Hip hop is still changing, and that’s a good thing. No longer do we fear the worst when someone breaks from the norms of accepted cultural polity – instead, we watch in anticipation of new possibilities and listen for fresh and illuminating voices. Maybe rocking the boat every now and then isn’t so bad after all.
There was a time when releasing a mixtape required weeks of groundswell before any real response could result. Those times are over, if they weren’t already, with the sudden release of If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late last Thursday night. Yes, it’s a commercial release, complete with a price tag, but OVO Sound maintains its status as a mixtape.
Look, we could argue for the next month about semantics and dissect the drawbacks of what could be considered an unfair cash grab before remembering that we’re all streaming on Spotify anyway, but let’s skip the debate. What’s important here is that Drake just released a brand new collection of 17 songs that are pretty good, and that’s pretty damn cool.
The fact that this mixtape/album/whatever-it-is comes from Drake is fairly important to the conversation. He’s become the face of the new hip hop movement – a multi-talented rapper, singer, actor and all around personality. He’s relatable and likeable, but also lives happily isolated in his own constructed world of self-reflection on fame, fortune and fate. Drake has a little something for everyone, and If You’re Reading This offers a fitting next chapter to his tale.
It’s clear within moments of opening track “Legend” that these aren’t throwaway songs that didn’t make the cut for an upcoming full length – these are hits in their own right. The track features a deep, slow-burn of a beat, allowing Drake to utilize his syrupy-sung delivery as he sings of the dark/light contrast of his fame.
This is the Drake we know well, prone to boldness and bravado one moment, only to collapse into despairing introspection. On “Legend” he raps, “Why do I feel like you owe me one? / 6 G-O-D, I’m the holy one” mere moments before stating, “And I, I just can’t pretend / Seen too much, it’s so hard for me to let new people in”. We still dance before stopping to empathize, even though we’ve heard it before.
Even if you’re prone to balk at this reiteration of the subject matter, it’s impossible to deny the way the production captures the story. If You’re Reading This is a dark album with fitting beats to capture the mood. It’s a Drake record at its core, leaving you pondering whether to blast the speakers while you jump around or sit and listen quietly in a dark room. Either will suffice, as the bi-polar production leaves room for both.
“Energy” is a perfect example – it’s a banger for sure, but the simple keys atop a patient drum beat leave lots of room to breathe as Drake airs his frustrations. Likewise, “Used To” goes hard and features a spectacular guest verse from Lil Wayne, but still allows Drake freedom to swing on his emotional pendulum as he ponders newfound pressure, “It’s just apparent every year / I only see the truth when I’m looking in the mirror”.
While much of the production relies on spacey, ambient beats, there’s a fine line between minimalist and tedious. “No Tellin'” drones on for over five minutes, never reaching a crescendo and never allowing Drake to push the track over the top. His monotone delivery on sulky tracks like this has plagued him in the past and still rears its head in small doses on If You’re Reading This Its Too Late.
Fortunately, Drake is learning more and more how to convey those thoughts without losing momentum, while still letting his personality and charm shine through. How many people can get away with saying “OMG” in their chorus, as he does on “10 Bands”? It’s that authenticity that pushes the track to believability, making it one of the best in his catalogue. It’s why when he gets mopey again on “Now & Forever”, singing, “I’m afraid I’mma die before I get where I’m going / I know I’mma be alone, I know I’m out on my own”, we actually feel for him.
If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late isn’t a game changer for Drake in regards to content, but it does offer a glimmer of artistic and personal growth and solidifies him as one of the most powerful movers and shakers in hip hop. A decade ago, it would have been nearly unthinkable to imagine a heart-on-his-sleeve rapper like Drake dropping a midnight mixtape on iTunes for $9.99. In 2015, it’s a celebration. Instead of analyzing his method of attack, let’s join in and jump around to his new “mixtape.” Tomorrow, we can spin the record again in solemn reflection. Drake wouldn’t have it any other way.
by Kiel Hauck
Kiel Hauck is the editor in chief at It’s All Dead. Over the past decade, he has been a contributor for multiple online and print publications and was most recently an editor at PopMatters. Kiel currently resides in Indianapolis, IN with his wife and their imaginary pet, Hand Dog. You can follow him on Twitter.