“Drake is a pop artist,” Drake writes, resentfully, in the liner notes of his latest album, Scorpion. He’s onto something. Drake is a rapper, and an all-consuming pop persona, but his music—as the industry standard for popular rap music these days—is a team effort. Drake’s rivals credit Drake’s ghostwriters. Drake himself credits his longtime producer, Noah “40” Shebib, the executive producer of all but one of Drake’s solo albums, including Scorpion. The best Drake songs aren’t Drake songs—they’re 40 songs. Even to Drake haters, Drake songs minus Drake might equal the placid, Platonic ideal of all Drake music, which is to say: They’d equal 40.
Typically, Drake’s detractors whine about his mellifluous ratio of singing to rapping; his overall formlessness, whereby he adopts various genres, vernaculars, and accents as his own; and, worse yet, his persona, a “nice guy” turned dark and pretentious cad. But those are only critiques of Drake’s style. As “a pop artist,” Drake’s commercial design is another matter. He leads an assembly line of hooks and viral marketing. Unlike Kanye West, who employs a legion of collaborators to mount a sprawling, massive design, Drake employs a more secretive confab in service of a pop vision so egocentric and singular as to be claustrophobic: “Drake featuring Drake,” so his old joke goes. But that’s true only so far as Drake’s lyrics go. Together, Drake and 40 have shared credit for the musical phenomenon otherwise known, simply, as Drake. For nearly a decade, Drake and 40 have developed a distinct rapport that’s produced an indefinite streak of dominant singles and albums that other rappers, including Kanye West, including Drake’s own labelmates, struggle to keep pace with.
On records, Drake is a manipulative and domineering figure, undoubtedly the star of his own show. And yet Drake eagerly submits to a second musical genius off screen. 40 doesn’t easily fit the lineage of big-time rap producers with outsized personae of their own. He’s a white Canadian who keeps a low profile and inhabits no persona to accompany his stage name. 40’s just some guy—the music wiz who lives entirely behind the boards. On “The Story of Adidon,” Pusha-T mocks 40’s multiple sclerosis diagnosis. The insult was shocking because it was vile, but also because it rang as a revelation about 40 even though his condition has been public knowledge since his and Drake’s breakout year. That’s how incognito 40 is. Still, 40 is—by Drake’s own admission—the second-most-crucial figure in the overall production of Drake, as essential to crafting Drake as Dr. Dre initially was to crafting Snoop Dogg. Without 40, it’s difficult to imagine Drake partnering with any alternative assortment of producers—let alone one—to draft the sound of a generation.
On Scorpion, Drake assembles the widest variety of producers that’s ever crafted one of his major-label projects. If the early Drake albums, Thank Me Later, Take Care, and Nothing Was the Same, were a testament to 40’s cohesive genius, then the post–“peak Drake” records, beginning with If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late, relieve 40 in favor of other, nonexclusive producers, including Boi-1da (“0 to 100”), Nineteen85 (“Hotline Bling,” “One Dance”), Murda Beatz (“Nice for What”), and Metro Boomin (“Jumpman”). (Notably, Boi-1da produced Drake’s breakout single, “Best I Ever Had,” and Drake lists Boi-1da as the executive producer of his acclaimed 2015 mixtape, If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late. The rest is all 40.) From So Far Gone through Nothing Was the Same, 40 helped Drake navigate the perilous transition from sample-heavy production to lax trap patterns that allow Drake room to fluctuate between rap and R&B. Drake works with plenty of popular rap producers, but it’s 40 who uniquely accounts for Drake’s amorphous, ambidextrous approach to songwriting. It’s not what Drake’s saying. It’s how he’s pronouncing himself within 40’s musical context.
Increasingly, 40’s contributions are obscured and overshadowed. On Scorpion, he shares album credits with a spectacular variety of producers, including some uncharacteristic contributions from DJ Paul, No I.D., DJ Premier, and the late Static Major. Additionally, Scorpion entered the world as tabloid fodder. Indeed, Drake’s disastrous feud with Pusha-T has informed so much of the hype for Scorpion, and the subsequent speculation surrounding Drake’s “hidden” family has underscored a crucial truth about the rapper and his appeal: Drake’s albums are soap opera installments. In general, his big singles are too broad and accessible to require fluency in his narrative; but his albums burden listeners with reams of mythology and passive-aggression to decode. Here, Drake’s lore overtakes Drake’s music, which is also 40’s music. On Scorpion, for the first time in his career, Drake is performing on the defensive, at a narrative disadvantage. Lyrically, his awkward rationalizations and rehabilitations frustrate any simple-minded approach to Scorpion. It’s the first solo Drake project in which the crucial dynamic between Drake and 40 sounds scrambled, if not abandoned or destroyed.
It’s easy being a Drake fan in a decade so overwhelmingly defined by every facet of his music and persona. In contrast, it’s quite tough being a Drake hater who appreciates his music despite despising the Drake persona at the center of all the songs. But Drake is a pop star. 40’s modest stature belies his large and lasting impact on Drake’s grand design. Their music is bigger than just Drake’s lyrics, ego, or shenanigans alone.