Monday, February 16, 2015

album review: 'if you're reading this it's too late' by drake

I didn't expect this to happen - but the more I think about it, the more I should have.

See, after Drake released Nothing Was The Same in 2013, you could tell that he was looking for more of the acceptance of other hip-hop artists and lyricists - even though he was an A-list rapper, one of the few that could notch bonafide hits in today's day and age, a lot of his music was dismissed as just being for girls or the mass public, especially considering the fact many of his albums also had a R&B side to them. Now that wasn't true, as he was lauded by plenty of critics and hip-hop fans as bringing a unique sound and style to the table, a darker, bleaker vibe that often implied more depth than it really had, but for me, I've never been blown away by Drake. Does he have good bars on occasion? Yeah, but very few lines I'd consider amazing and his technical limitations as a writer with sloppy rhyming often prove to be exceptionally irritating for me. Honestly, I've tended to like his R&B side a lot more - it's expressive and moody, and it allows him to eschew some of his weaknesses as a technical rapper.

But that didn't seem to be the direction Drake wanted to go, and his biggest hits in 2014 were dark, minimalist straight hip-hop tracks like 'Believe Me' and '0 To 100/The Catch-Up', which did see him improve as a lyricist, but his content just was not engaging me whatsoever. For as much as Drake was trying to be hard, I just couldn't buy it - he didn't have the menacing presence or the intimidating voice of a gangsta rapper, and many of his bars felt like half measures, never putting his neck on the line or dropping a name at the artists he was trying to challenge. Hell, that was often my issue with his more emotive raps as well - it was always subtext and implied, not actual text, and you can only coast for so long before actually putting your money where your mouth is.

Well maybe this was the chance for him to actually do it, as out of nowhere Drake dropped a full album on iTunes - not really a mixtape, it was available for cash which meant he got his samples cleared - and as a marketing decision, it was a masterstroke. Forget Kanye rolling out his fashion line, forget that upcoming album from Big Sean called Dark Sky Paradise, forget that collaboration album between Chris Brown and Tyga, Drake quite literally stole the hype from under their noses. And coupled with Lil Wayne's threats to take Nicki Minaj and Drake with him on the exit from Cash Money, you have to wonder if this was Drake's step to fulfilling his contract by repackaging what might be considered a hip-hop mixtape as a full record, with few features and a much tighter focus on hip-hop. Could this be the hard-hitting record from Drake that earns him the respect he clearly desires?

Honestly, I doubt it. In fact, I've listened to this record nearly a dozen times since it dropped, and it's still a little murky what Drake was trying to do with this mixtape/album. On the one hand, it has the flow and feel of a tape - in terms of themes or progression, while it might flow well instrumentally it feels inconsistent lyrically. And if this was something he cobbled together in order to break away from Cash Money, I'd buy that - but overall, how is this record? Well... it's good. It's decent enough. I'm not blown away in the slightest, and it's not close to the new Doomtree, Lupe Fiasco, or Joey Bada$$ records, but I don't hate this album. If anything, the emotion I get is frustration, because this record gave me snippets of what Drake could do as a more conscious, insightful MC... and then he spends most of this record bragging. Lovely.

But before we get to that, let's talk about the one thing I've always liked about Drake records: the production. Boi-1da, Noah Shebib, and even PARTYNEXTDOOR brought some really solid beats to this project that took the spacious atmosphere of Nothing Was The Same and darkened it significantly, with a lot of the tracks having rigid, cracking percussion balanced against moody yet melodic synth and piano lines that never feels chintzy or unnecessary creepy like from a lot of DJ Mustard cuts. And a lot of the samples are on point too, particularly that reoccurring Ginuwine sample from 'So Anxious'. The simmering piano line on 'Energy', the scratchy eerie vibe of 'Madonna', the trap-inspired pummeling bass of '6 God', that sample switch-up on the back half of 'Preach' that almost reminded me of a deep house track, the brittle waves of echoing synth, hi-hats, and what sounds like two metal pipes banging across each other on 'Now & Forever', the more understated elegance of 'You & The 6' and 'Jungle', and especially that gothic swell of the beat change-up courtesy of Travis Scott on 'Company'. I have my usual gripes with Drake's production too - the pitch-shifted vocals aren't always my thing, the dour atmosphere can be really draining, especially for seventeen tracks, and there are a few synth choices that don't always work for me, but there's one element about this album I just found laughable and that was the inclusion of gunshot sound effects. I'm sorry, but they don't fit on this record whatsoever, at least for me.

