November 2017

Arts & Letters


By Anwen Crawford

Drake performing earlier this year in Leeds, England. © Andrew Benge / Redferns / Getty Images

The exhausting omnipotence of Drake

Drake is fake, suggests Google’s autocomplete function, and I think to myself, Not this again. Drake is 225,000,000 search results. Drake is 10 billion streams on Spotify, a number that exceeds the current human population of the planet. Fake doesn’t enter into it; one might as well declare that the internet is fake. Sometimes I wonder if Drake is the internet. Drake is memes. Drake is Apple Music. Drake is a reaction GIF that stands up and claps when somebody posts something righteous on Twitter, a thing that happens every day. “What do you see when you see me?” Drake asks on his song ‘Lose You’, and I want to answer: Drake, I see you every day.

I look for evidence that Drake exists beyond the internet but I have to search for that evidence on the internet and so it eludes me. Where else would I look for Drake, though? Drake’s 2017 “playlist” More Life – an album in every sense bar Drake’s reluctance to call it one – is not available on any physical format. Drake has released four official studio albums, beginning with Thank Me Later (2010), and five mixtapes; let’s consider More Life as an album and call it even.

More Life has 22 songs, of which ‘Lose You’ is probably only the 14th best. It is a record that holds in balance Drake’s ruling modes, melancholy and pique; when one threatens to dominate, the other comes swerving in again. I think that More Life is my album of the year but I feel dopey admitting it, like I should have tried harder. Drake is ubiquitous. Drake is self-evident. Drake is 31 years old, apparently, though his individual existence is less convincing and ultimately less interesting than the simulacra of Drake.

I think that Drake called More Life a playlist and not an album because “playlist” implies a thing you can keep running in the background, without minding how many times you’ve already heard it. Drake’s best songs hardly exist, which has everything to do with why they’re so easy to keep listening to. (Drake’s worst songs, on the other hand, are tediously insistent.)

Take, for instance, ‘Blem’, which, of the songs on More Life, I would rank number one. ‘Blem’ is a machine kick drum and a bass synthesiser, neither of which mark the full four beats in any bar. ‘Blem’ is a hi-hat pattern in double time and a silvery synthesiser like morning mist, or – given that “blem” is slang for “high” – like the curl of smoke in a room. “Not a lot of chords, not a lot of music,” observed the song’s producer T-Minus, which is perfect, because it means that Drake can carry on uninterrupted with the task of being Drake.

“Don’t switch on me / I got big plans,” he pleads on ‘Blem’. Drake is always pleading, unless he’s complaining; even his boasts, which are frequent, sound like complaints. Drake has a habit of blaming the relationship troubles he complains about (Drake is dating, suggests Google) on the woman to whom the song is addressed. He makes these attributions of blame sound like advice. “I need you to stop running back to your ex / He’s a wasteman,” Drake pleads, again. Wasteman is Jamaican patois for a loser. Drake is not Jamaican.

When Drake pleads, he sings, and when he complains, he raps, and so it happens that he tends to both sing and rap in nearly all of his songs; a simple combination, really, though no one did it much – at least not in the mainstream – before Drake came along. The late Gil Scott-Heron did it, way back before rap was even a genre, and Drake sampled Scott-Heron on what is still his single best song, ‘Take Care’, from his 2011 album of the same name.

‘Take Care’ also features Rihanna, with whom Drake has reportedly conducted an on-and-off romance over the course of several years. (‘Blem’ may be addressed to her.) On ‘Take Care’ they keep singing past each other, and I think it’s because the song’s drums, while more present than on ‘Blem’, include almost no snare, so that the singers’ respective entreaties for the other to trust them hang inside a cavernous space where those sentiments cannot find purchase. The song becomes about a mutual inability to remain in place, which would also mean remaining vulnerable. Scott-Heron’s grizzled voice, sampled from a remix of his 2010 cover of the Brook Benton song ‘I’ll Take Care of You’, lends age, and gravitas. ‘Take Care’ is – so far – my favourite pop song of this decade.

