Canadian hip-hop superstar Drake has always been a mould breaking rapper. Seemingly effortlessly able to traverse between classic hip-hop braggadocio and sensitive maudlin RnB with ease, Drake has reached the pinnacle of the rap game across his well-received albums and mixtapes peaking with 2013’s Nothing Was The Same.
As his career has developed though, the lines between tough street aggression and vulnerable melancholia have became increasingly blurred. The surprise release of If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late is certainly the most beguiling Drake collection yet. Whether it’s a full-blown album or a curiosity mixtape as Drake himself suggests, the work sees the rapper descending into a dark cavern of sedated beats and bruising introspection.
Perhaps the thing that really sets aside …Too Late is its sheer oddness. Its 17 tracks are shrouded in a dark, intense and claustrophobic ambience. The beats are minimal and stark; the focus is very much on Drake’s voice. It’s an effect that allows the rapper to display all of his versatile lyrical and vocal dexterity. His voice switches between assured, smooth flow to fevered rush before plumbing depths of a somnambulant despair upon its darkest moments.
The overall feeling is of a Drake record weirded out to its absolute extreme. The typical tropes of his work are present. Long-time collaborator Noah ‘40’ Shebib provides beats on half the tracks, however, there’s a constant feeling of displacement and uncertainty. There is certainly nothing here remotely approaching the radio hit of Hold On, We’re Going Home. Instead, what you have is subtle hints of pop melodies. For example, the dreamy, filmic dancehall of Energy is wonderful in its understated simply effective manner while Preach’s down tempo RnB is lifted by some nice crooning from fellow Canadian singer PartyNextDoor, who is also signed to Drake’s OVO Sound label. Indeed, PartyNextDoor provides another mid album highlight on Wednesday Night Interlude. Either side of these songs though you’re drawn ever deeper into Drake’s lonely world.
From the title’s allusions to death and suicide, it’s clear that this is a darker more emotionally direct Drake record. At times, he seems triumphant and keenly self-aware. On opening track Legend, he proclaims his own greatness, foreshadowing his death by claiming: “If I die I’m a legend.” On the very next track, though he is deflated and withdrawn. “I got a lot of enemies,” he proclaims with a fevered pitch to his voice before concluding these enemies, “drain me of my energy.” Ominous gun shot samples pepper the track, giving it an even darker hue.
Elsewhere, Drake seems to be committed to further building his own persona and legacy, establishing his connection with his dear home city of Toronto, obliquely mentioned throughout his rhymes and lyrics as the six, for example on Star 67 and 6 Man. Often though, there is not much love in these tracks as they are shrouded in a spooked ambience. It makes for a rather uncomfortable listen.
The second half of the album is characterised by a number of, perhaps intentional, deathly slow tracks. Now And Forever could be construed as an extension of the title’s death metaphor. It sees Drake wearingly crying “No more, no more, no more,” while promising, “I’m leaving, I swear to god that I’m gone.” The funereal death march trudge of the backing makes it one of the most disturbing songs in Drake’s canon by far.
Less unsettling but perhaps even more emotionally cutting is You And The 6, which sees Drake openly addressing his mother, trying to make sense of his place as a global superstar while fighting his inherent demons and loneliness. It’s a masterclass of frustration, rage and storytelling, culminating in a promise that success and his media persona will not break him or the bonds that define him: “You and the six raised me right, that shit saved my life.”
The most intriguing thing about If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late is arguably the release model. Thrown out there randomly with no warning, touted as a mixtape but available for full album price on iTunes, it’s indicative of the album’s odd nature. Things are not quite as they seem. For long time Drake followers, this is the sort of album that will be lapped up, a collection that delves deep into the inner psyche of this most intriguing of modern artists. For the causal consumer it’s just another big name star to ‘do a Beyoncé’ because there are no radio hits to promote. What is certain though is that this unsettling curiosity raises more questions than it gives answers.