Of all the loosies Drake put out last year, from “Trophies” and “We Made It” to “0 to 100” and “How Bout Now,” the searching power ballad “Heat of the Moment” stood out from all others in its promise of the man Aubrey Graham might be about to become. “Heat” Drake sings about global warming, muses on the power of the soul, and tells the kids to stop having so much darn unprotected sex. Graham, approaching thirty, had reached a new plateau of cultural power and creative excellence in the wake of 2013’s Nothing Was The Same and was syncing up with the “conscious” wave the mainstream was then tuning into. Alongside Kanye West’s “Only One,” Kendrick’s bubbly “i” and Chance the Rapper’s emerging gospel pop rap persona, “Heat” promised 2015 as the year corporation-friendly rap would take its “moral” responsibilities seriously in a way it hadn’t in decades, if ever. I couldn’t wait: after Soulja Boy, swag, and the “I Don’t Like (Remix)” the millennials were finally coming of age, bro.
Then, in early February ‘15, Drake dropped the short film Jungle and something was off. The young man of the people I expected to see was conspicuously absent. The film starts with an exhausted guy diving into an all-black luxury vehicle and being shuttled out of a city in the dead of night. Away from people. He’s got this heavy beard, the lines under his eyes are starting to look like bags for the first time. He sounds bitter about fame in a way he hasn’t in years and is completely unsure of who in his personal life can be trusted. Well yeah, Drake! You know, that’s the system! Making black men hate each other and disrespect our fe-males, dude, yeah, totally, we’re about to go tear it down with D’Angelo and the cast of Selma – come with us! It’s time to go unify! Except Drake doesn’t go anywhere. He builds higher walls. The first lines of If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late are about making N-words back up. The last ones concern taking your girl while covered head-to-toe in Prada. Somewhere in all that darkness and ice emerges my favorite project the rapper has released to date.
If You’re Reading… is the album-long culmination of JAY Z’s prophetic letter to A. Graham on “Light Up,” from the latter’s Cash Money debut Thank Me Later (2010): the harder you appear, the more you become a study in loss and sadness. Accordingly, both Jungle and IYRTITL are overloaded with subterranean emotion. During the Travi$ Scott-assisted “Company,” dogs woof and synths moan ominously. Even when Drizzy isn’t spelling his pain out to mom on “You & The 6” or to a lover on the Eric Dingus-produced slow jam “Now & Forever,” the production flourishes tell the story of a mind drifting through war. The lyric “I don’t deserve her,” is cut by a woman on the phone saying “at least you fucking know.” On “Star67” the bass seethes like a brooding child while Drake goes from telling off models to a heart-breaking story of selling drugs in his teens.
Back in Jungle, the 6 God falls asleep and awakens at an OVO party on his Donnie Darko ish. Our boy wanders through the dramatically lit dream compound seeing everyone there for what they truly are: cold, calculating, alone. Elsewhere, in real life, he watches a female dancer walk past a cafe window and imagines her practicing in an empty studio, ever drawn to the idea of solitary passion in an unforgiving landscape. Some teens go by in the other direction, we “see” them dipping off to do hard drugs with their hard friends as the chimes of IYR’s “Know Yourself” fade-in and the movie transitions to footage of Drake and his own crew of homies.
Despite, or perhaps because of, success Drake remains trapped in a slick, hypermasculine exterior. His woes are locked up for real for real while Toronto kids rule over playgrounds littered with paraphernalia. True to its scrawled album cover, If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late is a crime mystery of sorts. Someone or something has taken hope from us. Drake is not a Civil Rights icon floating through the air, but he’s another young human trying to figure it all out and he is a very thorough artist.