You know, sometimes, an old joke isn’t that funny anymore. It happens. I’m obsessed with this one, though, from a few years ago that used to be really, really funny. The premise was simple: Text your ex-partner some Drake lyrics and enjoy their confused, perhaps confrontational response. Let me tell you, the bit worked. The joke was funnier if you never broke, texting more Drake lyrics in response when your partner inevitably asked “What’s going on?” or “This isn’t funny.” But rest assured you were laughing; that is, until your ex called you, wanting to “Talk about it.”
The underlying explanation of the comedy isn’t hard to understand: Drake rhymed and sung some real emotional shit, like uncomfortably so. Receiving a text of, “There’s issues at hand that we’re not discussing,” or “I’ve asked about you and they told me things,” out of the blue is disconcerting from anyone, let alone an ex. That someone would be that honestly, that embarrassingly forthcoming, was shocking; just imagine how all of Aubrey’s real-life targets felt.
That joke used to circulate online following each new Drake release, but doesn’t now. The bit doesn’t kill like it once did, and the reasons are twofold: a) the audience knows it already and b) Drake doesn’t provide the proper fodder. It isn’t for lack of trying. Texting an emotional lyric from Views or his new playlist More Life—“Your heart is hard to carry after dark,” or, ugh, “I’m way too good for you”—you’re more likely to get a middle finger emoji than a middle of the night phone call.
I’m cherry-picking from Drake’s recent trend toward trite writing, of course. Sometimes he manages to find a genuine expression in his newer records, like “Feel No Ways,” or “Lose You,” or “Redemption.” Overall Aubrey has become that person who tells you they’re an open book; his admissions are defense mechanisms, not genuine confessions. He’s the worst version of a vulnerable person. He informs you what he wants you to know, stopping any further probing questions. Whereas previously “Emotional Drake” was moody, clumsy, and accepted some blame for his romantic shortcoming, he’s turned apathetic and accusatory. He rejects any moment that could be considered embarrassing, not grasping the empathetic impact such moments had.
So how did he get there? When Drake dove headfirst into the trap scene with 2015’s If You’re Reading This, It’s Too Late and his Future collaboration What A Time To Have Long Album Titles, it wasn’t the smoothest transition. Fans lamented him for shunning the traditional wobbly, smoky OVO Sound and critics labeled him opportunistic for capitalizing upon the suddenly popular beats rattling out of Atlanta. Think what you will—including the ghostwriting rumors (hold that thought)—but that move matched genre and form to Drake’s newest expression.
The heartbreak kid had become paranoid and suspicious of anyone outside his circle. Who knows how he was sleeping, but the music sounded insomniac and manic, with stream-of-consciousness tracks like “Madonna” and “6 God” sounding like exorcisms as much as entertainment. It was like instead of late-night scrolling of ex’s Instagram pages and text messages, he subscribed and commented on those YouTube conspiracy videos. “Envelopes coming in the mail, let her open ’em/ Hoping for a check again, ain’t no telling,” he raps viciously flippant on “No Tellin.’” IYRTITL and WATTBA were bloated and unfocused, like every Drake record (he’s decidedly not an album artist), but delivered a new, intoxicating persona with something to say.
Drake conflated this new aggressive character with his old moody self on Views, while introducing Caribbean Cruise Singer Drake (currently the most interesting Drake), leading to the claustrophobic and cloying nature of that record. It wasn’t schizophrenic, a deep dive into an artist’s tortured psyche like Kanye West’s Life of Pablo. More of an overcooked stew, the dish mushy and various components sharing a bland flavor. The majority felt like that anyways.
Perhaps this explains the abundant enthusiasm regarding More Life, where Drake separates and manages his various expressions to cleaner results. He tones down his myopia enough so it’s no longer overwhelming, often settling into the background.
Caribbean Cruise Singer Drake remains most worth your time again, though. You wish he’d make a whole album like this already, as it suits him better than other outfits he’s been trying lately. “Passionfruit” and “Blem” are warmly tranquilizing and you want more of them. Caribbean Cruise Singer Drake works by surrounding him with bopping rhythms and undeniably pleasant vibes, allowing Drake to sneak in his melancholy without throwing it in your face. It’s clever songwriting, indicating that Drake should be happy with his environment, dancing alongside you, but he truly isn’t underneath the surface. Just listen, he seems to be saying, as both instruction and whispered secret.
With More Life, Drake showcases his ability to produce a smarter album—ahem, playlist—than a truly creative one. He opts for addictive production and slick songwriting over his previous strength, emotional expression, which is now his greatest weakness. He sounds kind of angry and kind of sad and kind of wistful and kind of everything, going through the (e)motions. Even his barbs lack any previous intensity, like on the opening “Free Smoke” when he raps, “How you let the kid fighting ghostwriting rumors turn you to a ghost?” Yes, somehow we’re still talking about this.
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But Drake is a tactician if nothing else. He defers the project’s center overseas to Sampha and Skepta, who sub in as emotional tentpoles for Drake’s previous raw honesty and petty paranoia outburst modes. Drake also grants valuable time to the newer class of stars like Quavo and Young Thug, who steals the show not once, but twice. 2 Chainz delivers another monster verse and Kanye teases with halfway-interesting raps once again.
I’m not saying Drake’s pen isn’t bad per se. He’s still capable of witty details like “Yeah my side girl got a 5S with the screen cracked” on the excellent “Portland,” but you won’t get much more. Those once vibrant muses like Erika and Courtney from Hooters on Peachtree have mostly dissolved into faceless and nameless pronouns. (Maybe the lawsuits exhausted him?) Even that once captivating paranoia feels like half-hearted lashing out without a true enemy like Meek Mill at hand, and resorting to the same old subliminals at his true rival, Kendrick Lamar. Drake says it best on “Lose You,” a standout reminiscent of the best Aubrey, when he questions, “When did all the things I mean / From the bottom of my heart start to lose meaning?” He continues meaningfully, admitting “Maybe I share it with too many people,” before eventually falling into another platitude about haters’ jealousy—that is, something he’s said previously in a more captivating manner.
This playlist is robust with ecstatic and mournful moments equally. But most of Drake’s raps or singing lack any urgency. I’ve always thought Drake’s best and most important records are the boozy “Marvin’s Room” and ultra petty “Back to Back.” They’re mortifying, inward and outward respectively, but in the best way. You’re relieved someone finally admitted those kind of feelings. It’s rather telling, then, Drake distancing himself from “Back to Back,” vowing never to perform it again, and collaborator/producer Noah “40” Shebib having to demand Drake include “Marvin’s Room” on Take Care.
Nowadays, Drake is more technically proficient, better at crafting pop hits, but his records lack the emotional weight and depth that once separated Drake. Now he’s resigned himself closer to the pack, though he remains its leader. Mostly Drake seems stuck in his ways and he kind of knows it. Why else portray himself as an old man on his album cover?
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