Toronto-based rapper Drake raised a lot of questions when he dropped a surprise mixtape on a random Thursday earlier this month. The collection of songs landed online like a smoking Canadian projectile, inscribed with the scratchy, cryptic lettering, “If You’re Reading This, It’s Too Late.”
To whom and about what is Drake talking? Like any crash-landed object, the album has attracted many curious onlookers. One prevailing theory is that the album is a ruse to get out of his contract with Cash Money Records. The company is currently entangled in a nasty $51 million lawsuit with Drake’s friend, mentor and label-mate, Lil Wayne. Several lyrics on the new album seem to back up this argument, making it clear with whom “Drizzy” stands: “Brand new Berretta, can’t wait to let it go / Walk up in my label like, where the check though?” he muses violently on the eighth track, “Star67.”
Despite any hard feelings or clever ploys, I don’t think Cash Money can be too upset about the drop. “If You’re Reading This, It’s Too Late” has already sold 535,000 copies, broken the debut-week record set by Drake’s last studio album and currently resides at number one on the Billboard 200. All this with good reason — business questions aside, “If You’re Reading” draws on many of the same brooding aesthetic lines as Drake’s previous works. It tells the tale of a wary, introspective rapper, confident in his legacy but questioning his longevity.
The album starts strong on its opener, “Legend.” Though Drake takes his time, building tension and setting a slow lava-like cadence that extends through the entire mixtape, he makes his perspective clear from the outset. “Oh my god, oh my god / If I die, I’m a legend.” It’s hard to argue — from the first slap-you-in-the-face bass kick, Drake summons all of his reckless swagger. Layered, swaying R&B vocal samples lend the track a strange, muffled melody, while a squelching percussive tone drives the whole assembly forward. “Legend “ is actually one of the more musically interesting tracks, if attention is paid to the details cooked up by Toronto producer PARTYNEXTDOOR. Drake no longer seems concerned with reaching the top — he knows he’s there and doesn’t have to prove it. What he is concerned about is the fear of a fall.
“Energy,” the second track on the album, reveals what is bothering him. It is a veritable laundry list of problems: clingy girls, rising rap threats, family debts, house mortgages — the accumulated burden of any rap titan. “I got enemies, got a lotta enemies / Got a lotta people trying to drain me of this energy,” he paces back and forth like an agitated lion. While it’s true that the Toronto MC is faced with eager young competition, one does not feel too concerned for his position. Drake’s voice dances on the track with his signature effortless and lazy flow. The song is built around minimal, sinister piano loops draped over a pulsing beat, a classic work by longtime collaborator Boi-1da. If you are seeking danceable Drake a la “0 to 100/The Catch Up,” this song and the next track, “10 Bands,” are for you.
Much of the rest of the mixtape is imbued with the same throbbing melancholy, gloomy piano riffs and hypnotic beats. “Know Yourself” begins unassumingly — the intro is kind of boring. But at around two minutes, Drake goes off, providing one of the most memorable lines in the entire collection. “Running through the six with my W.O.E.’s!” punctuating the last word as a sung note. “Six” is a reference to his hometown, Toronto, while W.O.E. apparently translates to “Working on Excellence,” an acronym used to refer to his rap crew, October’s Very Own. Though Drake pays homage to the city where he was born and bred, he struggles with the external pull of a big-time rapper: “Thinks about money and women, like 24/7, that’s where my life took me, that’s just how shit happened to go.” The beat is magnetic: Hi-hats rattle on top of fat, distorted bass notes laced with ghostly keys.
Another standout is “Now & Forever,” my personal favorite on the mixtape. The track sounds like an evil twin sibling of “Hold On, We’re Going Home”: A distant ghostly choir fades and reappears amongst single resonating bass tones. The most notable feature is a punctuating industrial noise, like a hammer striking steel. Drake’s voice floats above it all: “No more, no more, no more,” he sings, his voice shot through with energy during the chorus. Again, fears of failure and desperate weariness arise: “I gotta get on the road / Can’t be on no laid back shit.”
The penultimate song on the mixtape, “Jungle,” draws on beautiful, muffled, melodic vocals akin to the intro, “Legend.” The track saunters along a slow beat, but by this time, Drake is tired and more sensual, as the track rocks back and forth like a rap lullaby. We are privy to his attempts to navigate a rocky relationship. “Are we still good,” he croons again and again, but there is no response. It may seem that Drake is opening up, but perhaps this is the cockiest way to end the album. He has forgotten we are even there, gone on to deal with his real personal life after having undoubtedly asserted his rap dominance in the previous 15 tracks.
What is “If You’re Reading This, It’s Too Late?” An album? A mixtape? A thinly veiled song-dump to flip off Cash Money and wiggle out of contract? Does it matter?
Overall, Drake continues to push his singular, self-aware style forward with great success. Though it may be a bit unrefined at points — 17 tracks seems like too much — and a bit musically homogenous throughout, there is a lot to work with and certainly enough to hold us over until his fourth studio album, “Views from the 6,” comes out later this year. Then we will see if Drake’s fears and paranoia are justified.