Monday, March 20, 2017

"playlist"/album review: 'more life' by drake

I've not been looking forward to this project, if you can't tell.

And I've had a bad feeling about this for months now. Forget the lead-off singles, all of which have been mediocre at best and awful at worst. Forget the fact that Drake's been seeing increasingly limited critical returns on his projects, even despite somehow being more popular than ever - somehow, he seems to be getting worse. Forget that just like Views, this project is eighty-one minutes - that's right folks, over an hour of Drake, and given that I was extremely skeptical that he'd be telling any stories or crafting any sort of narrative, that was a problem.

No, what gave me the real sinking feeling was the branding of this: not as an album, not as a mixtape, but as a playlist. And of course music "journalists" got their knees to take the hot load and gush about how Drake was 'revolutionizing music distribution'... that of course he was still selling for 10.99 on iTunes. Now I'm not going to deny there is a certain craft in putting together a good playlist in reading the flow of the audience and the room and controlling transitions and so forth. But if this album is all new songs, with the only real distinctive factor being Drake rolling it out on streaming platforms before physical copies are available, it screams of being a really cheap way to avoid calling it, you know, an album - if anything, it makes him look like he's running from critics who have been steadily charting his decline. Just because Drake tried to change the nomenclature and prioritized one form of distribution doesn't mean this is anything new - if anything, it perpetuates the utterly asinine trend that 'playlist makers' will be the new drivers of taste, when in reality it's the same format that mainstream radio DJs used to do before they were forced by delusional executives to play the same list of tracks every time. 

But for some ungodly reason you people wanted this. You wanted to hear me talk about Drake, even though this'll likely wind up overloading another episode of Billboard BREAKDOWN and I'll be forced to talk about this all over again. So what did Drake deliver on his newest album?

Honestly... while I will say this was not quite as bad as I was expecting - he cut a few tracks that I expected to land on it, although for some ungodly reason the obnoxiously terrible 'Fake Love' is still here - but the truth is that 'Fake Love' is probably the worst song on this project. The rest... look, it's a far cry from Drake at his best, and contains far too many of the tendencies that can frustrate me about him - it's overlong, dreary, and overloaded with the sort of hypocrisy that reflects a lack of ideas and consistent themes - but at least it avoids some of the most obvious missteps in Views?

Well, it depends on what you expect on this project, and if the answer was more of what you've heard from Drake for years... well, you get both more and less of that. This project is twenty-two tracks at over eighty minutes, and throughout those eighty-plus minutes, you can't say that Drake isn't changing up his style and sound, which would be fine if it didn't feel like the tone and mood could shift wildly from track to track. One minute you get very desaturated and moody R&B cuts - although in comparison with most Boi-1da productions they're nowhere near as groove-driven or atmospheric - placed up against more upbeat dancehall cuts that show a little more brightness and bounce, or at the very least more interesting percussion progressions and some actual groove. And that's not counting the cuts that are outright grime-inspired, with glassy synths, sharper beats, and more aggressive tempos. More than Views it feels like a grabbag of styles and tones - and it's just a shame that so many of them are so dreary and lacking any sort of distinctive tune or melodic hook that isn't blatantly recycled. Take 'Teenage Fever', midway into the second half of this record that drags hard - we get this wonky atonal warble that Drake actually sings against, only for him to copy-paste a pitched-down chorus from 'If You Had My Love' by Jennifer Lopez as the hook - I don't care if they're currently dating, that feels incredibly lazy! Granted, laziness might as well be the rule with this project - most songs run a good eight bars or more bars longer than they should, and even when you have a good sandy groove playing off a slightly more interesting melody like on 'Passionfruit', Drake felt the nerve to handicap the momentum to restart the song forty or so seconds in for DJ banter - in other words, no good reason! That's not saying there aren't decent tunes here - the rubbery electronic bounce against the pianos opposite Jorja Smith on 'Get It Together' was very likable, as was the liquid rollick of 'Madiba Riddim', the hazy key fragments of 'Lose You', or even the garish horns and farty trap beat of 'Ice Melts', which at least sounds decent with Young Thug squawking over the hook. Hell, even though you can tell Drake is pulling wholesale from grime, at least 'No Long Talk', 'KMT', 'Gyalchester', and 'Skepta Interlude' have some bite even if they don't have much tempo.

