“Hotline Bling” won Best Rap Song and Best Rap/Sung Performance at the 59th Grammy Awards, which Drake didn’t even bother to attend. He did speak on his wins, though, in rather unceremonious terms. “I’m apparently a rapper, even though ‘Hotline Bling’ is not a rap song,” he told DJ Semtex in a video interview for BBC Radio 1Xtra. “The only category that they can manage to fit me in is in a rap category, maybe because I’ve rapped in the past or because I’m black.” It’s nitpicking, perhaps, but the distinction speaks to Drake’s grand design of global dominance, which has always been a pop quest. If you let him tell it, Drake is not a rapper, and his latest batch of music is neither mixtape nor album. A “playlist,” he calls it.
On his Beats 1 program, OVO Sound Radio, Drake premiered his latest project, let’s call it — More Life — on Saturday. Wanky branding aside, More Life is 80 minutes of new Drake music (plus a great solo Sampha record, “4422,” caught up in the mix for unclear reasons), more than half of it sung, with features from the likes of Kanye West (still suffering a midlife crisis of musical style, I’m afraid), Young Thug (initially unidentifiable), and 2 Chainz (the slickest man on this album); an album, indeed. In fact, it’s the biggest, most ambitious, most global Drake album since 2011’s Take Care, a grand tour of black music and culture in the U.S., Canada, the Caribbean, and the U.K.
The newest innovation on More Life marks a culmination of Drake’s interest in grime, with features from Skepta and Giggs in addition to Drizzy’s own roadman slang. (Assigning grime artists to R&B samples has the delightful effect of making them sound nothing like grime music, which can otherwise sound brassy and quaint if your musical POV is contemporary U.S. hip-hop.) The dominant innovation, however, is Drake’s continuing obsession with dancehall, which inspired not only the album’s title but also its most delightful track, “Passionfruit” (and also its silliest, given how much it actually sounds like a Tropicana commercial).
Frankly, it’s refreshing: Drake’s total emigration to dance music means we can leave behind the joyless, beleaguered Drake who took himself as seriously as Caligula. In the course of the decade, Drake’s solo albums have grown darker and increasingly paranoid; where his debut album, Thank Me Later, opened with fireworks (as heard on a song called “Fireworks”), his most recent, Views, opened with a villainous rant about the costs of disloyalty (“Keep the Family Close”). His aggression spiked in 2015 with the release of If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late and an explosive feud with Meek Mill that Drake clearly savored.
There’s still edge to his newest records, and that pugnacious version of Drake is still here on a couple of songs. He drops oblique references to his ongoing war with Meek and Rick Ross on “Can’t Have Everything” (“Tell your big homie I’m all for going there again”), but otherwise More Life is as convivial as the album title promised. For every moody piano riff, there’s an uptempo groove or Young Thug voice crack to overwhelm it and reset the music’s cool exuberance. If the song that finally got him a no. 1 single was “One Dance,” of course he’d push “Passionfruit” and “Madiba Riddim” next; of course he’d make this album.
Naturally, Drake is a master narrator, he does his own propaganda, and his slight turn of a new leaf wouldn’t be complete without his underscoring it explicitly. “Better attitude, let’s see where it gets me,” he says on “Lose You,” the album’s most bushy-tailed, forward-looking rapping, though not without some residual resentment that “people like you more when you working towards something, not when you have it.” Drake’s own mom, Sandi Graham, offers the following counsel at the end of “Can’t Have Everything” in the form of a voicemail: “I can appreciate where your uncertainty stems from, and you have reason to question your anxieties and how disillusioned you feel, as well as feeling skeptical about who you believe you can trust. But that attitude will just hold you back in this life.” Counterpoint: It got him this far.