There was a time, not too long ago, when Drake had plenty to say. Perhaps you remember the origin story: A gangly, Canadian Degrassi star decamped to Houston in 2009, where he coated his mixtapes with an appropriate codeine spritz and banged down the doors of Trey Songz and Lil Wayne until he had a record contract to call his own.
Drake possessed the audacious belief that he could reforge the music industry in his extremely unorthodox image; he would take the stage in letterman jackets and polo shirts and write lines about loathing fame and missing his dorm room. He even posed in a jeweled Chai chain and a Toronto Blue Jays cap on the cover of Vibe.
It actually worked, against all odds. In the early 2010s, as the solipsistic millennial stereotype was just beginning to calcify, Drake ascended as our unquestioned avatar. I was a 20-year old sophomore at a gigantic state college when Take Care came out, which is to say I represented Drake’s precise target demographic. He sampled a voicemail message left by an exasperated ex-flame on “Marvins Room” and christened a generation of isolated, terminally self-conscious oversharers. Drake was sulking towards the Pantheon, and we were lucky enough to be along for the ride.
So you can probably understand my dissatisfaction last Friday, after Drake dropped his baffling seventh studio album, Honestly, Nevermind, at the stroke of midnight. The record is 14 songs and 55 minutes long, and it officially introduces the rapper’s Caligula era. Something has gone horribly wrong here. Drake has traded in the toolbox that has gotten him so far for a whispery, Ibiza-ish EDM tincture that immediately evaporates into thin air.
A lot of people are joking that Honestly, Nevermind sounds like the stock, hypebeast muzak you might hear in a ZARA fitting room, all rave piano and liquid drums. But to me, it’s more like a freakishly vibe-less 808s & Heartbreak. Drake barely raps throughout the runtime, choosing instead to rely on the honeyed singing voice that notched him megaton hits like Hotline Bling and “Hold On, We’re Going Home.” But unlike those songs, nothing on the album is capable of recording the faintest emotional feedback. It is intended to be neutral music—pleasantly transient, aggressively low-stakes—with all Drake’s trademark hubris surgically excised.
My mom would probably like it. Honestly, Nevermind is certainly the first Drake album that could melt into her algorithm-derived Spotify playlists, and that might be the point. After more than a decade of dominance, Drake no longer courts our sordid fascination. He’s happy to soak up the streams and cash his checks. I was a fool to hold out hope for another classic Drake record. If I had been paying close attention, I would have known he was bound to end up like this.
I saw Drake live during his Take Care tour back in 2012. He was already wildly, unfathomably famous—we were in a basketball arena packed to the rafters. But the reality of that fame hadn’t fully cemented yet. Drake was in his early twenties, still feeling out the parameters of his genius, and toward the end of the show, right before the encore, he offered a quintessentially self-effacing monologue. Drake told us that he knew, someday, he was going to fall off. The records were not going to sell forever. How could they? Like all of us, eventually he’ll be old, washed, and out-of-touch. So thank you, he said, for showing up, because nothing lasts forever.
At the genesis of a decade-long Billboard reign, Drake was already anxious about the inevitable end. That neurosis always powered his best songs. This is a man who ached over the pressures of success long before he was successful himself. Drake was never able to relax and enjoy the ride, and he badly wanted us to understand why. What’s eating Aubrey? The wistful memories of a wholesome, civilian tryst back home? He’ll tell you the exact Hooters she works at. A piddling diss that he—and only he—could care about? He’ll air all your dirty laundry in public. An ex-girlfriend he almost certainly treated poorly? He’ll build a song out of her outrageously valid grievances. Drake knew he was leading a compelling life, and he was happy to give us all the gory details.
You can’t blame the guy for pulling back; Those of us who grew up on the internet inevitably become ashamed of our own paper trails. The first crack in his portfolio was probably 2016’s Views, a stuffy, sour album that trod water and revealed no fresh juice on the Drake persona. (Frankly, you can make an argument that Views is worse than Honestly, Nevermind, but that’s a take for another column.)
But to me, the point of demarcation occurred in 2018, when Drake found himself in a disastrous feud with Pusha T. Pusha infamously learned that Drake had recently become a father, which had not yet broken into the TMZ-trained public. He that detail as the linchpin of “The Story of Adidon,” an outstandingly brutal diss track, and served Drake his first true celebrity embarrassment. (“You are hiding a child, let that boy come home/ Deadbeat motherfucker playing border control,” yeesh.) The rapper had disgraced himself plenty of times on his own terms, but this was different. Someone else had wrested control of Drake’s tightly cultivated narrative. That wasn’t the deal, and I’m not sure he’s ever totally recovered.
I think that’s why Drake’s last two studio albums, 2018’s Scorpion and last year’s Certified Lover Boy, landed with a thud. Both records produced plenty of hits—Drake has never, and likely will never, lose his ear for a beat. But the trademark messy intimacy was conspicuously missing. Drake’s most recent chart-topper is “Way 2 Sexy,” a song so flagrantly, knowingly stupid that it samples the Right Said Fred single of the same name. In the “In My Feelings” video, released shortly after the Pusha T debacle, Drake roleplays a dizzy alternate timeline where he remained a struggling rapper deep into his thirties—an eternal fuckboy with no cash to support the lifestyle, and therefore no high-profile beefs to worry about. He honestly looked pretty happy!
It must be a relief to leave all of your earliest artistic inclinations in the dust without any financial penalty. In many ways, Drake is more successful than ever. He’s become the master of every avaricious trend in the music industry, consistently releasing 20-track behemoths and meandering B-side collections, specifically designed to mine as many Spotify residuals as possible. He’s mercenary with his collaborations—honing a ruthless nose for virality—to the point of inventing TikTok trends whole cloth. (“Toosie Slide” was the nadir of the entire pandemic.) None of these tactics make Drake an outlier: Record companies know how the sausage is made, which is why we must endure Scorsese-length Migos albums. But I do miss that brief period of time when Drake dared to think of himself as the voice of his generation. He himself was always the most interesting part of his art, but he doesn’t want us in the house anymore.
That brings us back to Honestly, Nevermind, a Drake album where Drake is effectively invisible. As Jayson Greene noted at Pitchforkthe rapper seems to disappear into the Balearic ether, flitting through the brief pockets of air with a sigh or a whimper, distilling his vivid lovelornions into a few candy-heart confessions. Honestly, Nevermind will not spark any rumors or intrigue, because in 2022, Drake is happy to treat music like a day job. Again, nobody can fault him for escaping the crucible. Drake is a 35-year-old single dad, and one of the most euphoric things about getting older is the realization that you no longer have the capacity to wear your heart on your sleeve. And anyways, the album is already setting new streaming thresholds; he shouldn’t have any regrets.
Still, I can’t help but trust that the old, impetuous, thin-skinned Drake, the guy I fell in love with, is hiding out in the benthic regions of his brain. We saw a twinge of it over the weekend, as the rapper sifted through the muted critical reception to his latest project. “It’s all good if you don’t get it yet. It’s all good,” he said, at a release party for Honestly, Nevermind. “That’s what we do. That’s what we do, we wait for you to catch up. We’re in here though, we caught up already.” That’s the guy I know and love—Not Mad, actually Laughing—brewing up a fresh set of scores to settle. I can only hope he can tap into that dark pettiness one more time, for one more classic. The sooner he arrives at his mid-life crisis, the better.