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Review: All Work and No Play for Drake on ‘If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late’

7
SPIN Rating: 7 of 10
Release Date: February 12, 2015
Label: YMCMB

A million vines, Twitter hashtags, and radio snarl-alongs later, it’s worth looking back and remembering just what a strange song Drake’s “Worst Behavior” was. The biggest hit off of Drizzy’s third album, Nothing Was the Same, was either “Started From the Bottom” or “Hold On, We’re Going Home,” depending on whether you measure by hip-hop or crossover standards, but the definitive song was undoubtedly “Behavior,” a bizarre four-and-a-half minutes of rattling beats, moaning samples and furious vocals, with little if any verse-chorus structure. It either had no hooks or the entire thing was one long hook; it was hard to tell. The song was alienating on the first listen but enthralling (if still somewhat alienating) on the 100th; it became the Drizzy song you played if you really wanted to make the fans go apeshit. It was also about as far away as you could get from “Best I Ever Had” without going full on freak-folk or death metal.

“Please don’t speak to me like I’m that Drake from four years ago,” the rapper warns on “No Tellin’,” probably the definitive song on his recent surprise-release mixtape, If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late. No worry of that here: On Too Late, Drake is definitely still on his worst behavior, and in case you couldn’t tell from the beats and lyrics, Drake references his new signature song on two separate tracks on the tape. It’s no secret, though: Sonically and thematically, this not-album is easily the harshest release of Drake’s career, a brooding, unsettling listen with few respites offered from its sense of creeping dread. There’s no “Hold On, We’re Going Home” to be found here, no “Started From the Bottom,” not even a “From Time.” There’s no shortage, however, of motherfuckers who never loved us.

The record’s unforgivingness is quickly exemplified by the very first track. “Legend” starts off with what sounds like it’ll turn into a “Power Trip”-style soul hook, but the sample can’t quite rev up to full power, too distant and lethargic to ever get there. “When I pull up on a nigga, tell that nigga back back,” Drizzy offers as an opening statement, ultimately declaring on the Tupac-style chorus, “If I die, all I know is, I’m a muthafucking legend,” as drums skitter underneath. Past Drake openers were exultant, if stock-taking affairs, full of blanketing pianos, comforting guest hooks, and lively verses, impassioned salvos that reannounced the rapper’s presence with authority. “Legend” is none of that: The vocals are slow and deliberate to the point of being slurred (as if Michael “5000” Watts got to them first), the beat is creaky and unstable, and the only other voice of note is of Ginuwine’s from his ’90s hit, “So Anxious,” down-pitched enough to remove all sexiness and make the sample sound, well, anxious.

A Shabba Ranks lift and a couple of gun effects into second track “Energy,” and it’s pretty clear this is a different beast of a Drake record. The shotgun cocks and machine-gun spits are surprisingly recurring throughout Too Late, along with talk of the rapper’s “brand new Beretta, can’t wait to let it go” and mentions of “keep[ing] the blade with me… ain’t no tellin’.” It’s the toughest-talking Drake full-length by far, but also the toughest-sounding: The drums are sparse and piercing, the pianos are low and foreboding, and the samples are often minimal to the point of being subsonic, as if trapped beneath the icy productions. For the first eight tracks, the only voices you hear besides Drake are those of Jamaican OVO compatriots speaking in half-unintelligible patois, samples of Lil Wayne muttering about the rap game, and phone operators letting him know that his call has failed to go through. Appropriate for the mixtape’s title, the world of Too Late is a cold one.

Of course, it doesn’t sound like Drake is getting out much these days anyway. Drizzy’s insistence on rebranding Toronto as “The 6″ seems purposeful in turning his hometown into an exciting-but-precarious urban metropolis worthy of Nas or the Wu-Tang Clan’s New York — you can picture him rapping the album out with his crew in empty playgrounds and projects like in the early Illmatic and 36 Chambers videos, amidst cold so stinging you can see every breath — but he doesn’t venture far enough past his front door to ever really evoke the city. “Haven’t left the condo for a week now,” Drake mentions on “10 Bands,” likely intended as a testament to his self-imposed work ethic, but sounding more like the bemoanings of a shut-in who’s too mistrustful to leave the house. The entire LP feels claustrophobic, the bleating synths pressing on the beats like the walls closing in, the samples sounding like they’re bleeding in from a room over, the hooks and beats circular and repetitive to the point of mania.

