MusicWeekend

Drake Improves Despite Himself

Moody guys excel at mood music.

For such a popular rapper, Drake inspires more begrudging love than any comparable figure with the possible half-exception of Kanye West. Tell a Drake fan that you find the man an obnoxious, immature, faux-sensitive manipulator who gets undue credit for portraying his lousy personality honestly, as if he had a choice, and the majority of responses begin with “Yeah, that’s totally true, but…” rather than “What a load of horse pucky.” Ambivalence is the appropriate response to his music; you’re supposed to hate him. Maybe casual listeners who enjoy his singles on the radio without bothering to dissect his seven Billboard 200-topping albums can engage without getting sucked into an abusive relationship, but committed fans keep running lists of his character flaws, despise him for said flawed character, respect him for revealing said flawed character, respect him for his perpetual efforts to change, despise themselves for respecting him, despise him for making them despise themselves, and take perverse pleasure in the whole icky process. Drake purportedly worries about the emotional damage he wreaks on women who date him, but perhaps he should consider his poor fanbase.

Complaints about personality are irrelevant when the music in question, like most hip-hop, doesn’t code expressive and/or confessional, but Drake’s does. A typical Drake song simulates baring the soul: obsessing over fame and romantic anxiety  and otherwise publicizing insights best left in the therapist’s office. Claims about his honesty parse only if you believe the real-life Drake resembles the persona he plays; otherwise the question remains as to why, rather than making a show of refusing to hide an irritating persona, he doesn’t just construct a nicer one. The subtext of wealth and celebrity wrecks his potential as an everyman figure — one who might conceivably have eschewed megastar-specific afflictions for universal human error. Six years ago in The New Yorker Sasha Frere-Jones compared Drake to reality television, which still applies insofar as both turn valiant attempts at self-improvement into disingenuous public spectacle. For reasons I dare not speculate on, American consumers of mass media love watching affluent men and women of questionable intelligence and certain vulgarity fret over their own shallowness while struggling to speak in  pop-psychological cliches. Were Drake ever to work through his issues, as they say, he’d lose his audience; gone would be the suspense that comes from perpetual striving and the ever-present possibility of a relapse. He’s proven this a lucrative formula, with six of his seven #1 albums having gone platinum and the new More Life, out since March, sure to follow. As long as his singles get airplay, Drake will be suffering through public therapy for a very long time. Say this for narcissists: they fascinate.

Drake’s official albums are punishing, interminable slogs, where wispy, vacuous beats provide an appropriately empty external correlative to the lazily expositional male fantasies dribbling from his mouth; I’d quote lyrics if the ostensibly nice, sensitive guy who’s actually a callous sociopath strategically deploying his sensitive image weren’t by now such a familiar role. By contrast, his mixtapes adhere closer to established hip-hop standards of listenability, tempo, hookiness, general aural focus, and the like. When musical partner/in-house producer Noah “40” Shebib programs a juicy beat behind him, he’s capable of splendid results. On 2015’s If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late, his most direct and compelling release, producers Shebib and Boi-1da deploy a strikingly light and agile set of melodic keyboard loops within the same signature airy style, while Drake discovers he can brag and sneer like a real rapper. Compare the sharpness of his rapping voice to his unctuous singing, which wobbles gauchely between velvety sigh and velvety whine. More Life, which he calls a “playlist” rather than an official album release, thus falls into the more tolerable category. Sprightly and energetic, it’s also looser and more expansive than If You’re Reading This. Richer textures, intermittent weird instruments woven into the electronic mesh, and an increasingly keen ear for savory R&B choruses mark a record that cruises through its bangers and earns its squishy moments. Sonic grace establishes a humane feel.

With artists who linger in the public spotlight, it’s important not to let familiarity and/or Stockholm syndrome trick you into mistaking your inactive gag reflex for substantive aesthetic quality, but especially toward the album’s beginning, some of these tracks abound with substance. “Passionfruit” simmers over a streamlined chillwave groove as Drake sighs a melody whose loveliness extends to his own vocal quaver. “Madiba Riddim,” cascading through a lilting guitar hook that shares its trebly tone and bittersweet prettiness with several African pop genres, also showcases Drake’s gentle soulfulness as a singer responding to rhythmic nuance and kinetic motion. “Get It Together” remixes South African DJ Black Coffee’s extended house track “Superman” into an abridged dance interlude, highlighting the original’s thumping percussion, shifty piano, and ominous electronic sitar-esque throb. Meanwhile, the starkly elegant beat in “Blem” snaps with a velocity dependent on the thinness of the synthesizers, as does “No Long Talk,” whose confident stride, simultaneously flippant and delicate, inhabits a mode more rappers should try. Such ear candy would delight more decisively of the music didn’t frame Drake’s performance as sincere confession to be taken seriously — if he weren’t also insisting “God knows I’m trying for you” (and never succeeding, because then he couldn’t make another album), moaning “Gonna have to teach me how to love you again” (you do all the work honey, he’s just too sexily damaged), coyly suggesting “You got issues that I won’t mention” (but he’ll mention that he won’t mention them), and threatening “I might just say how I feel” (as if he’s never opened up before). But his shtick can’t be laughed off; for the music to truly click requires caring about Drake’s feelings, and if you do, the sensual, mysterious calm captured on More Life transfixes. Moody guys excel at mood music.

Sublime moods last for only so long before dissipating. The highlights described above constitute five songs on a 22-song release. Although Quavo and Young Thug, among others, contribute enlivening guest verses, as usual with Drake half the album degenerates into atmospherically pro forma synth presets and rhythmically clumsy attempts at gravitas. Attenuated trifles bolster longer, more substantive songs. English pseudosoul singer Sampha and grime fixture Skepta get their own solo interludes, for mysterious reasons. At times More Life reminds me of Kanye West’s The Life of Pablo, that other massively messy compendium of celebrity talent, minus West’s considered sequencing and liquid musical flow. Piling on the guests, the weird samples, the tangential interlude-exercises, the unnecessary filler tracks providing connective tissue — there’s so much other stuff here that Drake himself almost disappears. Four years ago this excessive practice would have indicated a megastar’s ambition to craft a plushly immersive suite, but by now it also codes as an attempt at self-erasure. The “playlist” format ensures a casual lack of focus and the illusion of a lapse in creative control. Drake raps plenty, but fans of the statement album will miss his guiding hand. For those who dislike his persona, what better development could there be?

As with West, there remains the possibility that Drake actively and deliberately calculated this effect, but let’s not upset ourselves over the intentional fallacy. Cynics will interpret albums like More Life and indeed Pablo as indicators that external validation liquefies a performer’s talent and confidence, that money inspires the spurious notion that creative excess equals aesthetic quality, but these aren’t bad things, exactly, and to insist otherwise reveals a furtive craving for auteurism. More Life’s highlights are so tasty I only wish it were even messier, even more dissociated, even more unpredictable. That Drake made a halfway decent album despite himself is a triumph appropriate to our grotesque celebrity era. His ego having slipped from his fingers, he’s watching it, helplessly, floating away on the wind, watching his own subjectivity dissipate while losing himself in the music.

More Life (2017) and If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late (2015) are available from Amazon and other online retailers.

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