Music

‘Honestly, Nevermind’ is the best record Drake has ever made

Every few months, someone tweets something about how Drake made it OK for rappers to rap as well as sing, or that he’s the new Lauryn Hill, or something similarly stupid and ahistorical. For as ubiquitous as Drake has been over the past 13 years — and for as often as that ubiquity is mistaken for greatness — these tweets are usually lambasted online for days at a time. What about Cee-Lo?, people respond, or Biz, or Bone Thugs, or Ja Rule? Drake, it must be said, does not feed this revisionist bent or its more modern parallels: He is vampiric in his co-opting of trends and emerging regional scenes, but he usually gives the artists from whom he steals a guest verse, an entree into the DSP playlisting cabal, or at least an effusive Instagram DM they can screenshot and show their fans. (usually.) As far back as the George W. Bush years, he was lavishing praise on Phonte from Little Brother’s R&B side project, The Foreign Exchange; when he justified his preordained celebrity with 2009’s So Far Gonehe did so in a large part by lifting from Kanye West’s then-recent 808s & Heartbreak while making no effort to obscure its influence.

What these tweets about Drake misunderstand is not only his relationship with the past, but with what came next. Rap in the 2010s was dominated, at least on radio and on the pop charts, by young artists who blur the line between rapping and singing on each verse of every song, sometimes through vocal modulation but just as often through styles that are genuine and permanent hybrids. (Think of the way Lil Uzi Vert is perpetually on the verge of a warbled hook or a staccato run of Gangsta Grillz rapping qua rapping, but seldom slides fully into either.) While there are certainly examples of Drake threading a melodic line through several bars of a rap verse, his approaches tend to be more clearly demarcated, including on songs where he switches between the two rather than synthesizing them into a single technique.

There is rap Drake and R&B Drake, and the artist, hyperconscious as he is of the feedback his work gets online, deploys the personas so that they’re in conversation with one another on a celebrity-metatextual level rather than a simply textural one. This has the uncomfortable effect of making his albums feel like resumes, proof of concept for his fluency in whatever’s popular at the moment, or — when his ear is sharpest — his ability to expand that lens just a little. The most rewarding product of this strategy is 2011’s Take Care which, bloated as it is, took the iciness of early Weeknd, a vague sense of what had been going on in Houston and Memphis rap over the prior decades, and some repurposed Gil Scott-Heron and made a compelling album about megalomania and winter in Toronto. The least is last year’s Certified Lover BoySpotify wallpaper so cynically constructed as to be an affront to anyone who streams it.

Honestly, Nevermindthe album Drake released with only hours of warning last week, not only corrects Lover Boy‘s garishly middlebrow nothingness, but abandons this bland omnivorousness for something that is engrossing in its near-uniformity. Over beats that pull from house music and other contemporary dance genres and with vocals that are almost exclusively sung, Drake convincingly sells a middling voice and sophomoric songwriting as the implicitly interesting byproducts of emotional pain that he has long claimed they are. It’s not only the best record he’s ever made, but the first one to arrive at the place he’s been driving toward since So Far Gone.

Like the Drake albums that came before it, Nevermind is overseen by Noah “40” Shebib, the artist’s longtime collaborator who has frequently contributed as a producer, but whose work as the engineer of Drake’s voice is perhaps more critical. Since the beginning of their time together, 40 has made Drake’s vocals ring with hyperclarity through mixes that otherwise sound as if they were done under Lake Ontario. This professionalized finish has helped make Drake one of the most inescapable artists on the planet. But it also undercuts the supposedly off-the-cuff nature of his messiest asides, and sometimes of full songs, which are supposedly animated by impulse but instead are made to sound focus-grouped. On Nevermind, Drake’s takes are sometimes left to sound like reference run-throughs, or even like voice memos, hastily captured for later repurposing. Toward the end of the mesmerizing “Texts Go Green,” he sings eight nearly identical lines in a row, each ending with the word “rough.” The first time he sings this word, Drake pops up and out of the vocal register he’s been using; 40 does not make this syllable a song-stopping moment by highlighting it with reverb or sanding it until it flows more naturally into the rest of the run. Instead, it dangles there like the offhanded instinct it likely was.

