Premature Evaluation: Drake More Life
“A playlist.” I love it. I fucking love it. What a beautiful cop-out. In labeling his new album More Life something other than an album — something other than a mixtape, even — Drake has freed himself from import, from the pressure of making a cohesive full-length statement. And he’ll still reap the rewards of having a vastly successful new album, since More Life is built to dominate all charts for the foreseeable future. As plenty have pointed out, with the way Billboard tabulates streams, albums with more tracks tend to do better. More Life comes in at a comically overstuffed 22 tracks. It’s full of guests, full of filler. Some of the songs literally don’t even feature Drake; both Sampha and Skepta get tracks all to their own. For most artists, a move like More Life would be an irredeemably craven money-grab move. And maybe it’s that for Drake, too. But for Drake, it works. More Life is the best thing Drake has done in years.
We heard what happened the last time Drake strove for importance. He ended up with the bloated, toxic, self-serious Views, a bleak album that ran the charts during a bleak year. Views was a Citizen Kane move: One of our most successful artists spitefully lashing out at a world that, he felt, did not give him his due respect. There’s plenty of that same me-against-the-world talk on More Life. Drake is the biggest rap star in the world right now, by far, but he still wants to be seen as the underdog, cognitive dissonance be damned: “Winning is problematic / People like you more when you working toward something, not when you have it.” But this time, even his bitching feels lighter and breezier. He’s shrugged off the burden of crafting a definitive artistic statement, and he’s just, for the most part, fucking around and having fun here. It suits him.
More Life affirms something we already knew: Drake is the greatest A&R man working today. Whereas Views included barely any guest vocalists — subjecting us to the cobalt-blue drudgery of 75 nearly-unbroken minutes of Drake alone — More Life pulls in some of the most creative minds in music today and lets them loose. Sampha and Skepta both seize their moments, grabbing their windows of exposure like they were Christopher Walken in Pulp Fiction, doing the most damage they can possibly do. 2 Chainz brings majestic goofiness. Quavo calls himself “Undertaker with the tattoos,” which I love. Young Thug tries the experimental new tactic of enunciating every syllable of his “Sacrifices” verse clearly, and it pays off beautifully. Relative unknowns like the London singer Jorja Smith and the Canadian producer Murda Beatz get to showcase themselves as potential stars. (With “Murda on the beat so it’s not nice,” Drake gave Murda the best new producer drop since Future gifted Metro Boomin with “if Young Metro don’t trust you, I’m gon’ shoot you.”) And the dark and blustery UK rapper Giggs shows up twice, eclipsing Drake both times and coming off as an absolute badass, even when he’s just sputtering the old Adam West Batman theme.
These guests are at radically varying fame-levels, but they’re all at or near the peaks of their careers, and Drake is pulling their voices in right at the perfect moment. This is, after all, what Drake does. He has an uncanny gift for drawing on the right people at the right times. And while there’s something exploitative about the way he coasts on their cool, it’s an undeniably symbiotic relationship. They get to flex on what will almost certainly be the year’s biggest rap project. In fact the only guest who doesn’t immediately impress is Kanye West on “Glow.” And given that this is Kanye’s first prominent outing since the Trump-meeting debacle, it’s nice to see Drake doing his neighbor a favor and helping him get back on his feet. (That’s where Drake is at now. He puts Kanye on his album, and it sounds like he’s doing Kanye a favor.)
More than just the guest artists, it’s fascinating to hear which genres Drake hijacks and appropriates for his own purposes. He spends more time singing than he does rapping on More Life, but nobody would ever call it an R&B move. Drake has always drawn from genres from across the globe, and he was able to turn the sounds of dancehall, funky house, and Afrobeats into pure gold when “One Dance” became his biggest-ever hit last year. He learned from that. For vast stretches of More Life, he digs deep into dancehall or deep house. “Passionfruit” — to my ears, the most surefire hit here — is delightfully syncopated old-school house music, done with more groove and shuffle that the hammering EDM that nearly every other pop star of Drake’s stature is attempting to ride these days. And the sound of hazy new-agey flute loops on trap bangers, as heard on things like Future’s “Mask Off” and Kodak Black’s “Tunnel Vision,” has been a cresting trend in rap production for, what, a month? But Drake has already used it for his own purposes on “Portland,” and surprise surprise, he sounds great on it. The man’s instinct for sniffing out the next thing is just beyond belief.
But even as More Life runs all over the place musically, even as Drake shamelessly rides sounds that others established, he never loses himself to aesthetic incoherence. Drake, after all, has a sound that belongs entirely to him, a gleaming and spacious flutterthump that he and Noah “40” Shebib have been perfecting since So Far Gone. And when he pulls in these other sounds, he bends them to his own aesthetic; he doesn’t rush out to meet them on their own terms. When Giggs and Skepta show up on More Life, they aren’t braying over shuddering and erratic grime instrumentals. Instead, they’re slowing their own flows up, making them complement Drake’s bright surfaces. (This could be why Giggs, who has never been a grime motormouth, got the look here instead of a more traditional grime MC like, say, Stormzy.) “Get It Together” essentially swipes “Superman,” a 2010 jazzy house banger from the South African producer Black Coffee. But just by doing his smooth and melodic Eeyore thing on top of it, Drake makes it sound like a Drake song.
It’s not like More Life is some vast departure for Drake. “Nothings Into Something,” on which a disconsolately sing-songy Drake gets all pissy with an ex for not telling him that she’s engaged (“at least do I get an invitation or something?”), might be the most Drakingest Drake thing that ever Draked. He continues to play around with all the tabloid stories of his life. Drake aims so many subliminal shots at Meek Mill that it’s almost like he’s the one person left alive who isn’t sure he won that feud. And he also gets plenty of mileage out of the rumored Jennifer Lopez relationship that was making the blog rounds recently. Early on in the album, he raps, “I drunk-text J.Lo / Old number, so it bounce back.” And then, later on, the entire chorus of Lopez’s inescapable 1999 single “If You Had My Love” becomes the hook of Drake’s own dizzy-crush anthem “Teenage Fever.” My favorite moment of self-referentiality is when Drake calls back to “Light Up,” the Thank Me Later track where Jay Z spent his entire guest verse advising Drake not to get distracted by rap beef: “I didn’t listen to Hov on that old song when he told me pay it no mind / I get more satisfaction outta going at your head and seeing all of you die / And I seen a lot of you die.”
So Drake remains in full-on Drake mode throughout: petty, reflective, triumphal, self-doubting, self-affirming, messy, dominant. He’s every bit the smirking, obnoxious, irrepressible scamp that he’s always been. But where all Drake’s own tendencies weighed him down on Views, they all buoy him back up here. This time around, he’s self-aware enough to have fun with his own bullshit, to spend an entire (very good) song venting about all the people he sees wishing on his downfall before ending it with a voicemail recording of his mother wisely urging him to let all this shit go. More to the point, this time, Drake has come up with songs. Whereas Views seemed to be Drake rapping for himself, about himself, More Life feels like it’s for the world, for club nights and afternoon barbecues and early evenings spent getting ready to go out. It can’t be an accident that More Life came out a few days before spring began. It’s the sound of sunlight coming in.