Cash Money Records
February 13, 2015 11:45 AM EST

The hints had been dropping like flies for weeks, even months. Whether springing from NBA basketball players or rap journalism godheads, it was clear that Drake had new music in the pipeline — a renewed full-force assault on the public consciousness after a relatively sleepy 2014. All of the cryptic Instagram posts, pinhole leaks, and rumors climaxed in a flurry of activity yesterday, a stream of appearances and releases that neatly framed his long-running cold war with Kanye West: An atmospheric short film called Jungle was released in the early morning featuring passages of new music, a conspicuous absence at West’s unveiling of his latest exploits in the world of fashion (and some new music of his own), an appearance at West’s Roc City Classic performance where he waltzed in like a plebeian and mingled with writers and fans. And an hour before midnight, the cherry on top: a new collection of songs on iTunes, 17 tracks stretching over an hour in length, called If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late. You could apply the same title to every rushed review that’s going to be posted today, thrown together by some fatigued writer who’s spent their early morning hours trying to decipher every new sample and potential petty diss.

The first question this batch of new music demands has to do with its nature. At this early juncture, nobody can agree on how this release should be classified. Is this a mixtape, as most of the pre-release scuttlebutt suggested? Is this an album, something with a little more aesthetic gravitas and conceptual heft, a statement justifying an album-level price? Is it some sort of hybrid conspiracy engine, a tossed together collection of loose C-sides and sketches designed to free Drake from his deal with Birdman’s Cash Money Records? (This is a widespread theory given the personnel drama currently surrounding the label, much of it swirling around Drake’s mentor/guardian angel Lil Wayne.) Stripped of the shadowy machination angle, the hybrid concept seems likeliest. Drake isn’t a notorious archivist, but he’s made a habit of releasing non-album tracks before each of his last two major, official releases; it’s not infeasible that If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late is a plus-sized collection of said tracks, given a little more legitimacy by a price tag. (He released a set of three just last fall, in an apparent effort to beat some small-time hackers to the punch.)

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It’s also common knowledge that Drake has already picked out a title for his next official full-length, Views From the 6, and it seems unlikely that he would completely abandon the concept for the sake of a surprise release one February night. It’s a title and idea that holds tremendous importance for him, and it’s not hard to see why: if anything defines Drake it’s his commitment to his hometown of Toronto, as both a native son and now an ambassador. He places tremendous value on the perspective that growing up in the city has granted him, and on his position as its reigning boy-king. Whatever Views From the 6 becomes, it’s reasonable to conclude that it’s going to be accompanied by much greater fanfare, by considerable pomp and circumstance.

And this analysis is completely divorced from the musical and emotional characteristics of If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late, all of which scream “transitional moment.” With each new major full-length, Drake has pushed through major leaps in maturity and technical skill and shifts in his artistic sensibility. Take Care took the amateurish appeal and grabs for legitimacy of Thank Me Later and blew it to smithereens, opting instead for baroque flourishes and stylistic breadth; after grabbing the sceptre with that album, follow up Nothing Was the Same was colder, more paranoid, stripped down to sinew rather than drunk and bloated on excess. If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late doubles down on the latter movement: it’s positively icy, continually unnerved, an extrapolation of the grimmest moments on its predecessor.

DRAKE ~ JUNGLE from OctobersVeryOwn on Vimeo.

Its rare moments of warmth, like penultimate track “Jungle,” melt and seem to throw off heat because everything around them is frosted. If Nothing Was the Same was a glimpse at an artist just starting to realize the weight of the crown on his head, If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late captures a monarch compromised by the demands of his kingdom: the pressure to stay relevant, the hordes of fake friends and snakes aiming daggers at his back, the struggle to find anyone true to share in your success. (And looming above it all, a genuine anger that anyone would have the audacity to challenge your reign.) There are recurring sonic maneuvers that tell you everything you need to know about this tape’s relationship to Drake’s back catalogue, most notably the beat switches scattered throughout: used on Nothing Was the Same to signify moments of triumph or joy, here the effect is like driving through a tunnel and emerging under night sky. The scenery has changed, but the darkness is still palpable.

If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late isn’t a transformative release, then, but that’s not a statement about its quality. This is an hour of music that’s often thrilling, occasionally transcendent, and always uncompromising when it comes to its creator’s vision of contemporary hip-hop. At this point, Drake’s influence on the genre is so pervasive — he lives in every dewy piano melody, every tone and texture with rounded edges, every moment of vulnerability or emotion — that it’s easy to take his skill for granted. There are perhaps only three artists working with this singular sort of taste, this ability to bend the confines of a genre to their will. Even on a record where the presence of his usual consigliere Noah “40” Shebib is diminished, each arrangement employs the same palette and achieves a startling thematic consistency. In a purely technical sense, Drake is far gone from the mediocre-to-abysmal flow he displayed on early mixtapes and Thank Me Later; here, he rips through dozens of different patterns, plays with pitch and dynamics like it’s second nature, references flows made famous by his contemporaries and adapts them for his use. He makes himself part of the continuous conversation and exchange of ideas that helps to make hip-hop volatile and exciting. When everything clicks together, the results are absolutely invigorating. The new Toronto anthem “Know Yourself” snaps together like tiny pieces in a music box and ignites behind the chant, “I was running through the 6 / with my woes,” and PARTYNEXTDOOR feature “Preach” takes the muted throb of the xx and ends up flipping it into a genuine club candidate, like a caffeinated Burial composition in miniature.

Because of the rich myth and personalities that are already swirling around If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late, many people will be tempted to spend more time focusing on the recent past and future than on the music itself. How long has this been planned? Will Drake release another album this year, one that’s more of an authoritative statement than this? Did he “win” by stealing Kanye’s thunder and burying his new material under an avalanche of frenzied tweets and blog posts? Just how many petty shots at Yeezus and his inner circle did he lick off on delirious closer “6PM in New York?” But this release deserves more than that, regardless of its ultimate place in Drake’s year or discography. It’s new music from a transformative, uniquely talented, and influential artist operating at the peak of his powers — an illustrator nonpareil opening one more door to the dark lanes, private vehicles, and smoky clubs that make up his world.

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