Eventually, we’ll see the day when LeBron James is no longer the greatest basketball player in the world. He’s near the end of his 14th season in the NBA. Every other player from his historically packed draft class is either finished or close to it. And yet James is still playing some of the best basketball of his life, dragging an otherwise-sad Cleveland Cavaliers through a perilous playoffs. (As I write this, the Cavs have just pulled even with the Celtics in the Eastern Conference Finals.) James spends millions of dollars honing his body, using all the science available to him and working like a dog to remain an absolute physical wonder, the type of player who can win a deep playoff game through sheer force of will. It won’t last forever. It can’t. And yet, every year that James doesn’t fall off, it gets harder to imagine it happening.
The same is true, in its own sort of way, of Drake, who had the privilege of watching James decimate his Raptors from courtside last month. Drake will eventually drop out of rap’s highest echelon. Maybe he’ll do it gracefully, like Jay-Z. Maybe he’ll do it messily and torturously, like Kanye West. Either way, it’ll happen. Some of us thought, a few short months ago, that it was already happening; last August, it was a news story when Drake, for the first time since 2009, didn’t have a single song on Billboard’s Hot 100. I caught myself thinking that he needed a hit. Today, nobody has ever needed a hit less.
Between the two singles he’s released this year, Drake has spent most of 2018 at #1 on the Hot 100, a feat that he’s achieved without even putting in that much observable effort. “God’s Plan,” the year’s biggest hit, is just Drake on cruise control, offering well-explored Drake-isms. (“Nice For What,” the year’s second-biggest hit, is a lot better.) Scorpion, Drake’s forthcoming album, is coming out right in the middle of Kanye West’s planned five-album onslaught, and it seems poised to wipe that whole shit off the map. Drake is in imperial mode. He might be peaking. But he might keep peaking for another few years. Right now, he’s making dominance look easy.
And unlike James, Drake doesn’t have to do herculean workouts to maintain his dominance. He just has to keep his ear sharp. Three years ago, I wrote about Drake as rap’s leading curator — a canny and chameleonic adapter of new trends and sounds and voices. He’s always been that. More Life, the album that he released last year, was practically a mixtape — not in the DJ Drama sense but in the lovingly assembled collage of sounds sense. And more than anyone else in rap, Drake has been quick to spot an exciting voice on the rise, do something with that rapper, and essentially absorb that rapper into his own story, like he was the Borg. He’s been doing it for years. And this year, he’s on an absolute tear with it. That artfully assembled guest-appearance blitz is worth considering.
Now Drake doesn’t actually have to do anything to be at the center of conversation. A few months ago, Drake heard the Chicago rapper G Herbo freestyling for a few seconds over the Three 6 Mafia classic “Who Run It.” Drake loved it and left Herbo an Instagram DM, advising Herbo that he “should make that a song and just drop it.” So Herbo did. And then scores of other rappers did the same thing. The “Who Run It” challenge has quietly been one of rap’s biggest stories this year. Lil Uzi Vert and 21 Savage and Young M.A and Maxo Kream and Bhad Bhabie and A$AP Rocky and Chief Keef and CupcakKe have done it. We’ve got actual Three 6 Mafia members, people who were on the original “Who Run It” back in 2000, recording “Who Run It” freestyles. Drake kicked this whole trend off with an Instagram DM. He didn’t even have to open his mouth.
But when Drake does jump on a song, that’s worth analyzing, too. So let’s take a look at his 2018 guest appearances, worst to best.
6. N.E.R.D. – “Lemon (Remix)” (Feat. Rihanna)
This one is totally inessential fluff. Maybe Drake owed someone a favor, or maybe he just felt like showing up on a track with Rihanna shortly before Rihanna said that she and Drake “don’t have a friendship now.” Drake does Rihanna’s flow, and he doesn’t do it as well as Rihanna, which is pretty embarrassing. But even in a goofy autopilot verse like this, he’s got the charisma to make a few lines stick: “Ayy, got the nerve to want a Bentley for her birthday / I said maybe I could rent for your birthday.” (Best verse: Rihanna.)
5. Lil Wayne – “Family Feud“
Every once in a while, Drake needs to jump on a track with Lil Wayne just to show the world that he’s not neglecting the guy who gave him his big break, even as the label that pays Drake continues to freeze Wayne’s career. This time, he’s jumping on a Jay-Z track for a Wayne mixtape, and its soulful lope isn’t really the kind of thing that fits Drake’s voice. Drake gets magnanimous, talking about how fucked up Wayne’s situation is and extending love to his old foe Meek Mill: “Too long like a sentence from a Philly judge / Fuck is the point in all the beefing when we really blood?” It’s a strong Drake performance. (Best verse: Lil Wayne, who absolutely catches the Holy Ghost and goes nuts.
