With all due respect to newly minted NBA champion Andrew Wiggins, let’s start with the most famous Canadian to win a basketball game last week. On Tuesday, Aubrey Drake Graham—the Toronto rapper and singer and one of the five biggest pop stars in the world—took home his second consecutive Sanctuary Basketball League championship. What is the SBL, you ask? It’s a 3-on-3 rec league Drake hosts in his expansive Bridle Path mansion. (His team consists of himself, his security chief Chubbs, and his longtime pal OVO Niko. If this sounds like Drake’s own private Westworld, well, what would you do if your name topped this list?) Most importantly for our purposes—for what it says about Drake—is the quote he offered up after the game. “I did what Kobe did in Game 7 against the Celtics,” Drake said, referencing Bryant’s 6-for-24 closeout performance in 2010. “Shot’s not falling, you play fucking defense.”
A shooting slump in his personal basketball league doesn’t qualify as real adversity, but it did mark a rare occasion of Drake admitting publicly he needed to change his approach. For so long, that hasn’t been the case. Contrary to the “Started From the Bottom” mythologizing, Drake’s led a charmed career—the teen soap star anointed by the Best Rapper Alive that’s since smashed every commercial benchmark imaginable. He’s done so by being a chameleon, borrowing styles when it suits him and treating projects like grocery checklists. (One for the heads, a few for the ladies, a half-dozen for the ’Gram.) A Drake album has long needed to be all things to all people. And for a decade-plus, he’s been able to pull it off.
That’s what made the reaction to last September’s Certified Lover Boy curious. The 21-track album hit all the normal beats of a Drake project: the manufactured viral hit, the breezy Afro-Caribbean singalong, the wannabe-mob-boss posturing, the whines of rich-people problems made to sound relatable. (Who among us hasn’t been fearful of their cleaning staff?) For the first time, however, the shtick fell flat. Ignore the sales—CLB is certified double platinum, surely a byproduct of Drake’s too-big-to-fail stature. CLB is easily the worst-reviewed of his career, and only the song “Knife Talk” has outlived the album’s initial hype. Its footprint is virtually nonexistent: not nearly as beloved as Take Care or Nothing Was the Same and not nearly as titanic as Views or Scorpion. Chances are you remember CLB more for the pregnant-women-emoji cover and the eggplant-emoji allyship of “Girls Want Girls” than for any musical moment.
So, faced with a suddenly cold hand, Drake did the only thing that made sense to him: He went to the club. On Friday, just nine months after the release of CLB, Drake unleashed his seventh studio album, Honestly, Nevermind. In a sense, it was a throwback: The 14-track Honestly was a surprise drop, arriving just hours after Drake announced it on Instagram. He’s famously pulled that stunt before, most notably with 2015’s If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late. But where that project found apex Drake staking his claim as rap’s alpha dog, Honestly, Nevermind is an altogether different concern. Rather than answering CLB’s critics with back-to-basics bars and beats, Drake’s returned with a dance record. Not in the sense that it has a few extra 120 bpm tracks. No, Honestly, Nevermind is a full-on house and Afrobeat record, with virtually no rapping and only the 21 Savage–assisted “Jimmy Cooks” crashing the late-night loft party.
Drake has played in this sandbox before, occasionally to great success. (See: “One Dance,” “Passionfruit.”) It’s a stretch to call Honestly experimental, especially when so many of these songs play to his base pop instincts. But by reimagining what a Drake album can be, Honestly may stand as his most daring release yet. At the very least, it’s the most inspired he’s sounded since 2017’s More Life (incidentally, the closest he’d previously come to something like Honestly). Freed of his please-everyone albatross, Drake lasers in on the kind of breezy songs he’d typically use to break up the woe-is-the-wealthy raps of his bloated blockbusters. A track like the pulsating “Overdrive” may have stood on CLB as a diversion or a blatant play for the radio. On Honestly, it’s part of an intricately constructed pastiche. By fully committing for once, Drake’s taken what felt contrived and made it seem organic.
With this approach, Honestly puts Drake’s singing voice upfront to a shocking degree, even by his standards. No one has done more to muddle the distinction between rapping and singing over the past decade. But while he’s produced a few transcendent moments doing so—the synth-pop crawl of “Hold on, We’re Going Home” being the best-case scenario—he’s still no one’s idea of a dynamic crooner. He prefers to play it safe, hiding in the mid-register behind sing-songy purrs or island intonations. And he’s long tempered those shortcomings by surrounding himself with better singers, from Jorja Smith to Rihanna to the Majid Jordan boys. But on Honestly, he goes it alone—there’s nary a guest vocalist until 21 Savage shows up to call us all pussies at the 50-minute mark. (For once, every song does sound like Drake featuring Drake.)
Your mileage will vary depending on your predisposition to Drake as a singer. Honestly doesn’t go to great lengths to hide his flaws, as he routinely pushes the limits of his falsetto (and in turn, the limits of his Auto-Tune). And at points—like on the meandering outro to “Falling Back” and the otherwise gorgeous “Texts Go Green”—he sings slightly behind the beat. (Whether that’s a stylistic choice or the result of a rushed production process is unclear.) But just as often, these songs find Drake hitting the pockets he’s most comfortable in. The sun-soaked “Flight’s Booked” sounds like a true successor to “Passionfruit,” while “A Keeper” is sultry enough to cover for its radioactively toxic chorus. (“I found a new muse / that’s bad news for you.” Aubrey, please.) Even the back half of “Calling My Name”—built around a line no 35-year-old man should ever belt out—is forgivable because of how much fun he’s having. Sure, some of these songs may have been better served in the hands of a more accomplished singer. (Or, as mid-album highlight “Sticky” suggests, some would be better served by his rapping.) But this is Drake at his loosest—and frequently his most charming. After the cold calculus of Scorpion and CLB, it’s a welcome development.
