Drake's course correction to VIEWS bursts with energy—more South African house, more grime, more Kanye. It's a long player made for luxuriating and a total immersion into Drake's world-pop lifestyle.
Drake’s VIEWS was a commercial pinnacle and a creative and personal dead end. He scored the biggest hit of his career with “One Dance,” but the album surrounding it was so aggrieved and solipsistic you felt like you were insulting Drake by listening to it. His telepathic bond with producer Noah “40” Shebib had turned stale and over its punishing 80-plus minutes he wrung every last drop of sour grapes from his Beta-Male Conqueror persona. He had crushed his frenemies, seen them driven before him, and heard the lamentations of their women—or at least purposefully ignored their texts. What was next but exile?
He seems to be tacitly admitting to this stagnation throughout the warm, pulsing, and generous More Life. His solution is a “Playlist” (not a big old serious Album, the implication goes, nor one of those little “mixtapes” other rappers bother with) that forces Drake out into the sunlight again, where he can once again mingle with the people. On More Life’s closing track “Do Not Disturb,” he acknowledges the bleak spot he was in: “I was an angry youth while I was writing VIEWS/Saw a side of myself that I just never knew.” He even lets his mother pipe in with a voice message two-thirds of the way through the record on “Can’t Have Everything” as she admonishes her son for the hostile, suspicious streak he was nurturing. “That attitude will just hold you back in this life, and you’re going to continue to feel alienated,” she advises.
He doesn’t exactly drop the attitude, but he does play the background on More Life, implicitly acknowledging that he is often the least appealing element of his massively successful art. Dialing back on his self-pity allows all his skills that have kept him on top to float back to the surface: his ear for melodies, his sophisticated tastes, his curation skills. The more voices he lets into the frame, the fuller and richer the results, and More Life bursts with energy and lush sounds—more guests, more genres, more producers, more life. It is as confident, relaxed, and appealing as he’s sounded in a couple of years.
Drake steps back and lets the dusky-voiced 19-year-old British singer Jorja Smith soar over a sinuous club track from the rising South African house producer Black Coffee on the gorgeous “Get It Together.” Black Coffee and Jorja comprise at least 80 percent of the song; Drake is mostly relegated to mumbling or doubling the hook. Sampha bleeds his gorgeous hurt over the entirety of “4422,” with no one else in sight, and Skepta claims an entire track, boasting that he “died and came back as Fela Kuti.” Young Thug steals not one but two songs, spitting a dense verse with no vocal filter on “Sacrifices” and yelping along with the roots-reggae horns of “Ice Melts.”
Throughout, Drake’s appetite for the music of other cultures remains ravenous. “I switch flow like I switch time zone,” he raps on “Gyalchester,” the song title itself a patois nickname for the neighborhood of Manchester. On “Sacrifices,” he boasts “I got Dubai plates in the California state.” In both reach and sound, Drake may now be one of the most global pop stars in history. He is shrewd and relentless about his globe-trotting on More Life: “Dis a habibis ting, yeah?” he asks on the intro to a track called “Portland,” invoking a vivid zone of confusion where Arabic and Caribbean slang collides with Atlanta’s own Quavo somewhere in the rainy Pacific Northwest.
As always, there are moments when it’s unclear what Drake thinks he is borrowing. He tackles “No Long Talk” in an unsteady tough-guy patois—“things” turns to “tings” but then sneaks back into “things” when he’s not watching it, so he sounds a bit more like a kid with a hairbrush in the mirror than he probably intends. He also proudly shouts out his bodyguard Baka Not Nice, a man who faced human trafficking charges and was imprisoned on domestic assault charges (Drake boasts that Baka’s “quick to let a motherfuckin’ TEC slam”). It’s a reminder of his unsavory tendency to borrow street credibility from figures like Baka who have paid the price for it, the same impulse that had him pointing to a “prison visit” on his song “Two Birds, One Stone” as evidence that he wasn’t some “privileged kid.” Who stunts about visiting a prison?
As one of the first rap superstars forged entirely outside the crucible of the American drug war, Drake has always had a confused relationship to the “rules” of hip-hop. This makes his moments of flexing interesting if only for the friction they generate between the role he’s assuming and the figure he cuts. He opens More Life with “Free Smoke,” a hard-charging and take-no-prisoners track, the sort of moment on a rap album where you ruthlessly cut down challengers and re-establish your dominance. But he spends it remembering how he used to eat Applebee’s and Outback, or the time he drunk-texted J. Lo (“It was an old number so it bounced back”). He does address his disgraced foe Meek Mill, who fell on a sword trying to expose Drake as a fraud: "How you let the kid fighting ghostwriting rumors turn you to a ghost?” he taunts. This is a peculiarly self-skewering line of attack, a bit like punching yourself in the face before going for your opponent’s gut. It doesn’t exactly elicit the classic, crowd-of-bystanders “ooooh!” that direct shots are supposed to incite; more of a “uh...hmmm.”
This pluralistic and self-contradicting identity has always been part and parcel of Drake’s inheritance to hip-hop; it will be a large part of his legacy. Name a pop star who has ever had a clearer picture of their place in the culture, who senses exactly what they can get away with and what they can’t (other than Taylor Swift). He knows himself and his worth, at least as a market entity. “They don’t know they gotta be faster than me to get to me, no one’s done it successfully,” he boasts, truthfully, on “Do Not Disturb.” More than anything, More Life plays like a just-in-time course correction to the excesses of VIEWS, a remarkable feat of troubleshooting that assures that October’s Very Own—whose catalog passed 10 billion Spotify streams before this release—continues to own several Octobers henceforth.
More Life is long, for sure. It is, of course, designed to be long, to swallow up all of your streaming bandwidth. Twenty-two songs all but asks you forget other rappers and musicians exist for a while. This is the new power play in an age of digital infinitude. He doesn’t offer insight in return, really—eight years into examining the wages of his success, he’s still stumbling on thoughts like, “How you run out of gas on the road to riches?” and, “Winning is problematic” as if they are actual epiphanies. But he does offer immersion. When everything is just right—the mood, the lighting, the production, the melody—that immersion feels total, and it’s hard to imagine wanting to be anywhere else. The gorgeous “Since Way Back” stretches the beat way out, the silences in between yawning wide open so you momentarily lose all sense of time and momentum. It stops the album dead in the best way possible. This is the Drake moment, when you exist inside the bubble of a single drunken thought, where all priorities bend like light through a water glass and you find yourself hanging on your phone, watching the twinkling ellipsis of a responding text message like it’s the answer to all of your prayers.