Drake Sets the Course for Yacht Rap on 'More Life': Critic's Take
What does it say about the world's most popular rapper when the biggest through-line for his new "playlist" album is a sample of his own voice, warning haters in an awkward Jamaican patois to keep his name out their mouth -- from an acceptance speech at the American Music Awards, of all things? A lot of things, probably, but mostly that he doesn't really have a ton to talk about right now.
Drake enters More Life at what could be called the least compelling moment of his career; his superstar status unquestioned and virtually unprecedented but increasingly uninteresting, his most intriguing new personal and professional partnerships fizzling before amounting to much, his involvement in the only really important beef happening right now coming merely as a supporting player. Call Views an L based on the ensuing Internet snark if you want, but understand that topping both the Billboard 200 and Hot 100 charts for 10-plus weeks and getting nominated for the album of the year Grammy doesn't exactly let you play the underdog again.
To his credit, the 6 God understands this as well as anyone: "Winnin' is problematic / People like you more when you workin' towards somethin', not when you have it," he laments on "Lose You," one of many views-from-the-Views-tower claims on More Life that serve as the opposite of a humble brag. Drake is at a rarefied place for any popular musician -- he bemoans success not for the effect it's had on his world, his art or his soul, but rather for how it's robbed his career of engaging storylines. "I'll probably self-destruct if I ever lose, but I never do," he glumly boasts on the closer "Do Not Disturb"; clearly, his narrative could use the help.
But of course this is Drake we're talking about, and nobody prefaces their records' talking points better than Young Aubrey. In this case, he offered fans and critics an opening volley by labeling More Life a "playlist," leading to speculation that it might be more of a label showcase -- a sort of Cruel October, perhaps. Nope: The OVO boss is unquestionably the lead artist here, and despite some greater wealth-spreading than usual, in 10 years, we'll be calling More Life a Drake album, just like we'll be calling If You're Reading This It's Too Late a Drake album, just like we'll be calling What a Time to Be Alive a (half-) Drake album. There's little actual formatting innovation going on here -- the only thought-provoking thing about the nomenclature surrounding More Life so far is that despite being 81 minutes long, nobody seems to be calling the set a double album, proof that the concept of physical media is now officially as dated as Papa Graham's mustache.
Still, there are some mildly telling aspects to the "playlist" designation -- especially from a radio standpoint, since at its best, More Life plays like a really good episode of Drake's OVO Sound show on Beats 1. The transitions are fluid, the sounds are diverse, Lil Wayne shows up at one point to spark a blunt and deliver what amounts to a station ID. Drake plays your DJ and host, but he wisely keeps his talking breaks relatively short; some songs feature an opening verse from Drizzy and then ride on without him, while a couple interludes don't feature his voice at all. It's pretty refreshing -- as frenemy Kanye West would no doubt agree, the sound of dude's voice has become a smidge overbearing in its airwave omnipresence the last few years, so maybe it shouldn't be too surprising that the key to More Life is Less Drake.
Speaking of Kanye, his structural influence is obvious here: The way guests are assembled as a cast of characters, carrying their own individual styles and baggage to the songs they grace, rather than just signing up an array of 16-bar features and hook men, is essentially Pablovian. Many of the most recognizable voices in popular music right now make crucial appearances on More Life: Young Thug, Quavo, 2 Chainz, Sampha, and yes, even Yeezy himself, all given the kind of necessary airspace 'Ye was generous enough to afford stars like Chance the Rapper and Rihanna on his last effort. It gives the work a timeliness and urgency, and takes pressure off Drake to provide all the album's essential content on his own.
And when Drake really lets go on More Life, the results can be absolutely sublime. The album's defining stretch starts with third track "Passionfruit" -- does Aubrey have a Dole endorsement deal we don't know about? -- and lasts for five tracks of breezy, blissfully temperate vibes, borrowing the freshest sounds from Europe, Africa and Central America and spinning it into Drake's borderline-Imperialist mono-pop. The ethics of Drake's musical appropriation are as questionable as his increasingly unapologetic (and endlessly meme-inspiring) adoption of slang and terminology belonging to cultures that are not his own, as well as his tendency to lift flows from up-and-coming artists, as he was already slapped on the wrist for allegedly doing with the pre-release leak of the XXXTentacion-echoing "KMT." (Quavo's "Never let these ni---s ride your wave" refrain on "Portland" feels especially ironic in this context, if not downright subtweet-y.)
Musically, however, the results are undeniable. As expertly stewarded by go-to Drake collaborators like Nineteen85, Noah "40" Shebib and Frank Dukes, this five-song sequence is downright transportive. Euphoric grooves and impossibly airy hooks still thud with resounding low end, led by vocals that stretch rap to its most-melodic, least-disruptive extreme, making even "One Dance" and "Too Good" sound like street singles by comparison. The parlance of our times likely demands that we refer to this as Trop Rap, but what it really is -- with apologies to Lil Boat -- is Yacht Rap; hip-hop of extreme affluence and almost disconcerting affability, cruising in decidedly international waters, with concerns of critical credibility as distant as dry land. It's absurdly easy to envision Drake in all white and a goofy captain's hat, doing a clumsy two-step as he sets sail from London to Lagos, and "Blem" even begins with an intro reminiscent of Phil Collins' "In the Air Tonight," as if to honor the legacy.
Does the Michael McDonald-worthiness of Drake's chunes justify his pilfering? Arguable, though Drake himself would likely say that his music is simply in conversation with these styles and artists, rather than attempting to steal their voice altogether. And if he wanted to, he could point to XXXTentacion creeping up the Billboard Hot 100 -- or cite Google search statistics for Skepta and Giggs over the last 48 hours, or turn on any one of a thousand radio stations still playing D.R.A.M.'s "Broccoli" 18 months after "Hotline Bling" was ripped for biting his "Cha Cha" single -- and say that for as much as he gets accused of musical vampirism, these artists are more vital now than before he sunk his fangs in. A rising tide lifts all boats.
The high tide doesn't last the whole album, though. Drake gives you reasons to hang around -- swapping vocals with Kanye on the nearly transcendent "Glow," having Thugger hoot his way through the self-fulfilling prophecy "Ice Melts," even offering a late appearance by top 10 hit "Fake Love" in case you haven't had your fill of that one just yet. But by the time you get to them, the album's prior buoyancy is bogged down by a little too much If You're Reading This-styled vamping and the obligatory endless PARTYNEXTDOOR song. The problem isn't so much that the album is too long, it's that it lets its identity slip away a little -- like a million other playlists you can find on Spotify or Apple Music, it seems to put a lot of care into the pacing and flow of the first half, and by the time you get to the end, it just seems to be piling up whatever songs are left.
At least until the final track. Drake closers have always served as State of the Union addresses, and "Do Not Disturb" is maybe his most revealing yet -- one in which he admits that he's been too busy for girls ("Gotta start sleepin' at the studio / I don't have time to be no Romeo") or partying ("Not even showin' up to a club unless a n---a doin' biz") while scrapping to maintain his No. 1 spot. Workaholism is nothing new for Drake, but he's never sounded quite this weary or exhausted, and when you add up the four (!) albums and all the accompanying drama of his last 25 months, him finally being a little drained of his energy (and subject matter) certainly checks out. But now it's up to the rapper to enjoy a little Drake Time, doctor's orders: "Takin' summer off, 'cause they tell me I need recovery / Maybe gettin' back to my regular life will humble me / I'll be back in 2018 to give you the summary." In other words, More Life to live until next time.