Drake sets his various pleas to lovely vocal melodies, but you wouldn’t say that he has a great voice. Drake has a Drake voice. Once you’ve heard it, you can’t mistake it – he has a certain nasality of tone – but you’d be hard-pressed to remember it if Drake was only singing in the subway. Drake is worth US$90 million, according to Forbes magazine. A lot of that money comes from touring. Drake tours Australia this month: a general admission ticket within shouting distance of the stage will set you back more than $400, which is no longer an unusual price to pay for the privilege of attending a concert by an A-list performer. “Long as the outcome is income,” Drake once rapped, while boasting – and also complaining – about his tax bracket. Drake’s voice is as ordinary as tax.

Drake is a canny listener. He gave Kendrick Lamar a guest spot on Take Care – the same album on which he complained about his tax bracket – before anyone was much bothered about who Kendrick Lamar was. London soul singer Sampha turned up on Drake’s 2013 album Nothing Was the Same, and this year carried off the Mercury Prize for his own debut, Process. (Sampha also gets a song on More Life, ‘4422’, a song on which Drake doesn’t appear. Some of Drake’s best songs don’t include him at all.) An endorsement from Drake is worth something in terms that are not strictly monetary; it means this musician’s star is on the rise. Drake isn’t cool – he’s kinda square, which is partly why his self-aggrandisement can be amusing – but, given his commercial dominance, it would be a hard-headed aspirant who turned him down.

More Life is enlivened by guest appearances from two British rappers, Giggs and Skepta – the latter also a Mercury Prize winner and a proponent of the London-centric grime genre. Grime is hip-hop but not quite; it also incorporates elements of various dance music styles. Grime has been threatening to conquer America for a good many years, though the London accents and the London-Caribbean slang have proved difficult for American listeners to parse. Drake is one of the few prominent rappers outside of the UK to take grime seriously, perhaps because he’s Canadian, not American, and so less prone to believing that America is the centre of the musical universe. On More Life, Drake borrows the enunciation of his guest MCs; “ting”, he raps, instead of “thing”. It’s not convincing, but Drake doesn’t need to convince, he just needs to give the impression that he’s trying to.

Drake is interested in all kinds of music of the black diaspora: English grime, Jamaican dancehall, Ghanaian highlife. ‘Madiba Riddim’, from More Life, has a sweetly corkscrewing guitar line in the highlife style; like the synthesiser in ‘Blem’ it’s elusive, almost insubstantial, yet crucial to the song’s mood and texture. Once again there’s no snare drum. Drake doesn’t use snare because Drake doesn’t want to get snared. “My heart is way too frozen to get broken,” he sings. Frankly, I can relate.

Drake is bad, suggests Google, which means that enough people across the world have typed the phrase into a search box for it to appear as if Google is thinking this for itself. (Drake is the algorithm.) I don’t happen to believe that Drake is bad, but I can see how one might arrive at this conclusion. Drake can be irritating. His previous album, Views (2016), was as long and as dreary as a wet Sunday, which only makes the revitalisation of More Life a greater surprise.

The egotistic neediness that leaks through Drake’s songs irritates me. “You’re to blame for what we could have been / ’cause look at what we are,” he sings on ‘Teenage Fever’, which is perhaps the 15th-best song on More Life. Thanks, arsehole. I imagine that Drake, balladeer of romance-by-phone, has had his number blocked many times.

And yet, for all his shortcomings, I find it difficult to imagine contemporary pop sans Drake. Kendrick Lamar is the more gifted rapper, and Kanye West is the musical visionary (West’s strange, crabbing song on More Life is called ‘Glow’, and I can’t think of a better verb for his fevered career), but Drake is the glue. Drake is the wallpaper. Drake is the furniture. Drake is Drake.

Anwen Crawford

Anwen Crawford was The Monthly’s music critic from 2013–21.

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