Monday, March 16, 2015
Permafrost: Drake's Glacial Excavation
If You're Reading This It's Too Late was released on February 13th. On the face of it the title of the album/mixtape is a challenge to the relevancy of the reader. Drake, it seems, will always be a step ahead of you, ahead of all of us, a part of the avant-garde. Taken in this flat way, the title is a prelude to the braggadocio of the content. The record picks up the blunt flow and minimal beats straight from Nothing Was The Same's "Worst Behavior" and sprints ahead full speed with them. It appears that Drake has taken his success to be a sign that he can take the structures that he explored with "5AM in Toronto" and accelerate them without limit. It's continuously too late for us because we have written Drake an artistic blank check, and now, along with his fellow luminaries, he defines relevancy, rather than operating within it.
On a second, vastly more interesting level, the title of the mixtape denotes a certain powerlessness of Drake as an artist. We commented on the same phenomenon at the time of his last major release. Understood with this inflection, the title becomes a commentary on the impossibility of a certain sort of relevance for the sort of mainstream mass-distributed act of which Drake is an exemplar. One need only listen to the contents of the record in order to find this ineffectiveness littered throughout. From the pre-released "6 God" to the catchiness of "Know Yourself", the record is full of music that Drake has been listening to during his sabbatical. In much the same way that Kanye's latest effort was an attempt to inject a "quintessential" Kanye essence into a distillation of the state of groundbreaking hip-hop at the time, IYRTITL summons together all of the most dehumanized elements in rap music and then attempts to apply a thick layer of Aubrey Graham on top.
Atlanta and Chicago stand out as two scenes that have obviously been in rotation in the Drake household. There are few, if any, tracks on the record not inflected with the sociopathic lack of affect that has defined Chicago Drill since its inception. It is no coincidence that on "0 to 100", Drake said he was "on his Lil Mouse drill shit" On the Atlanta side, one need only look as far as OG Maco's breakout "U Guessed It" to see the latest in a line of thoroughly dark tracks that pioneered the minimalist beats and shouting flow that litter Drake's latest effort. And far be it from us to forget that one of the most crucial experiments to Drake's evolution into his current state was his flow-biting of the Migos when he "graced" them with a remix of "Versace" lo those many years ago.
If anything, IYRTITL demonstrates how Drake's real talent lies not in music but in a particular brand of pop anthropology. In the wake of previous projects, this meant infinite thinkpieces on how he was the voice of a generation of alienated, insecure, perennially self-medicated, and deeply sheltered Americans. The latest effort, on the other hand, reflexively turns on the genre to which he pledges allegiance. Drake and 40 have found the deep reservoirs of what is happening across various local scenes, re-rooted that sound in Torontonian mythos, and then re-universalized it by virtue of Drake's accessibility and distributive reach. The overall effect, as it was with Yeezus, was to gather together geographically disparate but stylistically similar strains of beatmaking and flows in such a way that the record created its own canon of precursors. Like the true Bloomean that he is, Drake has given a strong reading of rap in the moment. The attempt at relevance, here, relies on both muddying and purifying the water out of which it grew.
With this overarching structure in mind, we can discuss the way the record fills itself out. "Legend" sets the blustering tenor of the record and is immediately followed up by a slew of tracks that hammer home the stylistic tone of the rest of the record. From the menace and swagger of "Energy" to the bro-upping of "Know Yourself", the beginning of the album is a testosterone multipack. Most of these early tracks slither and slink around in the shadows, setting up their seriousness through beat selection and counting on Drake to carry the aggression. This trend is violently interrupted by "6 God", which, as @SquidDad observes (via a RT by @passionweiss) "[...]makes me feel like I'm going to battle my ex girlfriend in final fantasy". Released before the record, "6 God" matches Drake's energy with what sounds like a MIDI string section in utter panic.
When Drake does revert to his confessional mood and his classic flow, it begins under the auspices of PARTYNEXTDOOR. This helps us to understand an interesting broader trend within Drake's OVO brand, which is that old versions of Drake's style are passed down to the less famous musicians. By way of example, if you can't hear Thank Me Later-era Drake in IYRTITL's "Wednesday Night Interlude" you should reacquaint yourself with "Cece's Interlude" from the former record.
This signals the fundamental divide in the record. In "Now & Forever", where Drake breaks out some of the trance-like crooning that made Take Care compelling in the way that it was. A similar mood is interrupted midway in "Company" by a truly vicious musical flip by Travi$ Scott. And, almost by way of apology, "You & the 6" sounds as though it would fit snugly alongside the tracklist on the ancient mixtape Comeback Season. In fact, much of the end of the record sounds like a series of hedging ploys to help old fans ease, ass-backwards, into the mixtape. By the time we reach the omni-directional flexing of "6PM in New York" amends have already been made and the thrumming dehumanization of the first half has been thoroughly diluted.
The strongest moments of IYRTITL are flat, purposefully flat, like a survey of a polar expanse, and attempt to be threatening in the same manner as that landscape. Drake lays his cold eyes on the bracing hostility of contemporary rap and attempts to become equal to it and claim it for his own. It's a mostly failed attempt, dragged down by Drake's historical work, but the excavation he does to get there is enough to hold interest. The weakest moments of the record consist in Drake's archival revival of his own catalog. This ends up in a series of songs that sound like poor rehashes of some sort of retrospective record, reworked covers asked to fit into an alien venue. Again, our faith in our old claim is renewed: Drake's work is best when he does not try to be himself.