It’s been five years since Drake discovered the wonders and mysteries of his own ass. On 2011’s Take Care, his second album, Drake managed to turn himself into a compelling and fully-formed character: an ascendant rap god, excited but freaked out by his own sudden success, trying to figure out why all these people were around him now and whether he wanted that. It’s a spectacularly messy album, best exemplified by the gorgeous six-minute possessive drunk-dial ramble “Marvin’s Room.” And it’s the album where Drake also figured out his own aesthetic: a sleekly spacey and regionless computer-soul. This sound, largely devised by Drake’s right hand-man Noah “40” Shebib, was a new type of rap instrumental — one that evoked not clattering subway trains or jacked-up subwoofers but expensively appointed kitchens.
Since Take Care, Drake has proven himself to be a master of that sound, but he’s also been able to step outside it. He had a great 2015, largely because he’d taught himself to have fun and to sound tough. Drake turned SoundCloud loosies into genuine anthems, and he talked the kind of shit you can only talk if you’re the biggest and most important rap star in the world. I’ve never seen a single person control a vast crowd the way Drake did when he headlined Coachella. But to hear Drake talk about it, he was just spinning his wheels, having fun before really getting to work. He called If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late a mixtape even though it was the biggest-selling rap album of 2015, and one of the best. The whole time, he was supposedly working on Views From The 6, his magnum opus. And now that the newly-renamed Views is out there, it seems he merely disappeared back up his own ass when it was time to get serious.
It’s still early, but Views is pretty clearly Drake’s attempt to return to that Take Care well of inspiration. There are very few bangers here. In a 73-minute album, Drake spends most of the time morose and adrift, mourning past relationships and blaming everyone but himself. (A typical smart-dumb lyric: “Girl, I had your back when all you used to do was front.”) The music has gotten hazier and more ornamental, and Drake probably spends more time singing and less time rapping than on any of his previous records. The album exists in a gleaming blue sadness-cloud, one that only breaks for rare moments of genuine joy like “One Dance” or “Controlla.” Even Take Care had a few big slappers, and Drake has mostly lost interest in those now. Maybe he’s figured out that his biggest hits have been moody synthpop singalongs like “Hold On, We’re Going Home” and “Hotline Bling,” the latter of which is both a bonus track and a blueprint here. Or maybe Drake just figures that he doesn’t have much worth celebrating.
And honestly, that could’ve worked. Drake has taken the ridiculous premise of “lonely rap god who just wants love” and made it into absolute musical gold in the past. But on Take Care, he had a sense of discovery, like he was just figuring out his own personal musical language and exploring where it could go. On Views, he’s folded completely in on himself. He’s still playing silly word games — “On some DMX shit, I group DM my exes” — but there’s no joy in them; he goes about them with the same urgency that you might use to solve a crossword puzzle while you were on the toilet.
He’s still letting us in on the weird details of his life, and there are still some vivid little narrative sketches on there. But they mostly make him sound like the same sad, controlling, indecisive doof he was on “Marvin’s Room”: “You go to CVS for Kotex in my Bugatti / I took the key and tried to hide it so you can’t drive it and put on mileage / Then you find it, awkward silence.” But I don’t get the feeling he’s taking any responsibility anymore. He mostly feels like a wronged party: “This year for Christmas, I just want apologies,” or “Why do I settle for women that make me pick up the pieces / Why do I want an independent woman to feel like she needs me?” It doesn’t sound like he’s having a whole lot of fun anymore, and he’s lost all sense of when he’s the one doing dumb shit. The emotional inertia he describes in his lyrics shows through in his music.
When Drake does stunt hard on Views, he’s mostly not doing it in his lyrics. Instead, it’s pure metatext. On the pre-album single “Pop Style,” both Kanye West and (for a moment) Jay Z showed up, and Kanye absolutely murdered Drake on his own song. So what does Drake do? He takes both Kanye and Jay off of the song completely, adding in a new verse that’s way better than the “Chaining Tatum” verse but way worse than the Kanye one. If it’s a power move to get both of those guys on a song with you, it’s even more of a power move to disappear them. In fact, the only guest-rappers on Views are Future, who completely sleeps through “Grammys,” and the disembodied voice of the late Pimp C, who probably never even heard Drake’s name before his 2007 death. It could be a stylistic decision, but it feels more like Drake is unwilling to let anyone show him up on a song and also unwilling to rap hard enough to show anyone else up.
Drake’s decision to turn almost all of the production over to his own team is admirable on a friendship-and-loyalty basis, but it probably hurts the album. Although a few outside stars like Kanye West and Southside get co-production credits, guys like 40, Boi-1da, and Nineteen85 handle the vast majority of it. 40 is probably the most important rap producer of the last decade, but his sad-bastard glossiness starts to feel oppressive at times on Views. The album’s best moments are the ones that force Drake out of his personal funk, into other modes of being. “Views” might be the album’s only real royal-sneer declaration of supremacy. And “Controlla,” “One Dance,” and the Rihanna duet “Too Good” look out into the world, finding inspiration from dancehall and funky house and Afropop. “I made a career out of reminiscing,” Drake says at one point, and that’s basically true. But those three songs push Drake’s focus out of his own past, into a possible future.
Look: It’s still early. As I’m writing this, Views is something like 14 hours old. Some of these songs might take a month or two to strike an emotional chord; Drake songs do that sometimes. But after playing it on repeat all day, I have to report that Views is a bloated, self-regarding bore. When the album hit the internet last night, I made it through maybe six songs before falling asleep. That’s not entirely Drake’s fault. I have two young kids, which means that I am always tired. But I can also tell you that I goddam sure did not fall asleep the first time I listened to Lemonade.