We begin with a song from Drake’s favorite TV show, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.
“I’m the Villain in My Own Story” is catchier than anything on Drake’s woeful and woefully popular 2016 smash Views, and more insightful than all of it. It is the crucial realization — “Maybe I’m the problem here” — that Drake’s last album refused to have, despite stretching to 20 tracks over 81 minutes, a lonesome and airless eternity of sad-rich-guy whining. He was (and remains) the Biggest Rapper Alive, and he’d grown resentful. The world had turned against him, he’d decided, by refusing to fully appreciate how thoroughly he had conquered it. Nothing left for him to do but sulk at the apex of Toronto’s CN Tower alone, grousing about his pre-fame exes for the 50,000th time, leaving you to wonder if he’s ever really had a girlfriend at all. Look what you made him do.
But there was a simpler, less flattering explanation for his isolation. To quote Drake’s second-favorite TV show, the dearly departed Justified, “You run into an asshole in the morning, you ran into an asshole. You run into assholes all day, you’re the asshole.”
Drake’s long-threatened new album/project/playlist, More Life, finally emerged on Saturday night, and it is a delight, a vast improvement, a global sigh of relief. He is willing to concede that he might be the asshole. Sonically, it quadruples down on the borderless breeziness of Views singles “One Dance” and “Controlla,” excising the stuffy rejected–James Bond–theme pomposity that wasn’t that album’s worst problem, but definitely made the worst parts worse. Drake is 80 percent more tolerable when the word things comes out of his mouth as tings, even if his strident claims to Afro Caribbean culture are, like many of his attempts at musical colonization, a little dicey.
More Life is an overstuffed beast, too — 22 songs over, once again, 80-plus minutes. But it both lightens the mood and varies its attack, no longer blaming everyone else for Drake’s own problems, and, for that matter, no longer insisting that his blessings are problems at all. Views had several high-profile guest stars, but felt unaccommodating, forcing even the likes of Future and Rihanna to play defense. (Though Rihanna, at least, fought her way out of it: Suffice it to say she sounded much more believable singing, “I’m way too good to you,” than Drake did.) More Life welcomes everyone from U.K. grime scowlers Skepta and Giggs to Atlanta ambassadors 2 Chainz and Young Thug, and gives the vivid production (mostly from a host of Toronto henchmen old and new) room to breathe. It’s warm, it’s vulnerable, it’s insinuating. It is also, crucially, fun.
It’s hard not to fixate on “Passionfruit” immediately, and not worth resisting the urge. It’s a dancehall anthem with an exquisitely melancholy edge: If the name Fred Falke means anything to you, it’s very Fred Falke, a modest handful of electric-piano chords reassembled into an awe-inspiring cathedral of forlorn ecstasy. Better yet, Drake reflects on an ill-fated long-distance romance with something approaching actual reflection: “Passionate from miles away / Passive with the things you say / Passing up on my old ways / I can’t blame you, no, no.” The I can’t blame you is a huge step for him — one he should’ve taken, like, five years and three major releases ago, but better late than never.
Throughout More Life, he pays at least lip service to the idea that Views took his infamous self-regard (and self-pity) too far. “Get It Together,” a fizzy tropical-house duet with young U.K. soul whisperer Jorja Smith, has a blunt and conciliatory chorus: “You need me to get that shit together / So we can get together.” It’s not you, it’s him. (“You know, we don’t have to be dramatic,” Smith coos, subtly guiding her melodramatic partner toward further self-discovery. “Just romantic.”) The record kicks off with the swaggering “Free Smoke,” full of Drake’s trademark groan-inducing humblebrags: “I drunk-text J.Lo / Old number, so it bounced back.” But he also throws in “I make too much these days to ever say ‘poor me.’” The project ends, nearly an hour and a half later, with “Do Not Disturb,” where you get a whole verse on this topic:
“Do Not Disturb” is far from More Life’s poppiest track, but it’s a crucial moment here, one of several places where Drake restates the morose-kingpin themes of Views in much snappier and more welcoming language. (The “Madiba Riddim” couplet “I cannot tell who is my friend / I need distance between me and them” is another example.) He even calls out an old flame by name again, but he’s no longer weaponizing his pulpit:
See, that’s how you can meaningfully explore the contradictions of going from broke to super-rich, from faking it to making it, from being a nobody to being the Biggest Rapper Alive. Maybe you have no interest in Drake as a human, though, or in his personal growth or lack thereof — there is a firm divide between the superfans enraptured by the sumptuous egomania of Take Care, and the casual fans who love the just-rough-enough timbre of his voice and simply want to do “Hold On, We’re Going Home” at karaoke, or dance to “Hotline Bling” at a wedding. Those people exist, right? We can’t all be as obsessed with Drake as Drake is, can we?
