Drake rebuilt hip-hop in his image. Now he wants you to dance.
By Jon Caramanica
For more than a decade, the Drake factory has been operating at full capacity — recalibrating the relationship among hip-hop, R&B and pop; balancing grand-scale ambition with granular experimentation; embracing the meme-ification of his celebrity. But in recent years, for the first time, it has felt like the machines might be grinding to a pause. Maintaining the throne is hard work, and the wear and tear were beginning to show.
What Drake has needed is an opportunity to refresh, a chance to be unburdened of old assumptions. It’s the sort of renewal you only really find after-hours.
“Honestly, Nevermind,” Drake’s seventh solo studio album, which was released Friday just a few hours after it was announced, is a small marvel of bodily exuberance — appealingly weightless, escapist and zealously free. An album of entrancing club music, it’s a pointed evolution toward a new era for one of music’s most influential stars. It is also a Drake album made up almost wholly of the parts of Drake albums that send hip-hop purists into conniptions.
The expectations Drake is seeking to upend here, though, are his own. For almost the entire 2010s, hip-hop — and most of the rest of popular music — molded itself around his innovations. Blending singing and rapping together, making music that was unself-consciously pop without kowtowing to the old way of making pop, Drake has long understood that he could build a new kind of global consensus both because he understood the limitations of older approaches and because the globe is changing.
Nevertheless, the bloated “Certified Lover Boy,” released last year, was his least focused album and also his least imaginative — he sounded enervated, fatigued with his own ideas. What’s more, the people who have come up behind him may have exhausted them, too.
Those 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 also touches on Jersey club, Baltimore club, ballroom and Amapiano. Each of these styles has trickled up from regional phenomenon to tastemaker attention in recent years, and like the skilled scavenger he is, Drake has harvested bits and pieces for his own constructions.
Part of why this is so striking is that Drake has made a career out of caress. His productions — always led by his longtime collaborator, Noah Shebib, known as 40 — were emphatically soothing. But the beats here have sharp corners; they kick and punch. “Currents” features both the squeaky-bed sample that’s a staple of Jersey club and a familiar vocal ad-lib that’s a staple of Baltimore club. “Texts Go Green” is driven by jittery percussion, and the piano-drizzled soulful house buildup toward the end of “A Keeper” is an invitation to liberation.
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’s never singing at you so much as he’s singing about you, in your ear.
Most of the songs are about romantic intrigue, and often Drake is the victim. In places, this is a return to Instagram-caption-era Drake. “I know my funeral gonna be lit ’cause of how I treated people,” he intones on the hard-stomping “Massive.” On the slurry “Liability,” he moans, “You’re too busy dancing in the club to our songs.”
But part of the trade-off of this album is in lyrical vividness — on most songs, Drake is alluding to things more than describing them. The words are prompts, suggestions, light abstractions that aim to emulate the mood of the production. (Also, social media moves too fast now and doesn’t reward the same kinds of patient emotional poignancy at which he excels.)
There is recent precedent for Drake’s choices here: Kanye West’s “808s & Heartbreak” and the more fleet parts of “Yeezus”; and Frank Ocean’s flirtations with dance music.
But music like this has always been a part of Drake’s grammar: Think “Take Care” with Rihanna from 2011, with its Gil Scott-Heron/Jamie xx breakdown. Or the serene sunrise anthem “Passionfruit” from 2017 (which also had a Moodymann sample); “Fountains,” from “Certified Lover Boy,” a blissed-out duet with Nigerian star Tems, was in this vein, too, but seemed to portend that the next hard Drake pivot would be toward Afrobeats, with which he has long engaged, including collaborations with Wizkid.
But Drake opted for club music — the average beats per minute here is more than 100 — building an explicit musical bridge to Black and queer musical subcultures. That said, the sweaty, countercultural house music that he’s taking influence from has also in recent years become a template for music of privilege — it is the soundtrack of the global moneyed elite, the same in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, and Ibiza, Spain, as Miami and Mykonos, Greece. It’s music that’s inviting but also innocuous; it’s filled with meaning and reference but also smooth to the touch.
Drake is in an unenviable position only a handful of pop superstars have been in before — he is one of the most famous musicians on the planet, and his fame is premised upon being something of a chameleon. But it’s hard for a juggernaut to be nimble. Nevertheless, “Honestly, Nevermind” is the work of someone unbothered by the potential for alienating old allies. The past two years have been unmooring, and the pandemic has freed artists to do the unexpected simply by removing the old reward structures. (Structurally, “Honestly, Nevermind” is a similar turn to The Weeknd’s electro-pop experiment “Dawn FM,” released in January.)
The coronavirus era has also nurtured the rise of hip-hop scenes that thrive in the virtual chaos of social media. That has been most evident in the rise of drill, which has been recentering hip-hop in grit and nerve. Even though Drake has toyed with drill before, collaborating with Fivio Foreign and Lil Durk, among others, “Honestly, Nevermind” is an anti-drill record. Drake is 35 now and undoubtedly reckoning with how to live alongside his children’s children.
Drake only truly raps on two songs here: “Sticky,” which verges on hip-house (“Two sprinters to Quebec / Chérie, ou est mon bec?”), and “Jimmy Cooks,” the final song, which features 21 Savage, samples Playa Fly and feels like a pointed coda of bluster after 45 minutes of sheer ecstatic release.
That’s the sort of hip-hop insider wink that Drake albums have long flaunted, but as he and his fans age, they may not be the stuff of his future. Whether “Honestly, Nevermind” proves to be a head fake or a permanent new direction, it’s maybe an indication that he’s leaving the old Drake — and everyone who followed him — in the rear view. Like a great quarterback, he’s throwing the ball where his receivers are already heading, not where they’ve been.