There are no invisible stars, and there are no unseen selves.
Just as fame is a function of being appreciated externally, the self (as
distinct from character, personality, or soul) is the outcome of introspection.
Drake’s genius was to elide the difference between the two views. The son of a
black father and a white mother, half American and half Canadian, half Gentile
and half Jew, the actor made himself a star—half in R&B and half in rap—by
representing himself in the smooth and endless process of oscillating between
private self-regard and public performance. By revealing the basic human
concerns that underlay his stardom, he diminished the scale of celebrity,
rendered it generic; conversely, he magnified the petty gratifications of
individual self-assessment to the point where they seemed to verge on serious
pleasure. As with everything involving Drake, the experience of his music was
two-sided and equivocal. He licensed the listener to luxuriate in static
reflection—yet it was a reflection shot through with social (particularly
romantic) aspiration that animated him and his audience alike.
By investing in Drake as an artist, you passively invested in self-sufficiency and actively strove for self-improvement at the same time. In this he seemed, despite his Canadian, non-violent tone, quintessentially American. Drake was just saying that you could do better; and besides, even if you’d heard that lately, advertising proved you could stand to hear it again and again.
It wasn’t long before Drake—strategic, persistent, and inimitable—having achieved stardom, ascended to the level of a household name: not just a personal brand but the brand of selfhood itself. If the money flowed in one direction, identity was held in common (or at least declared itself to be). This counted for a great deal early on, in an era where the aggressive posturing of gangster rap had hollowed itself out with repetition. When Drake leaped into public view in 2009 with his third mixtape, So Far Gone, the music had the charm of novelty: Instead of being shaken down, you were taken on a plush, interior ride; your inertia was encouraged rather than enforced. Bush left office and Obama was elected; 50 Cent declined and Drake, aided by a crucial boost from Kanye West, began his rise. Both the East and West Coasts had stagnated, and Southern rap, though extremely fertile, had failed to break through to the suburbs. The stage was perfectly set for Drake, an outsider expert at catering to large, underserved constituencies—women and middle-class listeners especially—to bring hope and change to the game.
Perhaps because the gap between politics and pop music is too wide to readily span, the parallels between Obama and Drake have never been explored in full. Both are mixed race, raised primarily by the white, maternal branch of their family in an environment (Hawaii, Ontario) that is, culturally, not quite American. Both, in spite of achieving the lofty position they craved, have been forced to deal with a vociferous, unappeasable set of haters (birthers, certain hardcore rap fans) who question their legitimacy and suspect their origins. Though capable of being sociable, both are publicly (and essentially) reserved, verging on cold; their genuine feelings are reserved for a tight-knit “family” based in the Great Lakes city (Chicago, Toronto) where they hailed from prior to their ascension. Both used the Internet to partially bypass traditional power structures during their rise to fame (mixtape distribution and fast publicity, field organizing and fundraising). Both are above-average; both are wedded to an ideal of collaborative, incremental change; both deal with leaks mercilessly. Obama and Drake are, due to the peculiar nature of their upbringing and character, immensely skilled at allowing others to interpret them: Neither man expresses himself so much he as removes the obstacles that would keep his audience from identifying with him.
For Drake, as a mass-market pop artist seeking to maximize his demographic appeal, this means steering clear of controversy, political or otherwise. Yet in laying claim to status as an artist in rap, a profoundly racialized and politicized artform, politics can never fully fall out of Drake’s field of vision, even if he typically redirects attention towards his own unease: Kids are out here losing lives, and if I hold my tongue about it I get crucified. The line comes from “30 for 30 Freestyle,” the coda of What a Time to Be Alive, the 2015 mixtape he created with Atlanta rapper Future. When it topped the charts and bound the coolest rapper of the year to Drake, the collection’s success marked the penultimate stage in a years-long campaign by the Canadian-American to secure not just commercial supremacy in American rap—this he already possessed—but also aesthetic preeminence. Coupled with If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late, Drake’s hit-crammed solo mixtape in February of that same year, and his meme-warfare triumph over hardcore rap prince Meek Mill in a summer beef, WATTBA seemed to bring Drake closer than ever to his dream of being considered both a pop genius and a legendary rapper.
That was the backdrop to 2016’s Views, Drake’s long-awaited fourth studio album: Fueled by 2015’s victories, the anticipation for the album (originally titled Views From the 6) had reached colossal proportions by the time of its release, on April 29th.
