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 and granular experimentation; Embracing the memeification of his celebrity. But in recent years, for the first time, there is a feeling that the machines could grind to a halt. Maintaining the throne is hard work and the wear and tear was starting to show.
What Drake needed was a refresher, a chance to break free from old assumptions. It’s the kind of renewal you really only find after hours.
Honestly, Nevermind, Drake’s seventh solo studio album, released Friday just hours after it was announced, is a minor marvel of physical frolic – appealingly weightless, escapist and eagerly free. An album of gorgeous club music, it’s a purposeful development into a new era for one of music’s most influential stars. It’s also a Drake album made up almost entirely of bits and pieces from Drake albums that will make hip-hop purists think.
However, the expectations that Drake wants to turn upside down here are his own. For most of the 2010s, hip hop – and most other popular music – has shaped around its innovations. Drake blended singing and rapping, made music that was unabashedly pop without bowing to the old ways of making pop, and Drake has long understood that he could build a new kind of global consensus, both by pushing the boundaries of older Approaches understood as well as changing because of the entire world.
Still, the pompous Certified Lover Boy, released last year, was his least focused album and also his least imaginative – sounding exasperated, tired of his own ideas. Besides, the people who came after him might have exhausted them too.
These conditions, however, force innovation, 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 evolved from regional phenomenon to tastemaker in recent years, and like the seasoned scavenger that he is, Drake has reaped bits and pieces for his own builds.
One of the reasons why this is so striking is that Drake made a career out of caresses. His productions – always directed by longtime collaborator Noah Shebib, aka 40 – were downright soothing. But the beats here have sharp corners, they kick and hit. “Currents” features both the squeaky bed sample that’s a Jersey Club staple and a well-known vocal ad lib that’s a Baltimore Club staple. “Texts Go Green” is fueled by edgy percussion, and the piano-soaked soulful house building towards the end of “A Keeper” is an invitation to liberation.
This approach proves well suited to Drake’s vocal style, which is lean and lacks obvious pressure. It’s conspiratorial, romantic, sometimes erotic – he never sings to you as much as he sings about you, in your ear.
Most of the songs are about romantic intrigue, and often Drake is the victim. In some places, this is a return to Instagram caption-era Drake. “I know my funeral will be lit because I treated the people,” he intones on the hard-pounding “Massive.” On the muddy “Liability,” he moans, “You’re too busy dancing to our songs at the club.”
But part of this album’s trade-off is lyrical vivacity – on most songs, Drake alludes to things rather than describes them. The words are prompts, suggestions, slight abstractions aimed at mimicking the mood of the staging. (Plus, social media is moving too fast now and doesn’t reward the same patient emotional acuity he excels at.)
Here are more recent precedents for Drake’s choices: Kanye West’s “808s & Heartbreak” and the snappier parts of “Yeezus”; Frank Ocean’s flirts with dance music.
But music like this has always been a part of Drake’s grammar: think 2011’s “Take Care,” starring Rihanna, with its Gil Scott-Heron/Jamie xx breakdown. Or 2017’s tranquil sunrise anthem “Passionfruit” (which also had a Moodymann sample); “Fountains,” from “Certified Lover Boy,” a blissful duet with Nigerian star Tems, was also in that direction, but seemed to hint that the next hard Drake switch would be toward Afrobeats, which he has long dabbled in. including collaborations with Wizkid.
But Drake chose club music – the average BPM here is over 100 – and built an explicit musical bridge to black and queer musical subcultures. However, the sweaty, countercultural house music he’s influenced by has also become a template for privileged music in recent years – it’s the soundtrack of the global money elite, the same in Dubai and Ibiza as in Miami and Mykonos. It’s music that’s inviting but also harmless; It’s loaded with meaning and reference, but also feels slick.
Drake is in an unenviable position that only a handful of pop superstars have held before – he’s one of the most celebrated musicians on the planet, and his fame rests on being something of a chameleon. But it’s hard for a juggernaut to be quick. Nonetheless, Honestly, Nevermind is the work of someone who doesn’t care about the potential to alienate old allies. The past two years have unraveled, and the pandemic has freed artists to do the unexpected, simply by breaking old reward structures. (Structurally, “Honestly, Nevermind” is a similar twist to Weeknd’s electro-pop experiment “Dawn FM,” released in January.)
The coronavirus era has also fueled the rise of hip-hop scenes that thrive in the virtual chaos of social media. This is most evident in the rise of the drill, which re-centered hip-hop in guts and nerve. Although Drake has played with Drill before, collaborating with the likes of Fivio Foreign and Lil Durk, Honestly, Nevermind is an anti-Drill album. Drake is now 35 and no doubt anticipating how he is going to live alongside his children’s children.
He really only raps on two songs here: “Sticky,” which borders on hip-house (“Two sprinters to Quebec/Chérie, où est mon bec?”), and “Jimmy Cooks,” the last song that features 21 Savage , tries Playa Fly and feels like a spiked coda of banging after 45 minutes of pure ecstatic release.
It’s the sort of hip-hop insider wink that Drake’s albums have long been flaunted with, but as he and his fans grow older, they may not be the stuff of his future. Whether “Honestly, Nevermind” proves to be a head-forger or a permanent realignment is perhaps an indication that he’s looking back at old Drake – and everyone who followed him. Like a great quarterback, he throws the ball where his receivers are already going, not where they’ve been.
“Honestly, forget it”