mensah demary’s previous Liner Notes columns for The Butter can be found here.
Things change within a week.
Valentine’s Eve, with broken hearts prepped for the weekend, or new relationships re-fortified through gifts Instagrammed, was the perfect day for Drake to drop, without warning, a new album. If it can be called an album. More like the nebulous “tape” label he assigned to it. Regardless, it arrived.
I’ve followed his career closely since the release of So Far Gone, with the revelation that the man rap-singing through the speakers of my then-wife’s car was the same man wheelchair-bound in the Canadian television classic Degrassi: The Next Generation. And these last few weeks, in which I’ve listened, almost on repeat, to Take Care and Nothing Was The Same, I’ve tried to consider the curious case of Drake, his existence in hip-hop and pop culture in whole. With this new release, I have thoughts on the man and his music.
First, high-level view: whether this is an “album” or a “tape” is immaterial, and the discussion of what this release is supposed to be, in relation to the totality of Drake’s records, is interesting in of itself. Overnight, listeners transformed into audiophiles, into sound engineers. “It sounds unfinished. It sounds incomplete. It sounds like a bunch of throwaway tracks.” Indeed, most of the seventeen tracks lack a certain polish, a cleanliness, to them. Not to suggest that the songs sound “grimy”—an entirely different aesthetic, which I wouldn’t assign to Drake—but they are stripped down. The antitheses of overproduced songs like “Under Ground Kings” or “Lord Knows” or “Miss Me.”
A week ago, upon first listen, I hated this album/tape. Yet, I kept listening. I felt compelled to keep going, keep listening. I even had this column’s draft all but finished, all but panning If You’re Reading This…, but I kept going, kept listening. Then the switch occurred.
I played the opening track, “Legend,” while walking to the subway one morning, as the single-digit temperatures made me rethink my life. I listened to the lyrics. I smiled at the sound of the muffled, slowed-down vocals of Ginuwine’s “So Anxious” lurking behind the beat. And when Drake sings “All I know/if I die/I’m a motherfuckin legend,” I realized that he was right. Dead-on. And more importantly, he understands this fact.
That If You’re Reading This… begins with “Legend” is not an accident. It was not happenstance, the haphazard result of slapping a tape full of throwaway tracks together. “Legend” sets the tone. In fact, the sequencing of this tape alone indicates that this is not a throwaway project for Drake. Following “Legend” comes “Energy,” a brag track that underscores what it might take to reach and maintain his particular level of success; then “10 Bands,” the fucking ridiculously hot track that makes me bounce around when no one’s looking; then “Know Yourself,” deceptive in its surface whininess (his “woes” aren’t everyone else’s woes) until the beat drops, transforming the track into an instant strip club anthem.
“Please do not speak to me like I’m that Drake from four years ago/I’m at a higher place”
A verse from “No Tellin’” that always grabs my attention. Out of curiosity, I took a look at Drake’s discography; four years ago would place us at the beginning of the Take Care era. If jabs at Drake’s vulnerability and emotional messiness occurred during the releases of So Far Gone and Thank Me Later, they have become memeified ad nauseam since Take Care. The messiness of love gone wrong (that or the relationship never existed, a realization I never heard him utter on wax before, as he croons now, on the wonderfully Drakesque ballad “Jungle”) seems to be dialed down which, for Drake, is a change of pace.
With this new tape, there’s a vitriol to his verses. A weariness. An emcee who’s rapping like a man who knows he’s close to being hip-hop’s biggest star, and is tired of the shots constantly fired at his way. (The “lil lil homie” Tyga knows this all too well now.) A young man who’s still young (twenty-eight at the time of this column) but not so young anymore. Four albums deep now, his brand of introspection inches deeper, reaches beneath the surface of angst-riddled self-awareness.
Would the Drake of four years ago pass on the ill-fated opportunity to be set up on a date with his mother’s personal trainer, as he suggests in “You & The 6”? Not so significant, perhaps. But then again, the first step in ending one’s messiness—and penchant for creating, and leaving behind, messes—is acknowledging the probability of a mess before it occurs, and swerving away from it altogether. Changing the script. Doing things differently. Word to Toronto’s self-proclaimed 6 God, I understand this switch all too well.
Recently, Rembert Browne interviewed Donald Glover—aka Childish Gambino—for Grantland, where the following exchange occurred:
Rembert Browne: “[…] I didn’t have a ton of older black prototype male figures to look at. Someone to look at and say, ‘I think something like that is the direction of what I’m interested in being.’ Because what I wanted felt vulnerable. But being vulnerable is often the great black male Kryptonite.”
Donald Glover: “And we can’t even really do it. People are like, ‘Drake’s so vulnerable,’ but I’m like, he can’t really be as vulnerable as he wants to be, I feel sometimes.”
I’ve been obsessed with the so-called “great black male Kryptonite” for months now, specifically as it refers to me, and from the larger perspective of black (American) male lives, and what these lives look like, and how we negotiate our way through these black male lives. Vulnerability, to paraphrase Brené Brown in a recent episode of the podcast On Being, is a matter of being present in one’s life. Presence allows someone to fully live their daily lives, to open themselves to opportunity, to rejection, to failure, to success, to shame and crisis.
Vulnerability is often confused with messiness, emotional immaturity. I know him when I see him, the quintessential serial monogamist fuckboy crying about his fuckboy antics seen through fuckboy lenses, deploying fuckboy logic while stumbling in and out of relationships—“situationships,” perhaps the more accurate portmanteau—built upon the illusion of love, love’s gaussian blur, love as a “thing” that just occurs vs. the real, practiced, requiring-sacrifice love. The kind of love a fuckboy wants. Or says he wants, but cannot open himself up to until he realizes a change within himself must first occur. If You’re Reading This… might be the first instance in which Drake begins to recognize that he is, among other things, a fuckboy. This is perhaps Drake at his most vulnerable, but with the least amount of messiness.
To Donald Glover’s point, I’m curious as to how vulnerable a black man can be in pop culture. Is Drake aware of the limitations and, instead of being more vulnerable, has elected to reign in the emotional drama? Has he maintained the same level of vulnerability, but instead adjusted the aperture, turned the lens, zoomed out to give listeners a wider view of his life, his fame? If so, this is no different than, say, Mr. West with his decadent My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, and his bleak Yeezus.
But where MBDTF, for all its greatness (and it is great), was almost garish and cartoonish in its over-the-top look into Kanye’s life and fame, and Yeezus felt angry, at times, for no apparent reason, If You’re Reading This… is minimalist, cerebral, deliberate in what precisely it shares about Drake, and how he is presented. For a throwaway tape, this album seems to be Drake’s most complex outing to date, revealing a creative depth and artistic consideration I, personally, fandom aside, did not believe he could realize. Still, I said via Google Hangouts a week ago that the album sounded unfinished. My first impression, yes. Thank god there’s still room for one to change his mind, to change in general, before heading down a messy, perilous road.
mensah demary is editor in chief of Specter Magazine and a columnist for Fourculture Magazine. His fiction and nonfiction has appeared in Metazen, Little Fiction, PANK, Thought Catalog, and elsewhere. Originally from New Jersey, he currently lives and writes in Brooklyn. Find him on Twitter @mensah4000.