For more than a decade, the Drake factory has been operating at full capacity – recalibrating the relationship between hip-hop, R&B and pop; balancing large-scale ambition with granular experimentation; embracing the memeification of their celebrity. But in recent years, for the first time, it looks like the machines might be taking a break. Keeping the throne is hard work, and the wear and tear was starting to show.
What Drake needed was an opportunity to catch up, a chance to let go of old assumptions. It’s the kind of renewal you only find after hours.
“Honestly, Nevermind,” Drake’s seventh solo studio album, which was released on Friday just hours after it was announced, is a little marvel of bodily exuberance — attractively light, escapist and zealously free. A riveting club music album, it’s an evolution aimed at a new era for one of music’s most influential stars. It’s also a Drake album composed almost entirely of parts from Drake albums that send hip-hop purists into fits of rage.
The expectations Drake is trying to debunk here, however, are his own. For most of the 2010s, hip-hop — and most popular music — shaped itself around its innovations. Blending singing and rapping together, making music that was unconsciously pop without bowing to the old way of making pop, Drake had long understood that he could build a new kind of global consensus both because he understood the limitations of older approaches and because the world is changing.
However, the bloated “Certified Lover Boy,” released last year, was his least focused album, and also his least imaginative — he seemed unnerved, tired of his own ideas. What’s more, the people who came after him might have exhausted them too.
These conditions force innovation, though, and “Honestly, Nevermind” is a clear pivot, an increasingly rare thing for a pop icon. Drake fully embraces the dance floor here, making house music that he also plays at Jersey club, Baltimore club, ballroom and Amapiano. Each of these styles has gone from being a regional phenomenon to the attention of tastemakers in recent years, and like the skilled scavenger that he is, Drake has picked bits and pieces for his own builds.
Part of the reason this is so impressive is that Drake has made a career out of petting. His productions – always led by his longtime collaborator Noah Shebib, known as 40 – were emphatically comforting. But the beats here have sharp corners, they kick and punch. “Currents” features both the raucous bed sample that is a Jersey club staple, and a familiar vocal improv that is a Baltimore club staple. “Texts Go Green” is driven by churning percussion, and the piano sound built into the end of “A Keeper” is an invitation to release.
This approach turns out to be well suited to Drake’s singing style, which is lean and doesn’t apply overt pressure. It’s conspiratorial, romantic, sometimes erotic – he never sings to you as much as he sings about you, in his ear.
Most of the songs are about romantic intrigue, and often Drake is the victim. In some places, this is a throwback to the Drake of the Instagram captions era. “I know my funeral will be lit up because of how I’ve treated people,” he intones in the harsh “Massive.” In the “Liability” folder, he groans, “You’re too busy dancing in the club to our songs.”
But part of the payoff on this album is in the lyrical vivacity – in most songs Drake is alluding to things rather than describing them. Words are hints, suggestions, light abstractions that aim to emulate the mood of production. (Also, social media moves too fast now and doesn’t reward the same kinds of patient emotional poignancy he excels at.)
There are recent precedents for Drake’s picks here: Kanye West’s “808s & Heartbreak” and the faster parts of “Yeezus”; Frank Ocean flirts with dance music.
But music like this has always been part of Drake’s grammar: think 2011’s “Take Care” with Rihanna, with its Gil Scott-Heron/Jamie xx spinoff. Or the serene sunrise anthem “Passionfruit” from 2017 (which also had a sample from Moodymann); “Fountains” from “Certified Lover Boy,” a duet with Nigerian star Tems, was also along those lines, but it seemed to foreshadow that Drake’s next difficult pivot would be towards Afrobeats, which he’s been involved with for a long time. including collaborations with Wizkid.
But Drake opted for club music — the average bpm here is over 100 — building an explicit musical bridge to queer and black music subcultures. That said, the sweaty, countercultural house music he’s been drawing from has also in recent years become a model for music of privilege – it’s the soundtrack to the global moneyed elite, the same in Dubai and Ibiza, Miami and Mykonos. It’s inviting music, but also innocuous; it is full of meaning and reference, but also soft to the touch.
Drake is in an unenviable position that only a handful of pop superstars have been in before – he’s one of the most famous musicians on the planet, and his fame is premised on being something of a chameleon. But it’s hard for a juggernaut to be agile. However, “Honestly, Nevermind” is the work of someone unfazed by the potential to alienate former allies. The past couple of years have been undocked, and the pandemic has freed up artists to do the unexpected by simply removing the old reward structures. (Structurally, “Honestly, Nevermind” is a similar twist to The Weeknd’s electro-pop experiment “Dawn FM,” released in January.)
The coronavirus era has also fueled the emergence of hip-hop scenes that thrive on the virtual chaos of social media. This was most evident in the rise of drill, which has recentered hip-hop on guts and grit. Even though Drake has played with drills before, collaborating with Fivio Foreign and Lil Durk among others, “Honestly, Nevermind” is an anti-drill record. Drake is 35 years old now and is no doubt thinking about how to live alongside his children’s children.
He only really raps on two songs here: “Sticky,” which borders on hip-house (“Two sprinters to Quebec/Chérie, où est mon bec?”), and “Jimmy Cooks,” the final song, which features 21 Savage, shows Playa Fly and looks like a spiky coda of bravado after 45 minutes of pure ecstasy.
This is the kind of hip-hop wink Drake’s albums have sported for a long time, but as he and his fans age, they may not be the stuff of his future. If “Honestly, Nevermind” proves to be a head fake or a permanent new direction, maybe it’s an indication that he’s leaving the old Drake – and everyone who followed him – in the rearview mirror. Like a great quarterback, he’s playing the ball where his receivers are already going, not where they’ve been.
“Honestly, it doesn’t matter”