4. Trouble – “Bring It Back“
I don’t really get why this one hasn’t gotten the push that some of the other tracks on this list have. For a split second, it felt like the moment when Trouble, the longtime Atlanta hardhead journeyman, would get the rocket strapped to him. It’s got a fancy-looking video and an eerie, tingly Mike Will beat. And it’s got Drake, who doesn’t say a whole lot of anything but whose polished effortlessness makes a nice complement to Trouble’s craggy toughness. Maybe the problem is Trouble, who remains solid as ever without ever quite broadcasting star quality. Either way, good song. (Best verse: Drake.)
3. Lil Baby – “Yes Indeed“
Lil Baby is a young Atlanta rapper from the Migos/300 orbit, and he is exactly the sort of rapper Drake should be collaborating with. Lil Baby was on a steep ascent before jumping on a song with Drake; he’s got a cool slurry singsong delivery and a sharp charisma of his own. It’s hard to tell who gets more out of it. It’s a symbiotic thing; Lil Baby gets what might be his biggest-ever hit, while Drake attaches himself to a rising star, as he’s done with so many other rising stars over the past decade. “Yes Indeed” is a short song, less than two and a half minutes, but it’s not tossed off. People online are guessing that Drake’s verse, delivered in one long breathless flurry, was written by the Atlanta rapper Gunna. Maybe that’s true, or maybe Drake is just trying on the style, but either way he gets off some great lines over a hypnotic and minimal beat: “Young Money records, the Army, the Navy / They ran me 10,000, I threw it like Brady.” (Best verse: Lil Baby, whose “waah waah waah, bitch, I’m Lil Baby” moment is perfect.)
2. Migos – “Walk It Talk It“
Drake made himself a part of the Migos’ story almost from the beginning, when he added a verse to “Versace” that had a whole lot of East Coast radio stations playing the first minute of the track and then immediately cutting it off. (Or, if you’re Drake, “we’ve been brothers since ‘Versace,’ ‘Bando,’ whoooa,” which seems like an overstatement.) The Migos have made enormous strides on their own, and Drake can’t (and doesn’t) claim credit for their success, but their history will always be intertwined with his. And when they reunite here, his understated calm once again nicely sets off the Migos’ frantic syllable-spree delivery. This would’ve probably been a hit without Drake, but it’s definitely a hit with him. And there are bonuses. It’ll make for an exciting moment at this year’s Drake/Migos tour. And the retro video gives Drake a chance to reprise some of the Michael Jackson moves that he once did on a Degrassi episode. (Best verse: Offset.)
1. BlocBoy JB – “Look Alive“
This is perfect, and it’s how it’s supposed to work. I hadn’t even heard of BlocBoy, a regional Memphis star with a few viral-video quasi-hits, before he and Drake came out with this song, which is both an embarrassing failure of mine and a testament to Drake’s grip on the zeitgeist. Together, they made a song that bursts with daffy energy and personality. It also doubles as an announcement of the approaching Drake season: “I been gone since like July, niggas acting like I died.” “Look Alive” seems like a Drake song, with Drake doing the hook and the first verse, but it’s also Drake playing in BlocBoy’s sandbox, rapping over a hard and flat beat from BlocBoy’s regular producer.
It all flows together organically, and the end result is my favorite Drake song in years — since “Energy,” or maybe since “0 To 100.” Because that’s the thing about Drake’s impressively mercenary hit-chasing ability: A lot of times, it leads to really good songs. These days, Drake is the Marvel of this rap shit. You want to complain about his chokehold on the popular imagination, but it’s not his fault that nobody else is making songs that resonate on this level. He’s just doing what he’s supposed to do. (Best verse: Drake.)
1. DaBoii – “Onna Gang”
SOB x RBE’s most reliably energetic member jumps on one of those classic slow-rolling Bay Area bass-and-808s beats and just rips it to shreds. Inspiring. The phrase “’90s baby, middle finger to the new school” makes me feel like an actual mummy.
2. The Cool Kids – “OilBass” (Feat. Boldy James & Helios Hussain)
More than a decade out from “Black Mags,” the Cool Kids’ crispily precise style still feels both retro and futuristic. How is that even possible?
3. D. Brooks – “This And That” (Feat. Valee, Kd Young Cocky, & King Louie)
If Valee’s fussy-weirdo style comes to infect all of Chicago rap — and this song suggests that it might — then we are about to hear so much great music.
4. Conway & Sonnyjim – “Cristal & Cereal”
Hearing Conway rhyme “sumo” with “ouzo” through a thick British accent is just fun. He’ll put you in the all-white cast like in Downton Abbey! Conway is excellent, and there is a sample of Ric Flair ranting, but you should expect both of these things by now.
5. Kevin Gates – “Change Lanes”
The king of pathos has returned, singing the phrase “introverted these days” and making it sound anthemic. If Gates’ probation requirements are forcing him to stay in Illinois for now, can’t he at least temporarily join American Football or something?
IT WAS ALL GOOD JUST A WEEK AGO
“requirements: self-starter, sense of humor, ability to travel back in time and talk client out of terrible decisions” pic.twitter.com/FeC8jPZ7mT
— PAPPADEMAS (@PAPPADEMAS) May 18, 2018