Rap behemoth’s gamble pays off in most entertaining album in years
For nigh on the past decade, Aubrey Drake Graham has been the most ubiquitous force in music, perhaps even popular culture at large. Having successfully ditched the label of an ‘actor-turned-rapper’, the 6God proceeded to break seemingly every record in the book in an astonishingly short period of time. As the man himself pondered on ‘5am in Toronto’, ‘how long did it really take me?’ The answer: really not that long at all.
Yet, as Mark Twain famously proclaimed, even the greatest civilisations contain within them the seeds of their own downfall, and the empire of Drake seemed like it was inevitably heading in that direction. The man became too big to fail. If every album a person makes is guaranteed to top the Billboard 200 – he’s done that ten times, for the record – and every single they release is destined to top the charts as well – he’s achieved this feat ten times as well – he loses all reason to keep trying. If even the insufferably sanitised, Tik-Tok chasing viral marketing campaign he attempted to pass off as the song ‘Toosie Slide’ could go to number one, why should he ever bother trying to make good music. For the most part, that’s exactly what we’ve seen from Drake from his last 5 or 6 albums. ‘Views’ was wildly uneven, ‘More Life’ was fun but harmless, ‘Dark Lane Demo Tapes’ and ‘Care Package’ were at their best when they were made up of songs released years earlier and the less said about ‘Scorpion’ and ‘Certified Lover Boy’ the better.
Thus, it appeared Drake’s later career was destined to limp on, uninteresting album after half-cooked mixtape punctuated with the occasional mega-smash song. (Say what you will about Drake, but the man knows how to get stuck on the radio and in your brain. He could make the sound of two foxes fighting over a stale kebab at 3am into the catchiest song of the summer).
So, it couldn’t possibly ever turn out well if this version of Drake; the wannabe basketball player (back to back champions in his own private league) and wannabe British rapper (you all know which adlib I’m talking about), decided to drop the sharpest left-turn album in hip-hop since Kanye West lost his damn mind on ‘Yeezus’? Surely not? Could it…
Well, against all odds, and the opinions of approximately seventy-five percent of his own fanbase, Drake’s foray into house music is for the most part a success. His autotuned self-pitying fits seamlessly over the atmospheric production of Carnage and the ever-reliable Noah “40” Shebib. At once up-tempo and strangely sedated, these beats perfectly capture the post-peak-of-the-party feeling and the gnawing sensation that grows as the worries you had been dancing to forget slowly creep back into frame. Dense and tropical, yes, but also woozy enough to keep the trademark Drake insecurity intact.
If anything, this should perhaps not have been as big of a surprise as it was, given the fact that Drake has dabbled with dancehall infused-house before. Most significantly, the excellent ‘Passionfruit’ from 2017 was firmly in this camp – it’s hard not to be frustrated that Drake didn’t embrace these elements of his music sooner. Instead we all had to sit through five more years of songs that veered erratically between ‘my feelings are hurt’ and ‘just kidding, I don’t have feelings because I’m a real gangster and not the guy from Degrassi’.
Though maybe not eclipsing the aforementioned classic, several of the song on ‘Honestly, Nevermind’ come pretty darn close. Personal highlights include the pining piano chords on ‘Texts Go Green’ and the refrain of ‘Why would I keep you around?’ that dominates ‘A Keeper.’ Perhaps the most impressive of all is the thumping ‘Sticky’, which melds this new dance music focus with more traditional rapping in a way that will satisfy both house fans and hip-hop heads.
Of course, not everything on the album is up to these high standards. The falsetto that Drake reaches for on the lead single ‘Falling Back’ is clearly pushing the very limits of his vocal range, and therefore really pushes the limits of what I can say I enjoy. Similarly, some of Drake’s stereotypical heavy-handedness is brought over to this project (squeaking bed springs is perhaps the most uninspired sample for a sex anthem I have ever encountered). The 21-Savage featuring ‘Jimmy Cooks’ is full of exactly the kind of violent rap-braggadocio that has made some of Drake’s other songs so enjoyable but ironically, it feels out of place on this album- an abrupt end to a project that had up until that point flowed so well.
The lyrical content of the album, as alluded to already, is thickly lathered and self-indulgent wallowing in the remnants of all Drake’s failed relationships. Yet Drake has practiced this style of (ghost-) writing for pretty much his entire career and at this point has it down to a science, if not quite an art.
Most importantly though, I am mostly just happy that this is a project which feels like Drake actually taking a risk again. It has the stakes that have been sorely missing from his discography for so long. For the first time since 2015’s ‘If You Are Reading This, It’s Too Late’, it feels like Drake is actually pushing his own boundaries, rather than passively regurgitating whatever is popular at the time onto the top of the charts. It won’t be for everyone, but if you tell me don’t love it when the DJ drops the song about the feline that calls Drake’s name in the early hours of the morning, I’ll know you’re lying.