’s do, but rightfully received less critical acclaim than his usual introspection.

More Life could be a playlist, it could be a mixtape – critics are split on what to call it, but united in positive reviews of the 2017 project. Changing things up for a seventh major release is no easy feat. Most importantly, Drake used his huge celebrity to give rise to genres usually ignored in favour of viral rap: dancehall influences continued in ‘Blem’, he featured on Nigerian star WizKid’s ‘Come Closer’, while Drake’s unusual love of the UK and grime scene became apparent in ‘No Long Talk’ and ‘KMT’.  Drake got into British rap and the grime battle scene through spearheads such as Wiley and Skepta, with Skepta admitting to seeing his shadow in the toxic beefs between Drake and Meek Mill. Toronto would forever be home, but there has been an undeniable hint of London in Drake’s releases from the past couple of years – Sampha’s vocals on ‘4422’ are delicate yet atmospheric, and the natural Canadian twang on ‘KMT’ or ‘Gyalchester’ is amusing when twisted around British slang. More Life was the birth of Drake’s relationship with the UK, which recently culminated in him doing a ‘Fire in the Booth’ freestyle, with an obvious UK drill influence.

More Life was long enough for Drake to explore everything in depth, and thus no one side felt short-changed: there was broody, evaluative ambience (I put ‘Do Not Disturb’ and ‘Teenage Fever’ on almost every playlist I make), while stellar features from Travis Scott and Young Thug rooted his more energetic side.

Finally, we’re brought to this year’s offering, which both surpasses expectations and still manages somehow to fall flat. Some tracks romanticise paternity, with ‘Emotionless’ hinting at some inherent protectiveness to explain Drake’s absent take to parenting. However, the issues in his personal relationships and the maturity he manages in admitting his faults are reminiscent of his early sincerity, and embracing his shame informs the dignified and triumphant tone of the album as a whole, despite an inevitably forced hand. It’s not our place to judge whether or not he’s a good parent, but elsewhere the weighty ‘March 14’ gives the album an unspoken intimacy.

It’s inevitable that in 90 minutes, with few major guest appearances, there are going to be some passes – while having no obvious flops, there’s little to say about songs like ‘Ratchet Happy Birthday’ (not even PARTYNEXTDOOR can revive this) and ‘Can’t Take A Joke’. Scorpion follows its predecessor in being exhaustingly long, with little grit to keep listeners hooked. Yet, not unlike the loyal 40 who still masterminds the majority of album production, we stay invested – it’s worth remembering that he has just spent 6 weeks topping the Billboard 200. Though victory over considerably aging albums from competition like Post Malone and Cardi B is hardly impressive, there is something to be said for Drake’s ability to captivate his audience so consistently, and the monopoly he holds over streaming services and the radio.

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In theory, the double-album offers Drake the scope to both revel in his glory on the A-side and reflect upon it on the more R&B minded flipside; but there is at times confusion, such as between the heavy background thump of ‘Elevate’ versus its own soft lyricism complicating its position on the ‘rap’ side. ‘I’m Upset’ shows that Drake refuses to give up his juvenile approach to relationships and the social media play on ‘Summer Games’ is immature amidst his (excessive) (try-hard) gloomy vocals.

The R&B-side is a mixed bag: Drake sounds tired and disinterested in the opener ‘Peak’, and I don’t think it’s just method-acting for the deadbeat boyfriend the track discusses. ‘Final Fantasy’ on the other hand uses his slurring to an atmospheric, sensual effect.  ‘After Dark’ is an overlooked winner on this album, sampling the late Static Major to create a mellow tune which you could easily believe dates to the early 00s, surprisingly impassioned by a solid guest appearance from Ty Dolla $ign.

Guest appearances as a whole are where Scorpion really comes into its own, and they also demonstrate Drake’s bold experimentalism and the extent of his fortune – ‘Nice for What’ may have prominent (and therefore pricey) samples in Lauryn Hill and Wu-Tang to name but a few, but the obvious choice across the album is Michael Jackson’s posthumous appearance on ‘Don’t Matter To Me’. Sampling previously-unheard vocals, Drake takes his music to edge of experimentalism and pushes the boundaries of R&B and pop. The song is emotive and Drake’s reflective verses couple hauntingly with Jackson’s brief sample. Michael Jackson is as instantly recognisable as ever, but heavy autotune makes him come off more like The Weeknd, who ironically drew heavy inspiration from the late King of Pop on early tracks. The appearance is a flex – it’s less about what Drake has done with the MJ feature and entirely about the fact that he was able to secure it in the first place.

As with much of Drake’s recent work, the album is largely spoiled by its own overexposure – I refuse to listen to ‘In My Feelings’ in full out of principle, and everyone was over ‘God’s Plan’ by the time the album actually dropped. Nonetheless, the album’s highlights – ‘Nonstop’, ‘8 out of 10’, ‘Sandra’s Rose’, ‘Don’t Matter to Me’, ‘Final Fantasy’ – are worth a listen.

I’d be happy to see Drake take a hiatus and focus more on the October’s Very Own brand before coming back to music with a little more substance – starting off by fulfilling his annually-disappointing promise to bring OVO Fest to London wouldn’t hurt. He’s faced criticism in the past that he’s stifling newer talents like Roy Woods and dvsn through lazy management at OVO: both hugely talented, and yet still minor, players in the industry despite years since their respective debuts. Drake could do well mentoring fresh meat, but critics will only get more vicious at the future release of more half-baked albums lacking the enthusiasm of his younger self, and fans increasingly disillusioned at the dilution of his early potential.