The latest in a run of what-was-he-thinking albums, Drake’s newest 14-tracker Honestly, Nevermind is as much bewildering as it is unexpected. This time, he invokes the legacy of house music – but at times, has us reaching for the snooze button. Words by Indran Paramasivam.
The worst thing about being too big to fail, is that you never learn from your mistakes. You don’t even get to say you went against your better judgement – because your better judgement ceases to exist. It’s a luxury not many have today – except Drake.
Drake is big. Bigger than any rapper, alive or not. Bigger than the larger-than-life ones, like Kanye West or Kendrick Lamar. Big in the way that ensures that the monumentality of his personal brand will always overwhelm that of his output. He’s so big, he’s bigger than his songs. He’s so big, he was responsible for 5% of his home city of Toronto’s $8.8 billion consolidated annual tourism income in 2018. He’s so big, he has more streams on Spotify than all the songs released before 1980 combined. He’s so big, every one of his albums since 2015 have yielded depreciating returns but his legacy hasn’t suffered one bit. With the attention economy being more merciless and punishing than it ever was, Drake should have faced a reality check out a long time ago. But he’s endured; confounded the digital era’s Darwinistic bloodlust and emerged as one of the foremost figures in the pop zeitgeist.
The most remarkable feature of his ascent though, is that his arc is resistant even – and especially – to his own attempts at self-sabotage. And his seventh and latest album Honestly, Nevermind advances that dispiriting phenomenon, by almost emphatically fusing several club sounds in the crucible of house music but forging a singularity that does the opposite of what dance music is primed to do.
It’s not that dance music can’t be boring – it’s just that Honestly, Nevermind is composed of dance music and hip-hop and still sounds stupefyingly somnambulistic.
At first, the proposition sounds promising. Rap and club music have long been mutually affirming bedfellows. Drake only had to look to peers like A$AP Rocky,Vince Staples, GoldLink, Channel Tres, Katy B and Azealia Banks to get a sense of how the pulse and pound of the dance-floor complements the emotive thrall of hip-hop’s expanse, and the other way around. Their example is deeply and richly illustrative and illuminating. In fact, he himself has been very amenable – and flatteringly so – to the genre-meld. So, as the album entered the ether and the Internet relayed its surprise at Drake’s sonic decisions on the project, it seemed an entrancing listen was promised. The starlight beckoned…until it lulled – and repelled.
“I feel like everything these days leads to nothing” – the casually unbothered tone of the album – how it feels as if it's trumpeting its own low-stakes essence – begins to crystallise early, on the third song “Texts Go Green”. In hyper-specific lines like that one, Drake seems to be diagnosing his approach to and the thrust of the album. The sleepy, sax-forward and wordless opener segues perfectly into “Falling Back”, which, in turn, transitions seamlessly into “Texts Go Green”. But besides being heralds for each succeeding track, the songs are, individually and collectively, hollow. Drake’s demo-level vocals are almost comical in their tossed-off, offensively casual ease of delivery and realisation. Then, there’s the dance-minded production, which is content to just coast as just that, production. Machine-made sounds that reference something bigger and just stop mutely there.
Authenticity is a ridiculous thing to expect from Drake. Asking Drake to be ‘real’ is like asking Kanye to be ‘measured’. But Drake never needed to bow before hip-hop’s founding virtues of authenticity and good faith. His whole career, the extent of his colossal grasp within and beyond hip-hop is a stupendous example of how to side-step such concerns while prospering tremendously and terrifically. From cosplaying as a hood-forged gangster to explicitly attempting to steal your girl, to enriching, anointing and perpetuating the sad boy archetype, his music is so ingenuous about being disingenuous, it’s actually genius. And when it hit, it was actually fun. Even if you didn’t believe a single word he was saying – which was fine – it was mood-perfect: Gloomy when you needed it to be, lit when you needed it to be, and tough when you wanted/needed to puff out your chest. And it used to work, so well.
Now, the fun is completely gone. The songs feel like half-hearted exhales, which, where it wasn’t an issue before, brutally affirm the colossal disparity between the world of dance music and the one where Drake is the 6 god. The album’s 52 minutes are an endurance test: How much of Drake cooing and oohing over undercooked house signifiers can you take? How much of this experiment actually works? Without the affordances of his wheelhouse – generous swells of bass, carefully conceived melodies, the urgency in his voice when he's convincing you he's baring his heart and soul – how long can you sit there and listen to airy banalities such as, “I found a new muse / That’s bad news for you” or “King of the hill, you know it’s a steep one / If we together, you know it’s a brief one”, or “Oh, baby, I’m feeling all sorts of things / I never want to see you leave”.
It makes you want to ask, ‘Where’s the champagne, papi?” It makes you wonder if he played these songs in the studio and said to himself, ‘Honestly, nevermind’, before releasing them into the wild.
What makes this the most frustrating record Drake has ever released is also the fact that it could’ve been great. This record could’ve been a supernaturally fruitful yield of the kind of bounty that Drake is superlatively gifted at cultivating: Vibes. This record could’ve rivalled If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late’s payload of ice-cold, high-impact, body-blasting, heart-searing vibes. It’s all here: The cultures-crossing lexicon of house, Jersey and Baltimore club, R&B. This could have weaponised bars and BPMs into an indelible signature. So much so that the 21 Savage feature wouldn’t need to be here, snuck in as the afterthought that it is. So much so that Drake could correct the course of his trajectory – sweep up the numbers and put something impregnably fantastic into the universe, which he’s done before. But, no. The vibes that predominate here are the ones that suffuse the club when it’s about to close.
He’s already laughed away the near-universal consensus about the album. He’s acknowledged it – but he doesn’t accept it. We don’t “get it” – he says. But it doesn’t matter. History will continue to shine for him – as it has.
He makes another mediocre album and we say, “Honestly, never mind”.