For almost a decade, Drake has been a star and also a curator, the artist most responsible for hip-hop’s evolutionary changes and the one most likely to spot the next in line for the crown.
He has also been a bit of a formal innovator — he releases albums, and also mixtapes, as well as loosies when the feeling strikes. The traditional album cycle may be on the verge of extinction in the pop sphere; Drake has made peace with that.
His latest project, “More Life” — which had its premiere Saturday on OVO Sound Radio, his label’s weekly show on Apple Music’s Beats 1 radio station, and is available on all major platforms for streaming and sale — is billed not as an album, or a mixtape, but a playlist, a choice that has both rhetorical and business import.
Since Billboard tweaked its rules to include streaming, playlists are eligible to appear on the album chart, something that a handful of record labels have taken advantage of with compilations, but no major stand-alone artist has taken on as a creative challenge — Drake is the first. Having a blockbuster success with something other than a traditional album would encourage other artists to experiment with format. And codifying the playlist as a delivery mechanism for new music, not just for collecting other people’s songs, is a conceptual boon for streaming services, including Apple Music, with which Drake has had a longtime partnership.
But the playlist also suggests an aesthetic shift from the album, which in its platonic ideal form is narratively structured and contained, a creator’s complete thought expressed in parts. A playlist in the streaming era, by contrast, is a collection of moods, impressions, influences and references; it’s a river that flows in one direction, ending somewhere far from the beginning (if it ends at all).
This format — relaxed, circuitous, able to take in both his own work and also work by others — is particularly well suited to Drake, who’s as definable by his taste as by his sound.
And so goes the often captivating “More Life,” a nuanced collection of 22 new songs that recall various stages of Drake’s own development, as well as a tour of other styles and artists that he’s partial to. It is both craven and elegant — a collection that’s well matched to the medium and a logical extension of what Drake has been offering for years.
He doesn’t overdeliver on the concept: “More Life” is the length of a very long album, not long enough to accompany a marathon. Where it differs from a Drake album is in how he comports himself and imports others. “More Life” takes a whole host of voices seriously — not just Drake’s but also guests who are given plenty of room.
“4422” is a full song from the aching soul man Sampha; “Skepta Interlude” is a more or less full brute-strength song from the British grime rapper Skepta; “Glow,” a duet with Kanye West, leans heavily in Mr. West’s direction. The tough grime veteran Giggs appears on two songs, shining with a hilariously lewd verse on “KMT.” Young Thug also shows up twice, delivering mystical singing on “Sacrifices” and showing why he’s the clearest modern-day inheritor of P-Funk on “Ice Melts.”
This is a lot of competing energy, and on a traditional album, it might all have to serve a common purpose. But “More Life” is exciting for its detours, its crevices, its relaxed saunter across the various lanes of forward-thinking hip-hop and soul.
Drake is here, too, of course — saving his best rapping for a more formal project, perhaps, but still wound up about being let down by women and also by men. Drake is still in the paranoid and resentful mode that has dominated the last three years, but even when he’s lashing out, he feels gentler and more resigned. “People like you more when you working towards something/Not when you have it,” he raps on “Lose You.” Again and again, his fatigue is a theme, as on “Jorja Interlude”: “Told me I’m looking exhausted/You hit it right on the nose.” At the end of “Can’t Have Everything,” Drake’s mother shows up in what appears to be a voice mail message, cautioning her son against confrontation and anxiety.
Drake loves to hear people talk, both for what they say and how they say it. A scholar of accents and attitude, he lets other people set the mood on “More Life” in several places with sampled spoken interludes. They’re intimate breaks deployed by an artist who’s often said he’s seeking to provide a soundtrack for his listeners’ lives, to get in their heads. (Drake is, almost without question, the single greatest source of perfectly pitched Instagram captions.)
Mouth-to-ear transaction is the level Drake excels at. Consider what Drake doesn’t do: He’s the biggest pop star not named Beyoncé who doesn’t traffic in the trite big-tent on-the-one dance music that’s chart-dominant and soul-killing. He doesn’t make songs for getting lost in a crowd; he makes songs for getting lost in your feelings.
Not that he eschews the dance floor. Instead of aiming for dull festival grandeur, he emphasizes the movement’s black roots — he’s partial to house music (as heard here on the sensual “Passionfruit”), dancehall, Nigerian Afrobeats. His range is as musically meaningful as the one demonstrated by Beyoncé on “Lemonade” — her investigation was intranational, delving into country and slashing rock; Drake’s is international and diasporic, with a keen ear for how the internet has brought even closer black music from North America, the Caribbean, Europe and Africa.
Increasingly, Drake is as much ethnomusicologist as outright collaborator, a shift from the days when he would wield his influence by helping shepherd artists like Migos and Future out of regional acclaim into something wider by appearing on a remix. But even at this more advanced level, he is still scavenging for the latest sound, as heard on “KMT,” where he borrows the jaunty staccato pattern found in the current viral hit “Look at Me” by XXXTentacion. Drake is a teacher to many, but he’s still a hungry student, too. -By JON CARAMANICA (courtesy of The NY Times)
Review: On Drake’s ‘More Life,’ the Creator Meets the Curator