A Vision of Purgatory: Some Half-Baked Takes on New Drake
After a week that sent shockwaves through the pop culture zeitgeist, with new singles from Kanye and Kendrick, myriad articles addressing the 50 Shades phenomenon, the 40th anniversary of “Saturday Night Live” and the NBA All-Star Game in New York City, it’s not so crazy to suggest that Drake’s new record fell under the radar.
That’s also not to say it isn’t already a massive commercial success, as “If You’re Reading This, It’s Too Late” is expected to sell over 500,000 copies and hit the top spot on the Billboard charts after its first full week, but there hasn’t been nearly enough buzz surrounding the tape’s content. In “If You’re Reading This,” what we see is a far more subversive Drake than in any of his previous releases, and its overall composition should give us pause as we look ahead at what’s to come from rap’s fastest-rising star.
After listening to Drake’s unexpected mixtape (record?) a few times, there are enough interesting threads to parse through for months of think pieces. On multiple occasions, he inveighs against social media and girls who “want the code for the WiFi, so they can talk about their timelines,” a pointed departure from someone who made his name as a social media ‘trending’ topic early in his career. He also makes some pointed references to Kanye, both as inspiration (“when Kanye dropped it was polos and backpacks”) and challenger (“you rappin’ like the Throne should be the three of y’all”). These direct mentions only bring Drake’s indirect allusions to other artists in greater focus.
At times, “If You’re Reading This” reads as one extended subtweet, with clear allusions to recent beefs (Tyga, Birdman) and not-so-clear references to failed paramours with mentions of “you know who” and the “girl [he] would marry” peppered throughout the record (is it Rihanna? Nicki? Courtney from Hooters on Peachtree?!). In that way, it only highlights the irony of Drake’s repeated social media hate; there won’t be as many albums this year that will be as fun to discuss as this one because of the guessing game involved in figuring out who is the recipient of his subtle jabs. With new records falling by the day, we can rest assured that this record will only gain momentum online and on the charts in the coming weeks.
Yet, for all the talk of “If You’re Reading This” as an interstitial work which is meant to connect his last album “Nothing Was the Same” to his highly-anticipated LP “Views from the 6,” there is much more happening here than he’s gotten credit for so far. Above all, it is his direct references to the end — the end of his career, the end of his life — that raise the most interesting questions.
For one, consider the record title. Its brilliance has already been explored two-fold: the record dropped around midnight on the East Coast (when I and so many others listened to it for the first time), and it’s viewed by some as a pointed reference to the completion of his Cash Money contract under boss-cum-estranged-impresario Birdman. But look again: on an album with such dark undertones and musings on the future, it’s hard not to read the scribbled text of the album cover as a suicide note. In recent years, Drake has publicly admitted to grappling with various emotions since becoming famous, and that internal struggle is well-documented in the video that accompanied this mixtape’s release.
But if we read these suicidal allusions as representative of what this album means for him at this stage in his career rather than as an articulation of some deep-seeded, potentially mortal conflict within, we see that something has in fact died. In effect, the Drake of “Take Care” for some (and “So Far Gone” for others) is no more, and this album is the clearest break from that era in his narrative arc.
But Drake knows that there are risks with change; recall the critical drubbing Kanye took for “808s and Heartbreak,” an album which constituted his most innovative and unique work to date. Coupled with the Taylor Swift controversy, it was the album that nearly marked the end of his stardom before returning to the public’s good graces once more with the five-star masterwork “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy”. No matter what “Views From the 6” ends up being, it would be foolish to think that it won’t take stylistic cues from aspects of “If You’re Reading This.” These songs give us a window into where Drake’s current mindset lies musically, and if you’re not convinced, it really is too late.
When I spoke to friends about New Drake, there were some who viewed his effort on “If You’re Reading This” as a step back lyrically, sonically and in terms of his stature. But he said it best on “6 Man” — he’s not trying to win awards. Rather, this album seems like the perfect manifestation of a long, wistful night spent in cold contemplation of the future. What does he want to be? How will he get there, even though the future isn’t certain (“You don’t know where you’re gonna go, I got this s*** mapped out strong”)?
The result is an album that is neither Inferno (see: Kanye’s “Yeezus”) nor Paradise (see: Pharrell’s Grammy-nominated “Girl,” a joyous victory lap of a record). It’s a vision of existential and musical Purgatory: a stream of consciousness-laden, at once bitterly reflective (“I don’t wanna be alone”) and classically boastful (“If I die, I’m a legend”) musical journey which meanders through a litany of complex thoughts that blur one into the other like the tracks on “If You’re Reading This” frequently do. If you blink or step away for a second, you might miss them. And he knows it, too (“that’s why you gotta come through quick”).
If the game he’s playing at this stage in his career is indeed best described as a jungle, then “If You’re Reading This” puts us in the heart of his personal darkness. For one of the biggest names in pop culture today, how do you reach your desired ends when the path is unclear? And how do you stay true to your past while pressing forward towards an uncertain future, keeping innovation alive along the way? Those conflicts are at the heart of “If You’re Reading This.” Maybe I’m giving Drake too much credit, but when he says he’s got his plans in order, I take him at his word. The result is a much more methodically-conceived work than most are willing to admit, whether it’s described as a mixtape, album or assortment of lengthy run-on sentences.
After two months that have given us several exciting visions of rap’s future, I can’t wait to see how Drake intends to emerge from “It’s Too Late’s” truly arresting glimpse of the present. Meanwhile, I’ll be running through the city with my woes.