Drake is calling If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late a “mixtape,” even though he’s selling it for money and even though its stream got yanked from Livemixtapes in a matter of hours. Drake is no dummy. If he’s really thinking of IYRTITL as a mixtape, he knows better than to give it away for free, especially after watching J. Cole sell huge numbers with an unannounced album a couple of months ago. And indeed, even if IYRTITL isn’t the real album that Drake intends to release later this year, it’s still projected to sell an assload of digital copies this week. This for an album produced almost entirely in-house, with barely any guests, and practically no big hooks to speak of. IYRTITL is a deep-immersion for-the-fans affair, and it’ll still rake in cash because Drake’s fanbase is, at this point, a pretty goddam huge swath of the general population.
There’s something else going on here, though. Word around the internet campfire is that IYRTITL is up for sale because that means it’ll be the last album under Drake’s four-album deal with Cash Money. If that’s the case, that means Drake is a free agent, and his hypothetical departure could mean the end of Cash Money Records, the longest-reigning dominant record label in rap history, as a pop-cultural force. (Lil Wayne is suing to get off the label, Tyga apparently hates it there, and I can’t imagine Nicki Minaj sticking around a sinking ship any longer than she has to. And who even knows what’s happening with Young Thug.) It’s possible to hear a song like “Now & Forever” as a simple breakup song, but it’s also possible to hear it as a goodbye to the label that introduced a post-Degrassi Drake to the universe. But if IYRTITL is a contractual-obligation quickie, that doesn’t mean it’s an album to be taken lightly. This is an album from a man incapable of making music that doesn’t sound like a million bucks. Simply by existing, it demands respect.
Perhaps because of Drake’s label and career situation, IYRTITL is a dark and prickly and moody rap album. That’s fine. Aubrey Drake Graham is, more or less, the Mozart of dark and prickly and moody rap music. There’s no celebratory moment on the album. Even when Drake is authoritatively talking shit, there’s an undercurrent of bitterness to it. He’s shitting on you because he’s disappointed with your mediocre existence: “What’s the word these days? Buncha niggas chasing after women they don’t even know / Buncha out-of-season women fucking off-season women, trying to get last season’s wardrobe.” “I’m running through the city with my woes,” Drake chants on “Know Yourself.” He’s not actually talking about his misfortunes. (“Woe” apparently stands for “working on excellence,” which, whatever.) But given the general oppressive feel of the record, he could’ve fooled me. That approach can flirt with self-parody, and sometimes it absolutely gets there. “Still in Miami / Most of these girls are too messy / I need to do some reflecting” is easily the most Drake lyric that Drake has ever written. But he still cuts a compelling figure: This conquering, landscape-altering rap star looking out on the life he’s created and trying to remember why he was supposed to enjoy this.
The persona is compelling mostly because the music is compelling. Over his last two albums, 2011’s Take Care and 2013’s Nothing Was The Same, Drake and his musical consigliere Noah “40” Shebib crafted a glassy, glossy, expensive version of big-money rap, all Scandinavian sparseness and tiny glints of melody. IYRTITL exists very much within the sonic universe that those two albums created. Frequent Drake collaborators like 40, Boi-1da, and PARTYNEXTDOOR are all over the production credits. (PARTYNEXTDOOR even gets an entire song, “Wednesday Night Interlude,” all to himself, reinforcing the idea that the album is a family affair rather than a mass-consumption blockbuster attempt.) Ginuwine (who might, upon reflection, be Drake’s single greatest musical influence) shows up in sampled form a couple of times. And there’s a sense of cold open space and beauty to the entire thing. “Energy” builds a terse anthem out of a mournful piano figure. “No Tellin'” sounds like something that circa-1997 Timbaland might’ve produced if he was dealing with some pretty serious seasonal depression. “6 Man” sounds like January sunlight twinkling off of an extremely well-maintained black marble floor. The mastering alone is just incredible; it sounds the way David Fincher movies look. And if IYRTITL is an emotionally shallow album, it’s an emotionally shallow album that sounds incredible.
I’m not so sure it’s an emotionally shallow album, though. There are moments of lyrical focus here that illuminate just what a fucking strange life this guy must have. He mentions a few times that he doesn’t know how much money a certain deal was worth. He’s got people to handle that, and so money keeps piling up in his various accounts in ghostly and mysterious ways. Simply being Drake is a lucrative enterprise. And that money colors everything around it. “Energy” is an anthemic lament about how much money he’s doled out to the people in his life, and how he’s getting fucking sick of taking care of everyone else. The fact that hordes of women want to fuck him is getting boring and mechanical: “I got bitches asking me about the code for the wi-fi / So they can talk about they timeline / To show me pictures of they friends / Just to tell me they ain’t really friends.” He talks constantly about wanting to find a woman he can trust. (He is convinced he will find this woman, for whatever reason, in the American South.) He constantly shouts out non-famous friends, realizing that they’re the only friends who stay friends for good reasons. He has words for ex-friends attempting to air him out in public, especially his I-guess-for-now Cash Money labelmate Tyga: “It’s so childish calling my name on the world stage / You need to act your age and not your girl’s age.” Tyga is rumored to be dating 17-year-old Kylie Jenner, which makes that line so cold. I would’ve never imagined that Drake could become the sort of rapper who could end someone’s whole shit with one line, but here we are. The only time he drops his defenses is on “You & The 6,” the heartfelt song where he talks to his mom about how she can’t really understand his life and how she should really think about forgiving his dad. Even where most rappers, geniuses included, would make a straight-up thank-you-mom song, Drake has to go and make things complicated.
Even with all this angst flying everywhere, it’s just fun to hear Drake rap. He’s reached a point only a few rappers reach in their careers, where charisma and confidence is so enormous and undeniable that almost every line sounds like a hook. There are certain shards of text here that will bounce around in your head all day: “You know how that shit go,” “They tryna take the waaaaaave from a nigga.” And within the sonic world that he and 40 have created, he sounds so easy and comfortable that he can talk whatever shit he wants for an hour and it’ll be fun to listen. Drake has been throwing up huge hits on his Soundcloud for the past year-plus, treating them like giveaways. He makes hits even when he isn’t especially trying to. There’s no transcendent moment IYRTITL, no eternal new-wave jam on the level of “Hold On, We’re Going Home.” The songwriting, for the most part, doesn’t represent Drake at his tightest, though I could happily listen to the “Energy”/”10 Bands”/”Know Yourself” stretch on repeat all day. The tape is too long. The R&B wallow “Jungle” is boring. The beat on the otherwise-impeccable shit-talk-fest “6PM In New York” is watery and utterly without dynamics. And Drake is still Drake, which will always rub some people the wrong way. It doesn’t matter. Drake hears your objections, and he laughs at them: “They think I’m soft, think I’m innocent / I’m just looking in the mirror like ‘I’m really him.'” He’s right. He’s really him. And even if Drake himself is looking at and presenting IYRTITL as a minor work, it’s still an hour of music from an artist completely in control of his voice. I’m happy to have it in my life.
If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late is out now on Cash Money. Try to make sure you don’t accidentally buy the clean version.