So perhaps you just want a mindless Song of Summer 2017 candidate that will soundtrack every heavily Instagram’d BBQ and beach excursion for nine months hence. Plenty of candidates here, for people who want all action but no backstory. There’s “Blem” if you prefer Sensitive Drake, waxing drunk and romantic to a gorgeous interpolation of Lionel Richie’s “All Night Long.” Or there’s “Gyalchester” if you prefer Tough-Guy Drake, his boasts alternately ridiculous (“I don’t take naps”) and impressively vivid (“She wanna get married tonight, but I can’t take a knee ’cause I’m wearing all white”). If you prefer a little of both, try “Portland,” driven by a goofy flute sample, and buoyed by Quavo and a less-intolerable-than-usual Travis Scott. The vibe, corny but mean-mugging, dainty but rock-hard, is reminiscent of “Lemonade”: the Gucci Mane song, not the other Lemonade.
Tough-Guy Drake has never been convincing and has always been a blast: The steely grime dudes he tapped for More Life bark louder but have notably much less to say. (Giggs takes two separate tracks to come up with one hot line: “Whippin’ that white girl / Cookin’ that Cersei.”) Drake sounds much more at ease — and just slightly less compelling — doing mildly unhinged self-affirmation karaoke with Kanye West on “Glow,” or fading into the PBR&B mist of the PartyNextDoor-assisted “Since Way Back.” It’s filler that makes this “playlist” feel fuller, not just airier.
The playlist thing is just semantics, of course, further evidence that Views’s greatest triumph was how it gamed streaming-service analytics, slipping the radio hit “Fake Love” onto More Life just as he cynically (and shrewdly) tacked “Hotline Bling” onto Views just to drive traffic. From the beginning, this project was phrased as a “project,” not a plain old album or even a mixtape: a “soundtrack for your life,” he insisted, meant to highlight his whole OVO family. It suggested something on the order of Kanye’s Cruel Summer, a curation sorta deal with Drake as your jovial but not omnipresent host. It gave him plausible deniability if this thing sucked, basically.
It further made sense to divert the focus like that, if he was genuinely concerned that his solipsism had gotten out of hand. But while the final product here technically has a few moments of Drakelessness — most prominently, track-length interludes from Skepta and the mournful crooner Sampha — this is more Drake album than not. He ceded as much of the spotlight as he could stand to, and surprise: It wasn’t as much as you thought, as much as he initially thought. But that genuine concern about his solipsism remains, which is why the mission statement here is “Lose You.”
Over more sad piano chords and ever-so-slightly jarring bass hits, Drake laments here that he turned heel, that he’s gone from the underdog to the pious and overexposed bad guy. He’s not entirely convinced that this isn’t everyone else’s fault: “People like you more when you’re working toward something, not when you have it.” But the chorus is far less certain, and far more effective: “Did I lose you? / Did I? / Did I? / “Did I lose you?” He’s not talking to you personally, but feel free to pretend that he’s talking to you personally. Isn’t that the whole point of pop music?
The fact of the matter is that Drake is a lousy heel. Some rappers work better as supervillains, unlikable in a just-barely-likable way. Pusha T is one. Future is another. Kanye West is 15 to 20 of them, the James McAvoy in Split of the rap game, containing multitudes of malevolent weirdos. But Drake only reaches his full potential when you’re rooting for him: Like Tinkerbell (or Lady Gaga), he’ll die if you don’t believe in him. He needs a new hobby, or a new goal: He has conquered everything and everyone he set out to conquer. He’s bored and a little static; per a sweet but stern voicemail at the end of “Can’t Have Everything,” even his mother is concerned about him (“That attitude will just hold you back in this life, and you’re going to continue to feel alienated”). But More Life builds new playgrounds for Drake to prance through, and offers new, more productive avenues of psychotherapy to consider. It’s also the first Drake project in ages that talks to you and at least hints at the prospect that he might let you, or anybody, talk back. If you’re reading this, there’s still a chance.
Plus the songs are often great: biographically dense if you’re invested in his celebrity, and gorgeously mindless if you’re not. He started out as a soap-opera star, after all, and if you’re not as invested in his oversharing melodrama as he is, you’ll never get the full effect. But More Life works as both a rich, self-referential text to pore over and as frivolous, stylish background music to ill-advisedly dab to. He is not quite a hero again, and a return to any kind of underdog status will require a startling, unseemly fall from grace you want no part of. (Neither, obviously, does he.) But it’s enough for now that he’s no longer a sullen supervillain. He’s coming down off the cross, and just in time. We need wood for the fire.