Justin Carroll-Allan owns a Toronto Raptors Hakeem Olajuwon jersey.
Sometime in late 2011, three of my students walked into my College Writing I class with “Drake” written in cursive across their necks. “What is Drake?” I asked, thinking it was just another teen thing, like the cinnamon challenge or nitrous. They were shocked I didn’t know who he was, but I had ostensibly sworn off new music forever. I was fed up, bored with everything but Brotha Lynch Hung, Depeche Mode, Andre Nickatina, the instrumental band Hella, and New Yorker podcasts. My students insisted he was the best rapper alive, but teenagers are hyperbolic, so I didn’t give their pronouncement any more credence than when a different student had proclaimed Korn was better than the Beatles. I get it, I told them, you like Drake. “You don’t understand,” they insisted. “He’s the biggest rapper ever.”
That night, I went home and begrudgingly listened to Take Care. I don’t remember much of the album except for “Crew Love,” and what stood out to me on that track were the haunting pipes of The Weeknd, who at the time wasn’t the pop juggernaut that he is today—he had just released a mixtape called House of Balloons six months or so before Take Care came out, and he was just a guy with a great voice on a wildly popular rapper’s album. What I discovered in listening to Take Care is the same realization I had listening to More Life: because Drake is a serious student of music, the best part of his work is the people with whom he chooses to collaborate. In fact, for my money, it’s his music’s only redeeming quality.
Drake may not be the best rapper alive, but about this my students were undeniably correct: he is definitively the most popular. You’re likely to hear Drake during “Fun Time” at preschools throughout the suburban United States, it’s on rotation in dance classes designed for active fifty-year-olds, and it dominates the Spotify playlists of every teenager alive. Last year alone, “Hotline Bling” was everywhere, and “One Dance” was even bigger. Both songs ended up on Views, Drake’s widely-anticipated fourth studio album, which was monstrously successful in a commercial sense, but was received less warmly by critics and fans. It was stale, overcooked. In a way, Views was doomed from the start—it was over-hyped, and had spent too much time in the hands of its creator. But more than that, it was just too much Drake. Drake is best when he’s not focusing on the superficial woes of being one of the most successful rappers in history, but is instead focusing on his pop self or collaborating with rap music’s best voices.
A playlist is a carefully curated collection of songs that are designed, usually, to help us do something: go for a run, recover from a breakup, huff gasoline. A playlist can also center on a theme: love, hate, mourning. More Life uses the term more liberally; the album doesn’t adhere to a single broad theme, nor does this music seem to be aimed to compliment some mundane task. To some, labeling this project a playlist seems like a cop out or a pretentious move by someone who takes himself too seriously, but calling More Life a playlist works if you buy the conceit that this is a love letter to the music Drake adores, and I do.
The first half of More Life globetrots around some of Drake’s favorite sounds, and because of the featured artists, are the best songs he’s done in years. “No Long Talk” is hard-nosed, grime-tinged, and features Londoner Giggs. Drake’s accent is taxing (if only because he doesn’t pull it off well enough to hide the technique), but Giggs’s verse is interesting and smoothly delivered. His gruff voice compliments Drake’s more melodic sound nicely. The next track, “Passionfruit,” couldn’t feel more different. With its infectious synth licks and Caribbean flavor, “Passionfruit” sounds like the distant cousin to “One Dance,” and “Hotline Bling.” If I was a betting man, I’d say this one has a shot at becoming the next Drake song so popular you’ll hear it everywhere: the radio, Chipotle, an airport bathroom. This is a pure pop song, and if you wade into the bog of Drake, his best songs often abandon rap altogether.
From there, More Life dips down to South Africa. These tracks feel like the antithesis of Views; where the songs on Views felt sour and myopic, these feel light, open, and all-inclusive. I could almost feel the sun on my face when I listened to “Madiba Riddim.” This is the Drake that was missing for too long on Views, a welcome reprieve from the brooding, watch-the-throne, nobody-loves-me-anymore Drake. Drake can rap, sure, but pop Drake is the best version of his musical self.
Not many people can get away with shapeshifting through so many sounds, but Drake does it better than most. He’s an international star. Sure, he’s the 6 God, but he’s transcended regional boundaries: he doesn’t belong to Toronto, he belongs to the goddamn world. He’s been doing it for years, and while some people claim that Drake is cherry-picking from popular sounds to boost his cred or catch a wave he has no business riding, I think the this tendency comes from a more authentic love of music. Drake’s paying homage to sounds he loves. Drake did once tour with a replica of the Screwed Up Records and Tapes shop, after all. He knows how to pay tribute to the rap gods, and two of his best offerings come on More Life: “Portland” and “Sacrifices.”
These two songs feel disembodied from the sound and vibe of the earlier songs on More Life, but they do mark a sonic shift to contemporary rap’s most sacred holy land: Atlanta. “Portland” features Quavo, Travis Scott, and a flute lick so beautiful it’ll make you eagle-screech with joy. “Sacrifices” combines the world’s most popular rapper with two of the best ones; 2 Chainz’s verse is crisp and controlled, and displays his wit: “Trap jumpin’ like the Carter, mean it jumpin’ like Vince.” Young Thug’s verse is uncharacteristically stripped of the modification we normally associate with him, and he proves that he can drop dope lines without the assistance of vocal effects: “You get it? I said I’m a username like, ‘Who is he?’ / Got some gold on, leprechaun, sheesh.” These songs provide a bridge from the rap underground to the world of pop music, and anything that exposes Tity Boi to more listeners is a good thing for the world.
Drake’s music is best when it’s populated with voices that need to be out in the world. Sampha is a British artist whose voice is the only one you hear on “4422,” a beautiful, vulnerable song about fear which doesn’t feature an ounce of Drake. Hearing Sampha gave me the same delight as hearing The Weeknd for the first time on Take Care (though this time I’d already been enjoying Sampha’s Process since it came out in early February). We see him in the British section of More Life, and that’s not the only Drakeless song we get here: “Skepta Interlude” features only grime artist Skepta. This isn’t the first time Drake’s given a rising artist a track on his album. He gave Kendrick Lamar the “Buried Alive Interlude” before Lamar became the best rapper in America. This is the most compelling aspect of Drake—for all his navel-gazing, Drake loves music, and is at his best when he collaborates with artists he loves.