Drake rebuilt hip-hop in his image. Now he wants you to dance.

For more than a decade, the Drake Factory has been operating at full capacity – recalibrating the relationship between hip-hop, R&B and pop; reconcile large-scale ambition and granular experimentation; embracing the meme-ification of his stardom. But in recent years, for the first time, it feels like the machines could stop. Maintaining the throne is hard work, and the wear and tear was beginning to show.

What Drake needed was an opportunity to refresh himself, a chance to be rid of old assumptions. It’s the kind of renewal you really only find after hours.

“Honestly, Nevermind,” Drake’s seventh solo studio album, which was released Friday just hours after it was announced, is a marvel of bodily exuberance – weightlessly attractive, evasive and zealous. An album of haunting club music, it’s a sharp evolution into a new era for one of music’s most influential stars. It’s also a Drake album composed almost entirely of parts of Drake albums that send hip-hop purists into conniptions.

The expectations Drake seeks to subvert here, however, are his own. For most of the 2010s, hip-hop—and most other popular music—was shaped around its innovations. Blending singing and rapping, making music that was unconsciously pop without pandering to the old way of making pop, Drake long understood that he could build a new kind of global consensus both because he understood the limitations of older approaches and because the globe is changing.

Nevertheless, the bloated “Certified Lover Boy”, released last year, was his least focused album, and also the least imaginative – he sounded pissed off, tired of his own ideas. In addition, the people who climbed behind him may have exhausted them as well.

These conditions force innovation, however, and “Honestly, Nevermind” is a clear pivot, something increasingly rare for a pop icon. Drake fully embraces the dance floor here, making house music that also hits Jersey Club, Baltimore Club, Ballroom and Amapiano. Each of these styles has gone from regional phenom to tastemakers’ attention in recent years, and like the skilled scavenger that he is, Drake has been harvesting pieces for his own builds.

Part of the reason this is so striking is that Drake has made a career out of stroking. His productions – still helmed by his longtime collaborator Noah Shebib, known as 40 – were decidedly soothing. But the beats here have sharp angles, they kick and punch. “Currents” features both the squeaky bed sample that’s a Jersey club staple and a familiar vocal ad-lib that’s a Baltimore club staple. ‘Texts Go Green’ is driven by edgy percussion, and the build-up of soulful, piano-tinged house towards the end of ‘A Keeper’ is an invitation to liberation.

This approach proves to be well suited to Drake’s singing style, which is lean and does not apply overt pressure. It’s conspiratorial, romantic, sometimes erotic – it never sings for you as much as it sings for you, in your ear.

Most of the songs are about romantic plots, and often Drake is the victim of that. In places, it’s a throwback to Drake, the era of Instagram legends. “I know my funeral is going to be lit because of the way I treated people,” he intones on “Massive.” On the slurry “Liability”, he moans, “You’re too busy dancing in the club to our songs.”

But part of this album’s trade-off is the lyrical liveliness — on most songs, Drake alludes to things more than he describes them. The words are prompts, suggestions, light abstractions that aim to mimic the mood of the production. (Also, social media moves too quickly now and doesn’t reward the same kinds of patient emotional emotions that it excels at.)

There’s recent precedent for Drake’s picks here: Kanye West’s “808s & Heartbreak” and the more fleeting parts of “Yeezus”; Frank Ocean’s flirtations with dance music.

But music like this has always been part of Drake’s grammar: think “Take Care” with Rihanna from 2011, with its Gil Scott-Heron/Jamie xx split. Or 2017’s serene sunrise anthem “Passionfruit” (which also had a Moodymann sample); “Fountains,” from “Certified Lover Boy,” a duet with Nigerian star Tems, was also in that vein, but seemed to hint that Drake’s next hard pivot would be to Afrobeats, with which he has long been engaged, including collaborations with Wizkid.

But Drake opted for club music — the average bpm here is over 100 — building an explicit musical bridge to black and queer musical subcultures. That said, the sweaty, counter-cultural house music it draws inspiration from has also become a model of favored music in recent years – it’s the soundtrack of the wealthy global elite, the same in Dubai and Ibiza that in Miami and Mykonos. It is an inviting but also innocuous music; it is filled with meaning and reference, but also soft to the touch.

Drake is in an unenviable position that only a handful of pop superstars have been in before – he’s one of the most famous musicians on the planet, and his fame rests on the fact that he’s something of a chameleon. But it’s hard for a juggernaut to be nimble. Nonetheless, “Honestly, Nevermind” is the work of someone who isn’t bothered by the potential alienation of former allies. The past two years have been undocked, and the pandemic has allowed artists to do the unexpected simply by removing old award structures. (Structurally, “Honestly, Nevermind” is a similar twist to Weeknd’s electro-pop experiment “Dawn FM,” released in January.)

The coronavirus era has also fueled the rise of hip-hop scenes that thrive on the virtual chaos of social media. This was most evident in the rise of drill, which refocused hip-hop on grit and nerve. Even though Drake has toyed with exercise before, collaborating with Fivio Foreign and Lil Durk, among others, “Honestly, Nevermind” is an anti-exercise record. Drake is now 35 and no doubt counting on how to live alongside his children’s children.

He only really raps on two songs here: “Sticky”, which borders on hip-house (“Two sprinters to Quebec/Chérie, ou est mon bec?”), and “Jimmy Cooks”, the last song, which highlights featured 21 Savage. , samples Playa Fly and feels like a sharp coda of swagger after 45 minutes of pure ecstatic release.

It’s the kind of hip-hop nod that Drake’s albums have long displayed, but as he and his fans age, they may not be the stuff of his future. Whether “Honestly, Nevermind” turns out to be a false leader or permanent new direction is perhaps an indication that he’s leaving the old Drake – and all who followed him – in the rear view. Like a great quarterback, he throws the ball where his receivers are already heading, not where they’ve been.

Duck
“Honestly, it doesn’t matter”
(OVO/Republic)

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