It’s been over a year since Drake’s junior album Nothing Was The Same dropped. Vibrant and poppy, yet remaining quintessentially Drake, NWTS marked a shift from being just another rapper to a musical auteur. Whether shouting at the top of his lungs or whispering sweet nothings, Drake has maintained a persona both in his music and public image of a hard-core (dare I say gangster?) rapper, as well as an R&B crooner, thus appealing to both hip-hop heads and romantics everywhere. If You’re Reading This, It’s Too Late (released without any official announcements, much like Beyonce’s Beyonce last year) signals the singer’s commitment to mining the intricacies of his dual identities, while also highlighting his desire to experiment and expand his sound.
In many ways, If You’re Reading This remains true to Drake’s proven strategy of success. Songs fall into one of two categories: “I go hard in the motherfuckin’ paint” and “I can’t hold you too close because I’m afraid of loving you.” These two modes—boisterous, triumphant tirades or quiet love songs—sometimes compete against each other on the same track with Drake spending the first two minutes of a song shrugging off the haters, only to switch up the music tempo and cocoon within a gloomy dialogue of inner thoughts.
From the get-go, Drake squarely addresses his listeners with a curious album title that also serves as the album’s artwork displaying scrawled text: “If You’re Reading This, It’s Too Late.” The artwork, created by NYC graffiti artist and OVO homie, Jim Joe, feels intentionally duplicitous with its multiple meanings. To do a little close reading that my English professor would be proud of, Drake doesn’t identify the it in “it’s.” The title is a victorious reference to his audience and opponents; Drake has already achieved greatness leaving us in the dust. Or perhaps it’s self-destructive: we are “too late” to save Drake from what he’s become. It’s not too far off from the beginning of a would-be suicide note, and it’s clear from the songs that death and fame and their relationship to one another are foremost on his mind.
Simply put, Drake sounds fed up, perhaps tired, on this newest mixtape. While continuing to employ his shout-to-whisper technique, Drake sounds almost monotone for a portion of the album. On songs like “10 Bands,” his discussion of money, women, and cars is delivered flatly with little intonation while allusions to paranoid and erratic behavior mark the lyrics: “Drapes closed I don’t know what time it is.” His disinterest is clearest on “Madonna,” which opens with Drake literally mumbling through the hook, “Laced up, dripped up, sauced up / Damn, girl, I wanna ride with you.” The songs are performed as if he doesn’t care what we or anyone else thinks of him. On previous albums, Drake used wordplay and musical complexity to portray the vexed relationship between the celebrity lifestyle and the pursuit of happiness; in these stripped down songs, he projects the assurance of someone who has squared that circle.
Drake’s treatment of internal conflict goes deeper and darker than before. When boasting about being a legend in his city on the aptly titled “Legend,” he repeats “Oh my God, oh my God / If I die, I’m a legend.” His status seems to be solely dependent on his death, perhaps alluding to notable hip-hop demigods Notorious B.I.G and Tupac. On “Now & Forever,” Drake again addresses his mortality, “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.” On the hook he sings, “No More, no more, no more,” apparently attempting to convince himself and the female subject of the song that he’s truly leaving this time. But as the track winds down, his message changes to “Just let me go just let me go, let me bring it home to you,” as he reverses his stance on leaving the romance behind. In his early pop songs like “Best I Ever Had” Drake dressed his emotional honesty in catchy harmonies and sappy romantics, but Drake’s candor on If You’re Reading This is rough around the edges; he’s not afraid to contradict himself or work against the expectations of his audience. His anger has deepened, his sadness, as well. Drake’s tear-inducing songs of years past were steeped in emotion; now he sounds empty and hollow, unhopeful yet resilient. His shifting attitudes towards his subjects add to the self-portrait of Drake as a non-perfect human. His awareness of his own ever-changing personas is reflected in his lyrics that push then pull, plead then spurn.
Drake’s emotions aren’t supposed to be crystal-clear; like all emotions, they are to be wrestled with. This is what makes Drake such an appealing musician. He has an ability to be both macro and micro at once: he infuses enough universality into personal lyrics like “I got some shit for you to come and get / I’m at the St. Regis up on Briar Oaks, hit me when you done your shift” that the significance of his words can be argued every which way. Adding to this ambiguity are the circumstances surrounding the production and release of the album. There’s been speculation that If You’re Reading This is simply a mish-mash of songs thrown together as a mixtape—a way for Drake to fulfill his current record deal with Young Money and save his best material for his much anticipated “Views from the 6” to be released on his own label, OVO Sound.
Regardless, If You’re Reading This is a splendidly unpolished mixture of unrivaled brashness fueled by resentment and lost loves. Contrasting heavy ballads with thumping and aggressively eerie beats, Drake and his producer Noah (40) Shebib bring their music into uncharted territory. Drake features only a few artists, PartyNextDoor, Lil Wayne, and Travi$ Scott, each leaving a unique mark and bringing out a different side of the phenomenon that is Drake. His emotions have become murkier, with sounds of frustration, arrogance and heartbreak pouring out of this latest release. Acting as both the deity and the disciple, Drake employs strange yet satisfying new tactics to help us understand his triumphs and his torments, and in doing so, perhaps he hopes we begin to understand ourselves.