Drake Is Ridiculous
The first minute is exciting. A brief instrumental hints at luxuriant sprawl, something that Drake has done to death, but then things change fast. When the drums from “Falling Back” first kicked in, I made a face like I’d just smelled something — that good kind of face like I’d just smelled something. Drake has played around with house beats on past records, but kicking his whole album off with one was still a surprise. The bassline bubbles hard. The drums lock in right away. The synths portend Drake’s particular style of glassy, moneyed self-regard, but that just means that “Falling Back” is a Drake record. A Drake record can be exciting, especially when Drake’s pushing himself. But then Drake starts singing in his indolent sleepwalking falsetto, and that initial tingle just slowly dissipates into the air.
The last minute is exciting, too. After doing very little to interrupt his whole somnambulant club-music reverie, Drake pivots back to talking his shit. More importantly, he cedes the second half of album closer “Jimmy Cooks” to 21 Savage, who has been absolutely invincible lately. This was a calculated move, and it was a smart one, too. The Savage collab “Knife Talk” is the only track from last year’s empire-in-decline opus Certified Lover Boy that I still actively seek out, and “Jimmy Cooks” goes straight back to that well. In the second half of “Jimmy Cooks,” Savage gets off multiple lines that gave me full face-scrunch reactions: “Smack the backside of his head like he Bart,” “If I was Will Smith, I woulda slapped him with a stick,” “All that workin’ out, that n***a must think he a wrestler/ But this ain’t UFC, this chopper came with a compressor.” It’s like Savage slipped the whole album into his pocket and walked away whistling.
In between those two minutes, there’s just a lot of stuff. At this point, five days later, the details have already been endlessly rehashed. Nine months ago, Drake dropped Certified Lover Boy, a too-big-to-fail blockbuster that hit like Jurassic World: Dominion. CLB did insane first-week numbers, making Drake the first artist since the 1964 Beatles to hold down all five top spots on the Billboard Hot 100 simultaneously. But nobody loved the album — not even, it would seem, Drake himself. The most relentless cool-hunter ever to stalk the pop charts was repeating himself, kicking around his comfort zone, working with the same old collaborators. Honestly, Nevermind is the hard pivot — the surprise album where Drake draws his collaborators from across the dance-music landscape. Drake barely raps at all on Honestly, Nevermind. Instead, he sings sleepily to himself and to whoever’s been dancing through his mind these past few months.
Honestly, Nevermind is a left turn, and Drake needed to make a left turn. Like a prophecy foretold, we’ve been living too long in an era where every song sounds like Drake featuring Drake. Drake’s aesthetic DNA is all over the damn place. Everyone sounds like Drake now. Even Drake just sounds like Drake. Recently minted pop-chart king Jack Harlow has effectively remade himself, moving from squicky nerd-rap to full-on Drake tribute act, and he has been lavishly rewarded for that transition. When the 35-year-old Drizzy showed up on Harlow’s “Churchill Downs,” it sounded a whole lot like the 39-year-old Jay-Z rapping next to Drake on the Thank Me Later track “Light Up” 13 years ago. Drake couldn’t keep this up forever. Something had to change.
At least in theory, it’s cool that Drake made a sudden and unannounced dive into house music. Drake isn’t exactly new to this; he’s been occasionally toying with club tracks for many years — jumping on a Jamie xx/Gil Scott-Heron track on “Take Care,” sampling Moodymann on “Passionfruit.” Drake’s first proper chart-topper was “One Dance,” an Afrobeats/funky house experiment that didn’t feature any rapping. One of Drake’s prime Honestly, Nevermind collaborators is Black Coffee, the South African house producer whose track “Superman” was the basis for Drake’s More Life song “Get It Together.” These sounds aren’t new to Drake. He’s been paying attention.
Honestly, Nevermind arrives at a moment when dance music is at a crucial fulcrum point. House and techno are fundamentally Black American forms of music, but you wouldn’t necessarily know that if you’d only glancingly been paying attention in recent years. The shrieking day-glo festival-EDM style, which has made a whole lot of people rich in the past couple of decades, is about as white as it gets. Recently, though, the bottom has fallen out of EDM, and the dance mainstream has moved back towards classic house and techno sounds. Another name that turns up repeatedly in the Honestly, Nevermind credits is Gordo. That’s Diamanté Blackmon, the Guatemalan-born and Maryland-raised EDM star who just announced last month that he had retired Carnage, the alias that made him famous. Blackmon has said that he’s done with Carnage because he’s done with EDM; Gordo is the name that he’s using to dig deeper into classic dance sounds. By working with those collaborators and finding his own twist on house and techno, Drake has consciously reclaimed those sounds as Black music. That’s cool.