It doesn’t seem like Drake is getting much in the ways of feminine comfort these days, either. Despite registering early concerns about “turning into a nigga that thinks about money and women like 24/7,” the album is the rapper at his most homosocial: Niko, 40, Ethan, and other oft-mentioned male allies from Aubrey’s past and present show up early and often, where Paris, Lissa, and Courtney from Hooters on Peachtree are nowhere to be found. Indeed, there are no women guests anywhere on the album: No Alicia Keys or Jhene Aiko to sing the hook, no Rihanna to provide a romantic co-lead, not even a frustrated female voice on the other end of the phone to suggest that Drake check his drunk ass. (And forget about Nicki Minaj, once a necessary big-sister figure on Drake’s LPs, then a bemoaned missed presence, and now entirely a ghost.) A potentially interesting romantic lead on “6 God” is introduced with “I got one girl, and she’s my girl, and nobody else can hit it,” but later dismissed with a callous “You can have her when I’m finished.” Drake doesn’t even really even get that horny until “Company,” the tape’s 14th track, at which point he just sounds leering and desperate, like he’s out of practice.

In fact, the record’s one truly impactful female presence is the one woman in his life that Drake has no sexual interest in. “You & the 6,” an ode to Drizzy’s mother, sneaks in from the record’s final leg and provides an entirely unanticipatable emotional wallop: a heart-rending account of his mother’s inability to understand her son’s life (and his difficulty trying to explain), an attempt to justify his father’s own questionable behavior and a case for why he deserves her forgiveness, and a testament to how what both of them did for him in life made Aubrey the man he is today. Like “Dear Mama” 20 years ago, “You & the 6″ avoids easy platitudes and bland tributes, instead approaching his mother with empathy and understanding, ultimately letting her know as Tupac did: You are appreciated. It’s one of the most affecting songs of Drake’s career.

The only other song on If You’re Reading This to punch its way through the record’s narcotic-bordering-on-narcoleptic webbing isn’t technically even on the LP — “6PM in New York,” spiritual sequel to previous non-album releases “9AM in Dallas” and “5AM in Toronto,” is listed as a mixtape bonus track on Spotify and iTunes. To a certain extent, though, it feels like the only way to end the tape: an invigorated, almost Rocky-esque affirmation jam that sees Drake in peak form as he works the bag, swatting the pesky Tyga (“You should act your age and not your girl’s age”) and throwing rocks at the Throne (“I’m never ever scared to get some blood on my leaves”), all in one extended freestyle-esque verse that stuns with its focus and precision. It doesn’t fit with the rest of Too Late at all, but it’s a necessary reminder that Drake hasn’t let The Fear get the best of him, and that he’s still as hungry as ever to earn that muthafuckin’ legend status.

Because it was sold online, despite its sneak-release nature and mixtape billing, many have hypothesized that If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late was pushed out to help fulfill Drake’s record contract with YMCMB, before he follows mentor Lil Wayne out the door. There’s a good deal of evidence here to support this, from Drake taking his new gun to his label on “Star67,” to him protesting “I’m leaving, I’m gone” throughout “Now & Forever,” to his including “Used To,” previously from Weezy’s Birdman-protesting Sorry 4 the Wait 2, on the tracklist. But mixtape or album, contractual release or no, Too Late definitely scans as a transitional work, a transfixing moment-in-time sort of recording that sees an unprecedentedly fortified Drake firing off paranoid and power-drunk thoughts from his basement, sounding even lonelier than he does than when he specifically talks about feeling lonely.

An LP full of Aubrey’s worst behavior can be unsurprisingly difficult, and first-week-intrigue sales aside, it’s hard to imagine the record (if that is its real name) ending up a blockbuster like his last few albums proper. But like “Worst Behavior,” Too Late becomes insidious the more you allow it to infect your consciousness, until the record’s oppressive disquiet and unease becomes its own sort of comfort, until it’s hard to remember that there ever was a Drake who simply wanted your hot love and emotion, endlessly.