opinion byBROOKLYN RUSSELL
Long after his superstar heyday and amidst his second child sexual abuse allegations, the now fleeting “King of Pop” Michael Jackson returned to his hometown of Gary, Indiana for the first time in over two decades. There was no agenda to Jackson’s homecoming—it wasn’t part of some costly promotional campaign for an upcoming worldwide tour or a gross publicity tool for multinational corporations to sell their products via his celebrity. The trip was extra special for Michael Jackson as it allowed for him to be seen as a person rather than a persona, to extend goodwill to Gary’s residents, and ultimately get in touch with his humble upbringing. This artistic pilgrimage, so to speak, is precisely where we find Drake on his latest album, If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late—as he strategically circumvents locations he touched down on two years ago on Nothing Was the Same and finds his way back home to “that kid in the basement.” Gone are the outside influences, the sizzle from Los Angeles’ gleaming neon lights have since been softened, and “Hold On, We’re Going Home” now strangely sounds like an artist’s impending existential crisis.
On the surface If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late may appear regressive in nature, as Nothing Was the Same found Drake, for the first time in his career, absolutely confident and triumphant. Through its hour long runtime, Drake wanders around his hometown of Toronto utterly dejected and in a confused haze. If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late plays like a man who’s caught between two worlds; sure he’s back home but, sadly, it’s also the place where you hang your head. This sentiment permeates tenfold in Drake’s intimate short film, Jungle, released the morning of If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late’s surprise drop. The 14-minute Jungle chronicles episodic moments in Drake’s life—from a young Aubrey “Drake” Graham singing with his father, to passively conversing with his compadres, percolating with jubilance and severe lows, to his catching snippets of Toronto residents’ lives (in one particular instance, a young woman travels, practices dance, and spends her free time all alone).
Jungle clearly serves as a companion piece to If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late and while it isn’t exactly mandatory viewing before listening to the album, it does serve as a portal, à laBeing John Malkovich, into where Drake is mentally, despite its often aimless (to a fault) direction. “The whole energy out here is changing, you know?” Drake reflects from the back of a limousine during the opening sequence of Jungle. “It’s getting dark, quick. It feels like anybody’s a target, you just don’t know where it’s going to come from … I’m drinking more, smoking more … I’m not losing it, though, you know. I’m just like, venting … I’m just more worried about myself. I just gotta come home.” And home is precisely where we find Drake on If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late—rapping like he’s still in that basement, aspiring for greatness, rapping like he’s never made “Best I Ever Had”, rapping without a record deal, destined for success. And with the evocation of things coming to an end washing over the album with melancholy, Drake increasingly becomes an observer rather than a participant in his own life.
Luckily, even without all of the context and lofty exposition, If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late is an altogether great and always thrilling listen. Thrilling in the sense that there’s a universality to a track like “Know Yourself” that works whether you’re overlooking Toronto from the CN Tower, walking in Brooklyn late at night, or sitting around a campfire alone. In fact, as long as it’s cold you’re probably halfway there. And much like Nothing Was the Same before it, Drake wisely never settles for the balladry sap that blemished his once cloaked artistry—so much so that he almost entirely abandons tracks that could make the ladies swoon. Make no mistake, Drake is still implementing his trademark croons and moans from his bag o’ tricks, but fortunately they no longer have their targets dead set on wooing Courtney from Hooters on Peachtree, Porscha from Treasures, or Paris Morton. On “Madonna”, one of the album's shortest cuts, Drake raps about picking up a nameless old flame and simply catching up on the times. It’s short, sweet, and straight to the point with Drake opting to bypass his usual steamy lascivious details for something a little more direct and engaging on a human level.
And when Drake does get into the nitty-gritty, he doesn’t disappoint. “Yeah, she invite me to the telly, keep the blade with me/ When I go to check a bitch, ain’t no tellin’” Drake raps on the hook for “No Tellin’,” a track that is strikingly reminiscent to Mobb Deep’s paranoid-ridden “Trife Life”. “I gotta keep watchin’ for oppers 'cause anything’s possible, yeah/ There’s no code or ethics out here, anyone will take shots at you, yeah” he continues after the beat switches to something more sparse and roomy—his words spill out ever so smoothly—ultimately sticking to you like glue. While a track like “No Tellin’” might not normally find its way onto a Drake project, his stark storytelling on the track is perfectly situated on something like If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late, given its foreboding atmosphere and thematic sweep of a harsh, unapologetic character study. It’s equal parts the cinematic vision behind Drake and his production team’s detailed narratives and a testament to how well the raw and chilly production evokes the world that they’re depicting here.
