Most of the way through If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late‘s “No Tellin'”, Drake implores “Please do not speak to me like I’m that Drake from four years ago, I’m at a higher place“. It’s a tossed-off line from deep in a five minute song, but it made me think: four years? Is that how long Drake’s been around? Shit, it is. And not just as the guy hoping to catch Lil Wayne’s runoff; Take Care came out for years ago this upcoming November. Then I realized that since Take Care, he hasn’t really gone away, and thought of something else:
When’s the last time Drake botched something?
Okay, sure, he’s got a solid album track record, but that’s easy. Let’s just look at the guy’s 2014: pulling the rare hosting/musical guest double duty on SNL, hosting the muscled up snooze-fest that is the ESPYs, and forgoing an album in lieu of SoundCloud singles and features with buzz artists. And none of these were fuck ups. Drake, the most joked on entertainer working, is in some kind of extended can’t-lose zone. Even the infamous airball counts as a W, if only because Drake literally missing his big shot is the Drakeiest outcome possible, and we love him for that shit.
All of this is to say that a surprise album/mixtape is putting a lot of public goodwill and credibility on the line. Surprise album drops imply that this shit’s so good, you need to grab it now, without any hype or warning (it’s a strategy that worked on me. That and, as a sensitive mixed kid, I basically owe Drake tithe to begin with). I realize this is a weird thing to say, but if If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late sucked after paying for it, and you got “0 to 100/The Catch Up” for free, people would have been pissed. And then, given the nature of If You’re Reading This, it’s guerrilla release is baffling at first, then makes total sense.
If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late is Drake’s fullest rap album. There’s no “Marvin’s Room” or “Hold On We’re Going Home”, and barely even something as radio palatable as “Miss Me”; the bulk of the album exists in the same loose flow, almost stream of conscious style Drake embraced on “0 to 100/The Catch Up,” free of sturdy melodies and powerful hooks. When he sings more than raps, like on “Now & Forever”, “Legend”, “Madonna” or “Jungle”, it’s melodically sparse and more a soundscape than anything else; outside of arguably “Now & Forever”, there’s nothing like a ballad here. And the fact that Drake mostly keeps to rapping is, for the first time, a really good thing. Drake’s always been a competent, not compelling, rapper, and you can hear him sweating through extended verses. He’s never going to have an absolutely bonkers song where he just goes for off seven minutes like Lupe Fiasco does on his new album (oh, by the way, there’s a new Lupe Fiasco album); he’s not that kind of rapper. And he’s finally stopped pretending to be. He’s perfected the delivery on his loose, cadence-heavy, stop-start flow, and sounds like he could do this shit all day.
No where is that more apparent than the album’s early hot streak between “Energy” and “No Tellin'”. “Energy” and “10 Bands” are more compact, relying on crisp snares and twinkling synth loops under Drake venting his frustrations at dealing with bullshit friends in the former, and boasting about his cash and hard work in the latter. “Energy” has already gotten buzz, and it makes sense; it’s If You’re Reading This boiled to its core. Despite that, I find myself more drawn to “Know Yourself” and “No Tellin'”. “Know Yourself” is one of the stronger headphone tracks here (see: Boi-1da’s drop), and “Running through the 6 with my woes“ is an early contender for the record’s meme lyric–try it out. “No Tellin'” is five minutes of Drake mugging, and it kinda works. Part of that’s the compressed effect on his vocal, part of it’s the varied flows he uses, and part of it’s the fact that he’s actually got a few clever riffs (“Beside Ricky Ross, Aubrey’s the biggest boss here, huh“).
After the mostly sung mood-piece “Madonna” (the sixth song on the record, but the first 40 produces), If You’re Reading This meanders a bit. “6 God” and “Star67” aren’t bad cuts, but feel redundant after seeing Drake achieve similar results earlier on. He’s perfected how to tell The Story of Drake, but it’s occasionally one he’s told before. PARTYNEXTDOOR shows up for two decent tracks, but “Preach” can’t help but feel inconsequential. In fact, length is the biggest woe on If You’re Reading This; there’s just no way to justify this thing’s 17 track/69 minute run time. It wouldn’t even require hard edits to pare this down a notch: ditch “Preach”, “6 God”, Lil Wayne collab “Used To”, “Company”, and maybe “6 Man” or “Jungle” if you’re feeling thrifty, and you’ve still got a solid album. Even after a midway stumble, “Now & Forever”, “You & The 6”, and “6PM in New York” (I’m also partial to the Frank Ocean lite “Jungle”) help If You’re Reading This stick the landing.
After an hour plus of frigid aloofness and isolation, the triumphant “6PM in New York” rings in what might be Drake’s most technical accomplishment. It’s still overlong and wobbles in spots, but as a loosely experimental and daring release, it hits way more than it misses. Drake tops himself not just in his performance, but in the material; his writing’s sharper than it’s ever been, and on the oversharing conversation-with-Mom personal “You & the 6” and “6PM in new York”, he’s actually compelling as a rapper. And this is technically a mixtape before the proper album. There are plenty of keepers here, I can’t wait to see what comes next, four stars out of five.
tl;dr: Drake aces the surprise release, and flips off his label while he’s at it, 4/5