Which is why the disappointment in the album has been correspondingly immense. Reviewers have been virtually unanimous in finding the album and its artist to be messy, tedious, regressive, apolitical, and lame. It almost seems superfluous to join the chorus of listeners and critics let down by Drake, so identical—and identically correct—are their opinions. Views really is a mediocre album. Its 81-minute length ensures that the bad songs, their drag on the album enhanced by abysmal track sequencing, are especially insufferable. Drake is recycling his tropes and his persona: Once again, he plays the self-centered humblebraggart prattling on about the inconstancy of his ex-girlfriends, his peers, and his own emotions.
No hint of social relevance or aesthetic novelty can be distilled from the general ambience of paralytic luxury and minor depression, and this absence seems especially pronounced when contrasted with the life and works of Prince (whose death occurred April 21st), and the April 23rd release of Beyoncé’s Lemonade, an album-length music video whose social engagement is directly linked to its aesthetic eminence and freshness. Drake has learned nothing and forgotten nothing. If, backed by a crack team of producers, a brigade of indentured writers, and eight years of experience, he’s still failed to create a great album, it’s a safe bet that he never will.
Yet a strange thing happens after one resigns oneself to the fact of Drake’s inconsistency as an artist and as a human being: Suddenly, he becomes completely reliable. By abandoning the hope that Drake can meaningfully improve, you can finally be certain about him in a way that was previously inaccessible. I’ve stopped listening to things you say because you don’t mean it anyway (“Feel No Ways”); I’m not someone you should trust, I know (“Childs Play”). You get that there’s nothing more to get.
It’s only once you stop expecting Drake to be great that you can fully appreciate how very good he actually is. After the bar of greatness is set aside, there’s no need to sift his words for substance—and only then can you fully savor the sound, once more executive produced by Noah “40” Shebib, Drake’s capable life partner and confidant: 40 the only one who know how I deal with the pressure (“Weston Road Flows”). Half trapsoul in the vein of Bryson Tiller, half quiet storm in the style of Sade, the polished instrumentals regularly outperform a lyricist too deep to be shallow, too shallow to be deep, and too predictable to merit continued attention. He’s a smooth operator; there’s no need to ask, nor ask for more.
A great fling and a tiresome commitment, Drake is, in every sense of the word, a singles artist: many of his best songs appear on no albums, and most of his worst songs appear in the position ideally suited to destroy the overall quality of the albums in which they appear. Thank Me Later was forgettable but consistently decent; thanks in large part to sonic gifts appropriated from the Weeknd (Toronto’s only true musical genius), there was a 60-minute masterpiece entombed in the 80 minutes of Take Care; subtracting a few spells of torpor, Nothing Was the Same was airily sweet. Views, with its Caribbean and Afrobeat borrowings, at times possesses a subtle new ambience, but as with its predecessors it’s left to the listener to prune and reorder the overlong tracklist to the point where it can be purely enjoyed.
Minus the bullshit (the ponderous album opener “Keep the Family Close” practically sinks the album before it can even set sail), the filler, and the tracks better suited to be loosies (“Controlla,” “Grammies,” “Hotline Bling”), there’s a very good 40-minute playlist to be extracted from Views: “9,” “U with Me?,” “Feel No Ways,” “Weston Road Flows,” “Faithful,” “One Dance,” “Childs Play,” “Too Good,” “Summers Over Interlude,” and “Views.” This is plenty, especially when one considers how, by now, asking more of Drake than he can give is much like expecting Obama to be politically radical: only exhaustion and disillusion can result. It’s enough that they are who they are, no more and no less. Like the Cheesecake Factory cited in one of the album’s rare memorable lines (on “Childs Play”), they cater to a middle-class being steadily squeezed out of existence. Though retaining a firm rhetorical emphasis on that middle, both Drake and Obama have vaulted themselves into the ranks of the global one percent. If it’s hard to begrudge them their success, it’s harder still to share it.
As for the ones who still think they can do better: The burden of proof rests on them. But that isn’t really something new, and neither is Drake. It’s easy to resent how his music fails to reward one’s full attention; it’s better as background music or in the states of absent-mindedness brought on by intoxication and exhaustion. Still, really, exhausted by work and debt, the world needs drugs and some sort of soundtrack to continue on. Drake isn’t great. He’s just okay. But sometimes—a lot of times—being okay is enough.