There are moments on If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late that feel like auditory vignettes to Drake’s personal Instagram page. Those photos of the man hanging out with friends, family members, fans, casual encounters, sources of inspiration, current moods, and solitary moments (or, the selfie) all make an appearance on the album. This feeling shouldn’t come as much of a surprise given Drake’s penchant for allowing fans an unfiltered glimpse into his life (“I’m authentic, real name, no gimmicks/ No game, no scrimmage, I ain’t playin’ with you niggas at all” he professes on Nothing Was the Same’s closing number “Pound Cake/Paris Morton Music 2”) which plays to If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late’s strengths. What truly propels the album forth, in spite of wherever it's lacking, is the enormity and tangibility of Drake’s predicament: despite having it all and conquering the rap game in such a short period of time, a single unkind comment or gesture may propel him toward potential drug and alcohol-induced oblivion. What parades as Drake’s refusal to compromise—no endless, self-defeating or pointless pursuit, or moldy intellectualism either—soon becomes a calamitous portrait of a man chased by his own sense of worthlessness. The notion that Drake is slowly “losing it” isn’t farfetched either and is even enhanced by the album title, which could, with its chicken scratch handwriting, allude to a suicide note.
Take If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late’s opening number, the PartyNextDoor produced “Legend”, which, four years ago might have found Drake solely practicing legacy building, here has him beleaguered and coming to terms with him own mortality. “Oh my God, oh my God/ If I die, I’m a legend,” Drake sings on the hook before going zero to one hundred real quick to flaunt his success. However, Drake isn’t doing so to stunt on his haters, but to give weight to the song’s considerable quandary. But with Drake’s chosen occupation—where machismo reigns utmost supreme and appearing shaken is practically an automatic lose—he quickly puts up a guard and self-conscious tendencies take hold (“Right or wrong, I’m gonna write my wrongs/ They can’t live this long/ You don’t know where you’re gonna go/ I got this shit mapped out strong”). It’s as if the contemplation of death a few bars before never happened. There are plenty of moments when Drake even puffs out his chest, like a natural self-defense mechanism, to overcompensate for his emotions. Like on “Energy” where Drake comes out swinging amidst a bevy of machine gun fire (“I got rap niggas that I gotta act like I like/ But my actin’ days are over, fuck them niggas for life, yeah”) or on the late track “6PM in New York,” which has Drake playing on beast mode (“I heard a lil lil homie talking reckless in Vibe/ That’s quite a platform you chose, you should’a kept it inside/ Oh you tried/ It’s so childish calling my name on the world stage/ You need to act your age and not your girl’s age”).
The way Toronto is represented on If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late (and a greater extent Jungle) with all of its urges and reminiscences makes it ripe for a Proustian trap, it’s also one created by Drake and his team of producers. His reputation as a big time baller and player precedes him, and his inconsolable insistence on the man he might have been (“I’m mixin’, I am not Esco but it was written/ I knew when they didn’t/ I been had these visions of the life I’m livin’ since I was Jimmy/ All I just had to do was go and get it”) rather than the one he may still become (“I don’t wanna miss the boat, I don’t wanna sit in coach/ I don’t wanna sit in home, I gotta get where I’m going/ I’m afraid I’m’a die before I get where I’m going/ I know I’m’a be alone”), gains more edge with each abrasive exchange. In spite of the cumbersome themes, and mostly thanks to its airy lyricism and brisk production, the album is also a love poem to Toronto—all the more touching since, as the night nears closer, Drake begins to take his leave, recording each sight and instant, knowing this could very well be for the last time. To Drake’s credit the latter half of If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late is suffused with the dark quietism only he can pitch-perfectly engineer in today’s rap (and pop) scene.
With If You’re Reading This It’s TooLate,Drake is giving a voice to the voiceless, spearheading Toronto as a mecca for creativity that will rival that of Atlanta and Los Angeles, and creating superstars out of those who would’ve otherwise been neglected by the music industry. A bulk of the production on the project is handled by local creatives like Drake’s coconspirator Noah “40” Shebib, Boi-1da, OVO cohort OB O’Brien, and Mississauga, Ontario native PartyNextDoor. Drake sprinkles If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late with plenty of Toronto references, utilizes regional slang, and pays respect to the West Indian population that makes places like Toronto’s Scarborough district such a colorful and unique place. Drake is indebted to his hometown and while If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late may position Drake as a man caught between two worlds it also affirms what Drake has been missing and possibly longing for all along: the delicate, resilient beauty of the everyday. “You and the 6 raised me right,” he raps on "You & The 6." “That shit saved my life.” B+
A version of this appeared on Brooklyn Russell's personal blog.