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‘If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late’ Remains the Best Version of Drake

The rapper’s 2015 mixtape, which turned five this week, was the peak of his creative powers and the last time he had a near-perfect approval rating

Scott Laven / Getty

On February 11, 2015, the Washington Wizards went to Canada with hope and left with a two-point loss to the Toronto Raptors, whom they just couldn’t seem to close the gap on in the East at the time. (They’d sweep Toronto in the playoffs that year.) DeMar DeRozan iced the game, but down the stretch the Raptors went to Lou Williams, who led all scorers off the bench: He walked over screens; he dashed into the paint; he snuck down the baseline; he hit spot-up jumpers. Toronto reversed a 10-point deficit, and like so many other nights in his first Sixth Man of the Year season, it felt as though Williams couldn’t miss, even though he technically only shot 50 percent. Williams was a walking bucket, in other words—wet, from everywhere suddenly, but not overly fussy or in a hurry about it.

If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late was released two days later at the stroke of midnight, and I don’t think it’s especially important whether we classify it as an “album” or a “mixtape,” although it was originally supposed to be hosted by DJ Drama. It’s 17 tracks long, there’s nothing on it resembling a radio single, yet it holds together—and holds up—better than most event albums. Better than most Drake albums. The rap commentariat dubbed Take Care a classic, and it is, but Drake is often a total bummer on it, equal parts romantic entitlement and trashing-my-own-house-party dejection. Music critic Steven Hyden described the listening experience of 2013’s desolate, deliberately paced Nothing Was the Same as “a little soft rock, even by [Drake’s] well-established softness standards.” 2016’s Views was even more maudlin, way longer, and required you to believe that Drake was a compelling protagonist of his own mafioso story, which all led to the most tepid reception of any Drake album since his 2010 debut, Thank Me Later. Worse yet, Views was limp and uninspired, where If You’re Reading This still, today, is like a shot in the arm.

By the end of 2014 Drake had picked up a head of steam with several SoundCloud one-offs that energized the spacious angst of NWTS, creating songs you could actually queue up at parties, like “0 to 100 / The Catch Up.” He’d also entered a new tier of success—the popular line on If You’re Reading This was that it fulfilled Drake’s contractual obligations with Cash Money, clearing his path to mega-superstardom. But only artists who are mega-superstars already can stop the Earth spinning on its axis with little to no advance warning. Despite If You’re Reading This not performing as well as his other albums, commercially, it has outsize cultural impact.

When If You’re Reading This dropped, I was actually working the (blog) night shift. I was sitting alone at my Dell XPS lava brick in a half-lit office park in Los Angeles, finding newer and more inventive ways to describe the same five kinds of basketball highlights. I remember seeing a deluge of reaction shots and CAPS LOCK EXCLAMATIONS stream down TweetDeck (I was a serious blogger), then searching for a Zippyshare link, then skipping directly to “Know Yourself,” which seemed to be getting the most impressions (I was a very serious blogger). History will look back on “Know Yourself” as an unlikely model of community—it’s notably un-hit-like, and takes basically forever to do what it does, yet the song explodes something within a group of people. I measure “Know Yourself” in dropped points on Uber ratings, spilled drinks, and hoarse voices, but also in mentions and retweets. In a way, If You’re Reading This was the last time we all convened online and agreed that the New Drake was not only welcome, but banging, and probably what we’d be listening to for the foreseeable, and not just the immediate, future.

The highs on If You’re Reading This are as high as anywhere else in Drake’s discography. I immediately gave it the car test, but never left the parking garage, as a precaution against any involuntary physical reactions. Like whooping and bleating the horn like an idiot when I first heard the opening of “6 Man”:

Boomin’ out in South Gwinnett like Lou Will,
Six Man like Lou Will,
Two girls and they get along like I’m (Louuuuuuuuu)
Like I’m Lou Will, I just got the new deal

The album begins—actually, for real—with Drake intoning his own benediction over detached, sexy PartyNextDoor production, which features a Ginuwine sample and isn’t even schmaltzy! Drake was also varied in his approach: Though the dark, paranoid sounds provided by Vinylz, Noah “40” Shebib, and Boi-1da dominated the project, he got shots up from all over, and pretty much everything went in. Drake was a walking bucket, in other words: “Preach” is as good as any other record he’s made specifically for the shisha lounge; “Energy” is a buzzsaw fashioned out of Instagram captions; “10 Bands” is a Nike advert, but a rompingly good one; Drake sounds about as cool as it’s possible for him to sound on the languid “Star67,” which begins with an audio clipping from some of my favorite found Lil Wayne footage. In it, his mentor is talking about how a true rapper shouldn’t be addled by writer’s block, or circumstance, or cowed by their own inhibition—“Fuck is you doing? You gotta walk into the studio with CLIPS. AMMO.”

In a recent episode of Drink Champs, Wayne deconstructed the arbitrary debate over whether his mixtapes or albums were more representative of his talents by explaining how he went about tackling both. Birdman would choose who went first on Hot Boys records based on whose verse he thought was strongest, so Wayne described those early recording sessions as “school”—he had to be competitive, he had to come correct, he had to tick all his boxes. He describes mixtapes as a safe space for him to be into the stuff that he liked, and to try whatever came to mind—his albums needed to appeal to label execs and an impossibly broad consumer base, on mixtapes he could be one egg short of the omelet.

Comparably, on his first mixtape since 2009’s So Far Gone, Drake got to feel like the one again. There were no naked plays for chart dominance, and we didn’t have to trudge through his superego for 30 songs to get to the good stuff. If You’re Reading This is a portrait of a rapper at their creative peak, yes, but more importantly, it’s a joyride. A celebration for celebration’s sake, because he had money and social capital like that. Man, that Drake from five years ago was fun.