By Jamieson Cox
March 12, 2015

On a quiet evening in February, The Canadian rapper and singer who records as Drake released an album-length mixtape on iTunes called If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late without promotion or advance warning. Three days later, it had sold over half a million copies and shattered streaming records–ones previously held by Drake. By the beginning of March, he simultaneously held 14 positions on the Billboard Hot 100, an accomplishment managed only once before, by the Beatles, at their absolute zenith of popularity in 1964.

Those figures will come as no surprise to people who have followed the ascent of Drake (real name: Aubrey Graham). There’s a universality and easy charisma to his music, forged in part by a youth spent navigating the boundaries that separate race, religion and country. His childhood was split between the leafy avenues of midtown Toronto–where he lived with his white, Jewish mother–and summers in Memphis with his father, a black musician. He was a successful actor as a teenager, working on the Canadian teen drama Degrassi: The Next Generation, but he recorded music in relative obscurity until 2008, when he was connected to rapper Lil Wayne. They worked together in Houston on the mixtape that would launch Drake’s career in earnest, 2009’s So Far Gone. It followed in the footsteps of Kanye West’s groundbreaking 808s and Heartbreak, an album-length dark night of the soul that plumbed new emotional depths for rappers; Drake infused that sound with the warped, slow vibes of Houston’s hip-hop and the cool amorphousness of R&B from the turn of the decade. The result was an artist equally comfortable in the worlds of pop and rap, with an unvarnished quality that endeared him to his audience.

Drake became popular quickly: his debut full-length, 2010’s Thank Me Later, topped the album charts. The following year’s Take Care was a baroque, ambitious stab at greatness, with ballads about family and fame slotted beside singles featuring Rihanna and Nicki Minaj. Nothing Was the Same, released in 2013, was colder and more sinewy, an examination of the pressures and problems that stem from assuming the throne. If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late will amplify that influence: icy, intense and uncompromising, it’s an extreme refinement of the sound Drake and co-producer Noah “40” Shebib have been developing over the past half-decade. More than ever, Drake is interested in toughness and retribution–a gradual shift away from the nice guy who once rapped, “But do I ever come up in discussion/over double-pump lattes and low-fat muffins?” Here, he’s crippled by paranoia and imagined threats; sycophants and enemies lurk in every shadow. Still, the moments of relative joy, like hometown anthem “Know Yourself” and maternal ode “You & the 6,” throw off enough heat to melt the songs around them.

If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late isn’t an obviously commercial release–there’s nothing like “Hold On, We’re Going Home,” that delicious piece of dewy pop nougat from Nothing Was the Same, on this tape. But much as Beyoncé made dark, moody R&B commercially viable in recent years, Drake is exerting his own gravitational force on the musical world around him. He can shape genres, conquer charts and bend the radio to his liking with songs released in silence.

Contact us at editors@time.com.

This appears in the March 23, 2015 issue of TIME.

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