But speaking of 'Skepta Interlude', this is where we see one of the first compromises Drake makes to the 'playlist' format - namely, put songs on this album where he doesn't contribute at all! I'll get into how painfully underwritten a lot of this project feels in a second, but there are songs like 'Skepta Interlude', '4422' which only has vocals from Sampha, and 'Get It Together' where Drake is a perfunctory presence at best - and it's really not a good sign that I considered both '4422' and 'Skepta Interlude' moments of respite. I'd say this project gets better the less Drake there is - because his performance is all over the place here, contrasting some more passionate R&B vocals with flows that are more choppy and slapdash than ever - but that would rely on the guest performances being good, and that's also a mixed bag. Sure, on the one hand you have Jorja Smith, Sampha and Skepta, but then you have Quavo and 2 Chainz not being particularly interesting or funny on 'Portland' or 'Sacrifices', or PARTYNEXTDOOR continuing to waste everyone's time on 'Since Way Back'. And then you have cases that are just inconsistent - Young Thug sounds fine on 'Ice Melts', but even as more of his bars connect on 'Sacrifices' doesn't mean a more restrained delivery is a good look for him. And yeah, Giggs' delivery is pretty intimidating on 'No Long Talk', but some of his bars on 'KMT' are among the corniest on this record, where he references a girl 'looking all turkey', and follows it with an Adam West Batman reference... which doesn't really help you sound intimidating! And then there's Kanye, who might sound focused and his vocals are getting a bit better, but between his stuttered flow on the first verse and his lack of any chemistry with Drake on the second makes 'Glow' a real chore to get through. 

And all of this circles back to Drake himself and what he's trying to say with this project... and if I'm being honest, while there are less utterly stupid bars and situations referenced - which Drake even acknowledges, saying he was in a bad place when he made Views - the truth is that he's not really saying much that's all that distinct at all! What I found very telling is how on 'Can't Have Everything' he references how he never completely ends his beefs - which on the one hand allows him to continue kicking at Meek Mill and Tory Lanez and even some veiled shots at Jay Z on 'Portland', but in the mean time feeds into an undercurrent of paranoia that was pronounced on Views and all the more apparent here. And while he reaches into other sounds and flows for inspiration - and speaking of 'Portland', it's more than a little rich that Drake smacks MCs for stealing flows when this project is full of grime cadences and even a flow on 'KMT' that sounds disturbingly like 'Look At Me' from XXXTENTACION of all people - his content is continuing to swallow its own tail. And worse still is that Drake seems to have zero self-awareness about it - 'Lose You' has him wondering why he doesn't get the commendations for definitive success and his place in hip-hop over an admittedly decent flow, but that's partially driven off of choices he himself made to not say names to squash beefs, or how much he blatantly takes from other acts, or how willing he is to step outside of hip-hop culture to avoid being a target, he's doing it to himself! It feels slippery and borderline disingenuous, and thus I'm not all too sympathetic when Drake is upset that girls are drifting away from him or that fake people are trying to leech off of him, or when he tries to throw another round of concern trolling at Serena Williams of all people for getting engaged and not telling him on 'Nothings Into Somethings' - hate to say it, but it's not like Drake is showing the self-awareness that this behavior perpetuates this! And I can't help but think this is a serious regression, especially considering how barren of stronger punchlines and ideas these songs can feel, because at least on earlier projects he recognized how bad he could look, whereas now on songs like 'Can't Have Everything' he's calling his haters arrogant and includes an extended sample from his mother saying how 'when they go low, we go high', something which for all of the girls he's screwed with, Drake has never been the one to take the high road when he can avoid it.

And do you want to know the worst thing? I don't see this changing - at the end of 'Do Not Disturb' it seems like his way to relieve tension is to hermetically seal himself back in the OVO bubble for another year and tighten that circle even further. And in the end, we're left with a scattered mess of a project that never coalesces into anything with solid themes or ideas. Outside of the hollow atonal mess with the chewy beat that is 'Fake Love', I don't quite think this record gets as obnoxious as Views, but that doesn't make it good either. For me, it's a 5/10 and maybe a recommendation for hardcore Drake fans, but all the production styles Drake is trying sound better from different artists, and it's not like he's saying anything all that compelling or interesting. Coupled with no adequate excuse to run as long as it is... yeah, not a playlist I'd put on repeat.

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