But while much will be made of how pop-oriented this music sounds, a certain sadness creeps in at the edges of Honestly. Not in the way every Drake album projects a heavy-is-the-head melancholy, or how any of the lyrics could reasonably be about Rihanna. Instead, there’s a real-life bleakness to much of Honestly. That begins with the shadow of Virgil Abloh, the fashion pioneer (and noted dance music head) who died in November. In a deliriously rambling poem posted to Apple Music, Drake dedicated the album to Abloh, and on “Sticky,” he samples his late friend’s voice. Elsewhere, Drake shouts out rapper Lil Keed and DJ Kay Slay—both of whom passed this spring—and calls for Young Thug’s release from prison following the YSL indictments last month. These feel like more than hollow signifiers—these moments sound like they’re weighing on him. I’m struck by how wounded he sounds on the swelling “Massive.” (“I was alone in this world / And I needed people,” he sings on its chorus. “I know my funeral gonna be lit ‘cause of how I treated people / I don’t wanna go.”) Later, on “Liability,” he argues with a lover who’s stopped eating and is “drinking [her] weight in champagne.” As he sings “You lie and a piece of me dies,” it plays like a dark lullaby, slowed-and-reverbed to wring maximum ennui from the track. There are moments of joy throughout Honestly, but there’s also a lot of sorrow, and it goes deeper than the typical Sad Boi Aubrey.
If there’s a star of Honestly, it’s the production team, whose lush tapestries provide a steady hand amid Drake’s vibe shifts and uneven performances. Besides 40, who assumes his usual role in the command post, Drake has imported a handful of dance music gurus to replace the of-the-moment trap producers who typically anchor his projects. Chief among them are Gordo (née Carnage) and South African DJ and recent Grammy winner Black Coffee, whose 2010 single “Superman” was sampled for More Life’s “Get It Together.” Combined, the two producers have their hands on half of Honestly’s 14 tracks. The results are often stunning, as Honestly draws on 40-plus years of Black electronic music. The piano-driven “Massive” evokes Frankie Knuckles–style Chicago house, while “Texts Go Green” plays with the amapiano of Black Coffee’s homeland. Elsewhere, the album nods to bed-squeakin’ Jersey club and the emergent African genre gqom. It’s easy to write off Honestly as H&M-core and “oontz oontz” for the Euro set, but it’s built on a rich, still-evolving history.
None of this is to exactly say that Honestly is a reclamation, which is a tricky proposition given the name on the marquee. Drake always has been better known as an appropriator than as an innovator. His legacy boils down to his ability to borrow styles with a high degree of competency. So Far Gone cribbed off 808s & Heartbreak (the ur-text for singing-ass rappers). “Take Care” the song was a straight jack of a better Jamie xx and Gil Scott-Heron track, while Take Care the album was allegedly based largely on Weeknd IP. His world-conquering mid-2010s run owed as much to the Migos triplet flow and “Cha Cha” as it did Quentin Miller. In 2017, grime music became his plaything. The next year, it was New Orleans bounce. By 2020, it was drill. Now it’s house music and its many tentacles, and while the scope of Honestly may help him beat the dilettante charges, Drake’s track record still precedes him. In many ways, the Drake proximity issue remains the same as when Earl Sweatshirt tweeted about him in 2015: “The line between paying homage and wave riding is a blurry one.” (Just ask Jersey club legend DJ Jayhood how he feels about Drake’s decision to tap reformed EDM bro Gordo. Perhaps the true reclamation comes when the remixes start pouring in.)
Beyond the music, there’s one more bold decision Drake has made with Honestly: how it’s classified. He’s calling it his seventh studio album. For an artist who’s carefully chosen what’s considered an “album” versus a “mixtape” (or a “playlist”), that’s an important distinction. He’s planted his flag on a project that could have easily been relegated as a lesser work, especially given the short break since Certified Lover Boy and the relative brevity of Honestly. (It clocks in at a brisk 52 minutes, compared with CLB’s 86 and Scorpion’s 90.) Calling it a mixtape or extended EP or long-lost thumb drive would’ve given him a plausible escape plan if it’s panned. Instead, Drake has to stand by this as a major statement, semantically at least.
There is, however, one escape plan already baked into Honestly, Nevermind: the Playa Fly–sampling “Jimmy Cooks,” which feels beamed in from a different world than the album’s 13 other tracks. It’s a B-plus trap song that occupies the Yeezus “Bound 2” slot—the more straightforward finale to an unexpected pivot. But its inclusion on Honestly feels cynical, not unlike the decision to add “Hotline Bling” to Views to juice the numbers. Drake seems to be hedging against the possibility that people may not be ready for his all-singing house record, and that if it produces one song that can net him a quarter-billion streams, then Honestly will be considered a success. Based on the early returns, he may have been right. As of Sunday, “Jimmy Cooks” was the no. 1 song on daily U.S. Spotify charts, with nearly a million more plays than any other song off Honestly. Say this about the man: He understands that if the shot’s not falling, you have to be prepared to play defense.