If the vocals and their shaggy mixes accentuate what Drake is getting at thematically, so do the shapes of the songs themselves. Too often in the past, Drake’s writing has seemed self-satisfied even at its most ostensibly vulnerable, its transactional revelations, its probing reduced to gossip. Nevermind recontextualizes his gripes, poignant and petty, as the inner monologue that rushes past during a gloom that will not lift and in a world that will not slow down to indulge them. The lyrics on “A Keeper” are downright morose, but delivered over a beat with such a surging pulse that they actually evoke more sadness than they would on a more static track, where they would have likely lived on Scorpionor Viewsor Thank Me Later.

Such is the benefit of ditting Lover Boy‘s mediocre rap pastiche for dance music. There is little musical invention here. Since Nevermind‘s release, there have been some extremely astute essays written about the broader context and history of the scenes from which he borrows; that he waters down this source material, and that Nevermind does not represent the cutting edge of anything, should be a given. Drake’s primary genre, for years, has been Drake. But this palette suits him better than any of the others he picked up and discarded over the past decade. The one time he raps before the album’s very end — the balletic “Sticky,” which is produced by Maryland’s Gordo, who spearheads the album’s beats alongside 40 and South Africa’s Black Coffee — is likely Drake’s strongest rapping performance since 2015’s If You’re Reading This It’s Too Latehis main vocals sliding in and out of ad-lib territory, his syllables in fascinating rhythmic conversation with the drums, his rented sprinter vans speeding toward the Quebec border.

Not everything here is so successful. “Currents,” a flip of Trillville’s ”Some Cut“ that is too soft and too ornate, threatens to derail the album after the early momentum built by “Falling Back” and “Texts Go Green;” “Overdrive” and “Down Hill,” sequenced back to back on Nevermind‘s B-side, are tonally different but similarly breathy, and could have been excised so that the coda of “Flight’s Booked” could have flown seamlessly into “Tie That Binds,” the latter song’s drums seeming to grow out of the former’s. The most divisive song, though, is the record’s last, the 21 Savage duet “Jimmy Cooks,” which opens with a Playa Fly interpolation and functions as a traditional rap record that could have slotted onto any other Drake album without incident.

Nevermind‘s most vocal detractors have identified “Cooks” as the only good song on the LP; others have decried it as playing like a bonus track, grafted on to juice streaming numbers, to no creative end. The former camp is obviously wrong, and while I’ve been as skeptical of Drake as nearly any critic, I don’t think it is a naked chart play like “Hotline Bling”’s inclusion on Views. Nevermind‘s penultimate song, the sorrowful, slowed-and-reverbed “Liability,” is not a closer—it teases emotional release to come. “Cooks” is instead best understood as Drake’s decade-late imitation of “Bound 2,” the final song on Kanye West’s Yeezuswhich maintained that album’s musical motifs but tunneled out of its mid-life crisis gothicism and into something like catharsis.

“Cooks” is not so elegant a transition; it has little in common with the rest of Nevermind, and does not pay off or complicate the album’s undercurrent of loneliness. But like the West song, it highlights the degree of formal departure in what preceded it. “Bound” turned out to be a swan song of sorts: In the ten years since, West has never quite recreated the warm, soulful goofiness of that song, or of the early albums it recalled. It is unlikely that “Cooks” will be the same. If anything, Nevermind‘s finale — a perfectly fine song, with a Drake verse that is inoffensive if unmemorable and a slightly better one from 21 — is a reminder that at any moment, the artist is likely to slip back into the digital-corporate morass he’s seemed stuck in for years, and that a diversion like this might never come again.

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