Conceptually, there’s a lot to like about Honestly, Nevermind — an established star stepping outside his comfort zone, making a whole cohesive album that explores sounds that he’s only dabbled in before, bringing in new collaborators, giving spotlight to sounds that don’t really currently exist in the mainstream. Conceptually, maybe Honestly, Nevermind is the hard reset that Drake needed. But concept is not execution. And in terms of execution, holy shit, Jesus Christ, Honestly, Nevermind is boring. It’s an absolute fucking slog. It’s death. If you’d been in my car with me late on Thursday night, hitting play on the new album at the stroke of midnight while on a long drive, then you could’ve just seen the excitement visibly drain out of my eyes. You might’ve even been able to pinpoint the exact moment when I realized that the whole record was just going to be this.
The problem, as usual, is Drake himself. Over his career, Drake has gotten a lot of credit for his facility at switching between singing and rapping, and he really can be a good singer. A lot of his best songs are much more about singing than rapping. As a singer, Drake has a light touch, and he typically understands his limitations. He’s learned from past generations how to use his voice as an accent, how to highlight top-notch beats. He knows his way around a hook. But on this album, the one where those skills are most crucial, he just doesn’t use them. Instead, the Drake of Honestly, Nevermind steers into all of his worst tendencies as a singer: the thin falsetto, the indifferent delivery, the tendency to just kind of mutter to himself. He sounds like he’s stuck all the way up his own ass.
The lyrics are, as ever, an issue. It would be one thing if Drake was just singing about random sex with interchangeable women. He’s done that plenty in the past, and he does that a little on this record. Most of the time, though, he’s in wounded-Drake mode, passive-aggressively lambasting some nameless partner for perceived sins and slights. That’s worse. In the rambling poetic statement supplied to Apple Music along with the new album, Drake lets loose with vague platitudes about loyalty, and that’s mostly what he offers up in the Honestly, Nevermind lyrics. Drake has been riding this fragile-playboy thing for so long, and it’s so tedious now.
These lyrics don’t even work as compelling portraits of manipulative relationships. They mostly just sound like Drake being an asshole. “If I was in your shoes, I would hate myself. Left all this behind to be with someone else.” Asshole. “I moved on so long ago. You’re still thinking ’bout me, though.” Shithead. “I found a new muse. That’s bad news for you. Why would I keep you around?” A terrible thing to say to another person in any situation. “You put your words together like you getting points for that shit, like you playing Scrabble on me. Your mama the sweetest lady, that apple fell far from the tree.” Despicable curdled whiny-baby sentiment. The worst.
There is precedent for this. Kanye West ventured off on his own cohesive electronic-music excursion when he made 808s & Heartbreak. Drake probably owes his entire existence to that album, and that album is virtually nothing but despicable curdled whiny-baby sentiment. The difference is that Kanye committed. He carefully sculpted those textures and melodies, and he made a record that was sonically hypnotic even if you hated the lyrics — which I did, until I came to love them. 808s & Heartbreak became a go-to album for dealing with a particular shitty mood, wallowing in it so that I could then move past it. It was cathartic. There is nothing cathartic about Honestly, Nevermind.
If Drake is going to spend virtually an entire album singing, then he needs to come up with some damn hooks. Too many of the tracks on Honestly, Nevermind have virtually no structure. On the choruses, Drake will just repeat the same word or phrase over and over, with no variance. He’s not submitting himself to the groove, the way some singers on house tracks have done. He’s just softly murmuring what sounds like the first thing that came to mind. Drake has said that he spent the past six or seven months working on this album, but too many of the tracks sound like first drafts, like Drake just never bothered to add any real ideas to these beautiful tracks that he’d been given.
And a lot of these tracks really are beautiful, to the point where I would probably prefer an instrumental version of Honestly, Nevermind. Drake’s prime collaborator Noah “40” Shebib is some kind of genius at the art of architectural sound, at stripping away extraneous elements and leaving nothing but crystalline surfaces. On this album, Drake and his collaborators have collected sounds from across the dance music landscape — old-school Chicago piano-house, Baltimore and Jersey club, the South African style that Black Coffee helped pioneer — and turning them into high-grade hotel-lobby music.
The squeaky-bedframe beat of “Currents” is irritating, and it was irritating back when Lil Jon used it on Trillville’s “Some Cut” back in 2004. But that sound also works as a sonic shoutout to Jersey club, which adapted it right after the Trillville song came out. It’s genuinely cool to hear a Drake track that references that and also includes Rye Rye’s deadpan “what” ad-lib, a Baltimore club staple ever since she made “Shake It To The Ground” with Blaqstarr in 2007. (The Baltimore writer Lawrence Burney wrote a great Vulture guide to all the club history that’s echoed in the Drake album.) Drake collaborator Gordo was never a club music guy, but he grew up close enough to Baltimore to hear club on the radio and to be influenced by it. The tracks that Gordo and his peers made for Drake have none of the chaotic roughness of real club music, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Chaotic roughness has never been part of the Drake mission.
