Aubrey Graham is many things to many people. Nailing him down into a single adjective or noun evokes images of Steve Harvey deadpanning towards a camera with his infamous shit grin as the Mulvaney family fumbles around the board for the top 5 answers to “Who is Drake?” There will always be one glaring omission for all the descriptors in the world attached to Champaign Papi: risk-taker. Since time immemorial, remarkable talent, sound company, and stepping out into the unknown have made up the triple crown of musical success. The Beatles had Sargent Peppers Lonely Hearts. Kanye made My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. Cher was down for the count before she dove headfirst into an electronic autotune orgy and came up the other side with Believe (Love after Love). Drake has defied all odds to become the master manipulator of our minds, and we secretly hate him and ourselves for it. He has his formula- the formula- and has never detracted or deterred from it. Except for once.
In true Drake fashion, however, he did everything in his power to downplay the risk he was preparing to take with the release of his 2015 project If You’re Reading This Its Too Late. In late 2014, his camp began a full-court press to leak information that the next “album” would be a throwaway compilation to allow Drake to cut ties with label giant Cash Money Records. The project took on a self-destructive quality that played perfectly into Drake’s hand by manufacturing a faux beef with label owners Baby and Lil Wayne. He purposely torpedoed If You’re Reading This Its Too Late to embarrass his former business partners if it was awful. If it were good, the project would prove that even when Drake tried to stink, he was physically incapable of doing so. Notoriously hyper-vigilant to pressure and expectations, this “make it bad on purpose” trope should have been enough on its own for Drake, and yet he was still not entirely convinced of his artistic freedom. After all, no one hedges their bets quite like Aubrey. Upon release in February of 2015, IYRTITL was labeled a seventeen-song “mixtape” and provided to the public with none of the pre-released smash singles that have always served as the spidey sense for Drake’s ego. Designating the compilation as a mixtape was equivalent to a major league baseball player self-imposing the start of a season in the minor leagues. It’s a brilliant play on the surface; if you bat for average, no one pays attention, but if you hit 200 home runs- even in the minors- you’ll still make it to Sports Center. Having created the perfect universe for zero expectations, Drake now felt free to explore a question he would never be able to again; What persona would he embody if he could not fail?
Risk-taking for an artist like Drake does not equate to showing the most authentic side of yourself. Drake is a WWE wrestler. There is no real version of him- only the version he has cast himself to play for the public. Throughout his career, the calling card has been anxious and unsure of himself, and at times it feels as though Drake is trapped here. Pretending that an ex would drop the most famous person in the world and be turned into a booty call, anxiously waiting for their “hotline to bling” at 3 am is a farse, and we all know it. What makes IYRTITL so important is its representation of a persona Drake has always coveted but could never be except here: Tough. Confident. Careless. A ball hog. To be taken seriously as a street rapper with street credibility. There’s a zero fucks given quality to the hardcore rap of the mid-’90s and early ’00s that is antithetical to the Drake brand. “Gangsta rap” (god forgive me) often comprises a single beat that runs on insistently for four minutes, with the artist giving a solo homily on violence, adultery, and drug dealing. What we now consider boring used to be the adrenaline of fear; if we even thought about changing the song, we were all convinced Jeezy would reach into that car and strangle us with our bum ass iPhone charger himself. There’s a freedom of carelessness that Drake taps into in his tough-guy persona that translates into a flow of ease in songs like Energy, Used To, No Tellin, and 6 God. Drake’s music pre and post-IYRTITL is meticulous and neurotic to the point of musical anxiety. Comparing the songs Too Much and Legend helps illustrate just how profound a difference Drake was embarking on. Transitioning in and out of a Ritz Carlton lobby piano and an up-tempo melody beat for the verses, Drake uses Too Much to describe in detail the pressures he was facing prior to the release of his previous album Nothing Was the Same. The song is the worst of Drake’s paranoia; the lyrics are littered with his need to be reaffirmed by the world (“she tell me take a deep breath you too worried about being the best out”). Artist Sampha sings the chorus, borderline begging Drake to stop thinking about it (the new album) so much. The listener is exhausted by song’s end. In so many ways, Legend, the opening track in IYRTITL, is not only the Anti Too Much but the Anti Drake. There is no feature and only one perpetual beat. He’s not singing or rapping or whining but instead levitating in his bravado. The built-in anxiety that usually compliments a Drake track suddenly dissipates. He knows what we all are so keenly aware of. We are in the presence of an unquestionable, mother fucking legend.
If Youre Reading This its Too Late will never be in the topic of conversation when we inevitably eulogize Drake’s career. Withholding the hype machine that pumps out pre-drop singles allowed Drake the freedom of risk he craved but also put a ceiling on the depths of influence IYRTITL could sink its teeth into. It remains, however, the only Drake album you wouldn’t be ashamed to be caught listening to with the windows down. Even with laughable lines like “brand new beretta can’t wait to let it go,” there is a level of profound respect we hold for Drake and the tough rapper persona he embodied. It always feels good to let it fly sometimes and let go of the need for perfection or pigeonholed role-playing. Sometimes you have to be the person you always secretly wanted to try to be. Drake allowing himself to come to this realization alone makes it a compilation of music worth forever cherishing.