Now some of you are thinking, 'Wait, you listen to a ton of gangsta rap, why are you saying Drake shouldn't use it? It fits the dark atmosphere' - and you know, you'd be right about that, but now we have to talk about the big problem with Drake pursuing more braggadocious material. As I said, Drake often straddles the line between R&B and pure hip-hop, and his voice in that vein is often a little softer. He gets harsher and more nasal when he raps, but he's not a gritty gangsta rapper - and to be fair, he's never played himself as one. But when he's trying to come off as hard, it's just not very believable coming from him. When other rappers tell stories about selling drugs or gang wars, Drake raps about scamming people over the phone. And the other problem is that if he's trying to play a hard-edged wordsmith... well, he's not a great technical rapper. He frequently rhymes words with himself, that elongated syllable thing he does gets grating in a hurry, and when he attempts to jack other flows like on 'Know Yourself', it doesn't sound very good over that beat. The frustrating thing is that near the back half of this album, he drops songs like '6 PM In New York' and 'You & The 6' and they show a lot more lyrical construction and thought than some of his more ignorant material, which begs the question why he's doing it in the first place.

And more than ever, Drake's pushing the braggadocious side of him forward on this album - calling out haters, showing off obscene wealth, being a rapper who basically runs the radio, and responding to critics with a defensiveness I haven't seen since Taylor Swift's 'Shake It Off' that proves that Drake's a lot more bothered by his haters than he lets on. But going beyond that, I have a really hard time buying into Drake's more arrogant and ignorant content for two reasons. The first is one I've said before: if your production is going to be this dark and dreary and ominous, it's trying to prop up an intimidating sound that feels constantly undercut. And this is tied to the second problem, in that on the majority of these songs, Drake does not seem to be having any fun, and if he's not enjoying his massive wealth and success, how can I enjoy it? Even the drunken hookup track 'Madonna' doesn't come across as sexy and just kind of creepy, the sort of song that will give a lot of ex-boyfriends bad ideas. But it almost seems like Drake is aware of the fact that the braggadocious side of him is shallow and lacks meaning - there are snippets of lines where he seems to indicate self-awareness here, but most of it is subtext, not outright text, and it constantly undercuts some of the more straightforward ignorant party tracks. 

Now I'll be honest - when Drake does start to get more introspective with more of an R&B flavour like on 'Jungle' and the label exodus track 'Now & Forever', the songs get a fair bit better. My favourite song on the album is the letter to his mother 'You & The 6', where his frustration starts really leaking through and he says he can't be vulnerable in this industry - uh, Drake, if you happen to be watching this, I got a question: why not? You probably don't listen to Sadistik or Atmosphere or Sage Francis or Open Mike Eagle, but I know you listen to J.Cole - like him, you're one of the rappers who could bring more introspective vulnerability to your music and your fanbase would embrace it. For as much as you brag about 'changing the sound', you might have done it instrumentally, but you're trying to ride a shallow wave lyrically that I'd even argue you don't like. Hell, on the final track '6PM in New York' you started to get political with some social commentary but immediately backed away, saying 'they scared of the truth so back to me showin' out in public'. Drake, I'm starting to think you're more scared of the truth - you're certainly scared of some of your competition, because otherwise you'd actually name the people you're dissing and put your money where your mouth is. And I don't care about your thirty million dollar mortgages - how's the interest payments and property taxes on those, eh? And if you're going to complain about girls blowing money on bottle service and you can't find someone down to earth, it gets contradictory when you blow money on strippers and behave like a lecherous creep who makes midnight calls or brings a knife when he hooks up with girls!

Ugh, this record frustrates me, because I want to like it a lot more than I do. The production is solid, and when Drake does try, he can drop some great, well-structured bars. The problem is that the majority of his bragging is not interesting - it's not colourful or funny or all that energetic, and that means when he tells his audience to keep track of his success, I'm not given any reason to care. As I said, the album is decent, and for me it does get a 6/10 and a light recommendation, if you're a fan of Drake's more hip-hop side. And if nothing else If You're Reading This It's Too Late does convince me Drake could make a powerful, genuinely intelligent rap album - he just chooses not to. And that's the real disappointment.

No comments:

Post a Comment