But good lord, you can’t make indifferent club tracks, just like you can’t make house music that’s emotionally inert. “Massive” is probably the centerpiece of Honestly, Nevermind, and it’s a monster track in a lot of ways. I love the piston-pumping steadiness of the drums, the smooth tension-release of the beat-drop, the lushness of that classic piano line. A track like that demands a singer who’s willing to really wail, to get emotionally invested in things. Those house divas used to howl their lungs out for a reason. This is a gross oversimplification, but house music often works best as a conductor for huge, operatic emotions. In his simpering and indolent grumbles about the women who won’t invest emotionally in their relationships with Drake — despite a decade-plus catalog of music that offers hundreds of reasons not to invest emotionally in a relationship with Drake — the man simply is not up to the challenge of these beats. He’s never surrendered to emotion, and he’s not about to start now.
Drake has a few good moments on Honestly, Nevermind, and they’re the moments when he really lets his voice sync up with the tracks, when he lets the beats tell him what to do. On “Sticky,” Drake shows that he knows how to rap on a dance track. His delivery has a self-assured elegance, and he knows when to hesitate and when to cluster up his syllables. I don’t really care that Drake skips the Met Gala because he can’t bring all his friends, but when Drake finds a cool way to say it on that beat, that line immediately becomes a whole lot more compelling. Similarly, it shouldn’t be fun to hear Drake singing about how your pussy is calling his name, but when he turns that into an actual hook and snakes it through the monster “Calling My Name” bassline, it works.
Honestly, Nevermind just doesn’t have anywhere near enough of those moments. The album’s back half, before Drake pulls the “Bound 2” move of returning to his rap comfort zone on “Jimmy Cooks,” is a numbing death-march. It’s like Drake heard the Weeknd making all of his glimmering late-night club tracks and figured that sound would be easy, that he could replicate it without trying. But it’s not easy. What good is something as lovely as 40’s sparse, bubbling “Down Hill” production if Drake is just going to do nothing with it?
Drake released Honestly, Nevermind on the same day that Beyoncé, one of his few peers in the global-titan pop sphere, announced her own forthcoming comeback album. And there’s something beautiful about how Honestly, Nevermind only got a few days to exist before Beyoncé dropped the single “Break My Soul,” which just Vince Carter elbow-in-the-rim dunks on everything that Drake was attempting with his record. Beyoncé didn’t even work with house producers on “Break My Soul”; she and her regular collaborators The-Dream and Tricky Stewart just flipped a sample of the Robin S classic “Show Me Love.” But Beyoncé’s one song embodies the larger-than-life power of this stuff better than anything that Drake even attempted. If you’re going to make this music, then you need to be ready to soundtrack the biggest moment of someone’s week, the point where they’ve left earthly stresses behind and found a whole new life-changing physical communal euphoria. If you’re not even going to try that, then maybe stick to rapping.
1. Duke Deuce – “Just Say That” (Feat. Glorilla)
Duke Deuce is a second-generation crunk rapper, so he understands that music better than anyone else. He understands how that Memphis music can be hard and stormy and dark and violent and also extremely cartoonish and goofy and fun. “Just Say That” is one of the hardest singles of the year, and it’s also one of the silliest. There’s no contradiction there. That’s how it’s supposed to go.
2. JID – “29 (Freestyle)”
Some people are so gifted that they need to invent whole new challenges for themselves just to keep from getting bored. JID is one of those people. His flows on this are so weird and off-kilter and counterintuitive, and yet they work perfectly.
3. Lethal Bizzle – “Dapper Dan (Remix)” (Feat Backroad Gee, Shasimone, & Rob Marly)
“Dapper Dan” was already a cool, anthemic, disorienting grime track. This remix gets a whole new beat, and it sounds like the original falling down five flights of stairs. It’s pure chaos, and I love it.
4. Powers Pleasant – “Overseas (Feat. Maxo Kream, Kenny Mason, Erick The Architect, & Bas)
It’s been a while since we’ve gotten one of those classic posse cuts where everyone sounds like they’re trying to bring more dizzy wild-eyed energy than everyone else. This one isn’t “Banned From TV” or anything, but it leaves sweat on the floor.
5. Al-Doms – “HAHA” (Feat. Pusha T)
If Drake isn’t rapping anymore and Pusha is still showing up on tracks like this, then maybe everything is exactly where it needs to be.
IT WAS ALL GOOD JUST A WEEK AGO