Hip-Hop

Every Drake Album, Ranked: Critic's Take

 Drake performs in 2016
Prince Williams/FilmMagic

 Drake performs at Philips Arena on Aug. 25, 2016 in Atlanta.

Congratulations to Drake for (presumably) becoming the first artist in music history to get a "Playlists" section added to their Wikipedia discography page; since debuting commercially with the mixtape-turned-EP So Far Gone in 2009, no pop artist has done more to blur distinctions between what is an album and what isn't than Young Aubrey. Nonetheless, you can call it a playlist, a mixtape, an EP, or an Apple Music immersive multimedia consumer experience -- next time, probably -- but if it consists of more than a handful of songs and is put on sale for purchase, at the end of the day, it's an album.

By our count, Drake has eight of those by now -- not including early mixtapes Comeback Season or Room for Improvement, which were never sold commercially, and only considering the EP version of So Far Gone -- and we figured two weeks was enough time to see how the newest project More Life stacked up against the rest of 'em. Here's our ranking of Drake's albums; starting, of course, from the bottom.

8. Views (2016)

Inexcusably draggy and littered with some all-time lyrical clunkers -- Chain-ing Tatum's career may never recover -- the album that was supposed to be a defining opus for both Drake and Toronto ended up more of a cautionary example. But while Views has come to seen as rare critcal misstep for Drizzy (albeit a commercial grand slam), it's worth remembering that there is a great album to be had somewhere within -- one that pivots from the grand drama of "Keep the Family Close" to the summery nostalgia of "Weston Road Flows" and the globe-spinning pop of "Too Good" without ever getting its feet tangled. It's just unfortunate that Drake left it up to us intrepid streaming playlisters to do the trimming and rearranging necessary to find it.

7. If You're Reading This It's Too Late (2015)

Drake's surprise "mixtape" surfed a wave of last-second excitement and a relative lack of expectations to surprisingly strong sales and fan reception, moving nearly half a million units in its (incomplete) first week and finishing in the top 20 of The Village Voice's crit-polling Pazz & Jop year-end survey. In truth, though it's more tonally consistent (and less lyrically eye-rolling) than Views, it's not that much less of a slog; well over an hour of Drake at his most paranoid, least energetic, and toughest-talking -- it's nine tracks deep before the electro-pop outro to "Preach" finally lets some light in, and that's still only halfway through. Still, the heart-rending Mama Graham tribute "You & The 6" and spark-shooting closer "6PM in New York" are worth sticking around for, and "Know Yourself" will undoubtedly replace "O Canada" as the country's national anthem within a generation's time.

6. So Far Gone (2010)

If one of these "albums" is not like the others, it's certainly So Far Gone, a slimming of Drake's breakout mixtape of the same name to its biggest hits, with two new cuts tacked on to make it a seven-track odds-and-sods collection -- they called it an EP,  though at 33:50, it's longer than plenty of rock LPs. Few would argue for So Far Gone as Drake's finest listen, but it remains an essential piece of the Drake catalog, if only for "Best I Ever Had" and "Fear," the two songs that (respectively) first demonstrated his abilities as both a knockout hitmaker and a vulnerable, quintessentially relatable songwriter. It might be decades before he ever acknowledges either song's existence again, but the Drake takeover (the Drakeover?) begins here.

5. More Life (2017)

Some of the same vision problems as Views, but more likeable across the board: Less self-involved, more open-eared, and just real goddamn fun. At its best -- specifically, the cruising section from "Passionfruit" to "Blem" -- More Life is practically utopian (if maybe a little too liberty-taking) in its global view of what pop music can be, and its warm-weather boogieing is so radiant you practically need sunscreen to listen. Of course, More Life begins to run out of gas about 2/3 of the way through and attempts to keep motoring through it, with predictably choppy results. But if you thought Views was a rare slowing or reversing of his career momentum, More Life was demonstration enough that Drake's skies never stay cloudy for long.

4. What a Time to Be Alive (2015)

The Magic-City-on-a-Monday soundtrack that the world didn't even realize it needed, What a Time to Be Alive was the perfect capper to Drake's true comeback season -- after Meek Mill levied potentially career-compromising shots at his "R.I.C.O." collaborator and Aubrey somehow emerged from the beef more bulletproof than ever. WATTBA was Drake's victory lap, the product of two or three weeks out the country with fellow megastar Future, which set the Internet on fire and marked both artists' second Billboard 200 No. 1 album of the year.

Aubrey wisely takes a backseat to Nayvadius when necessary -- a gleaming universe of unchecked id, where one club's entire alcohol reserve proves insufficiently thirst-quenching, and where the song telling a stripper to collect her tips counts as a slow jam -- since it's more his home turf anyway. But Aubrey does get one song entirely to himself in the closing "30 for 30 Freestyle," in which Drake settles all family business, and smugly welcomes Meek Mill to the wrong side of history. The album's cockiness is absolutely intoxicating, and sounds even better now than it did in 2015 -- certainly benefiting from nostalgia for a time when the album's titular sentiment could be expressed with a straight face.

3. Thank Me Later (2010)

Drake's proper debut LP has largely been disregarded in retrospect, perhaps by no one more than Drizzy himself, who rarely performs songs from it live and seems to generally look at his pre-2012 material like an embarrassing yearbook photo. It's understandable, but unfortunate: Thank Me Later was a genuinely mold-breaking album in its day, establishing the rapper-singer as hip-hop's preeminent two-way player, and treating Kanye's 808s and Heartbreak not as the one-off novelty many still viewed it as, but as the blueprint for the genre's future that it would ultimately be proven to be. But you don't need to buy into Thank Me Later's historical importance -- the songs hold up better than you'd expect, too.

"Fireworks" is one of his best scene-setting opening numbers, and "Thank Me Now" set the template for his arsenal-emptying closing statements. Kanye's faux-horns and chugging drums make "Show Me a Good Time" and "Find Your Love" two of Drake's best early bangers, and the way his voice wraps around 40's moaning synths on "Shut It Down" and "CeCe's Interlude" shows the psychic connection that artist and producer would only build on in years to come. And yes, Jay Z's "Light Up" verse is Jigga at his Dad-est, but Lil Wayne's "Miss Me" turn is still prime Weezy, and Nicki Minaj's firebreathing "Up All Night" appearance teased how soon she would prove her labelmate's equal. Perhaps most importantly, Thank Me Later features a Drake yearning for things that weren't already his; the last time in his career you could still conceivably root for him as an underdog.

2. Take Care (2011)

You know you're going good when you can throw "The Motto" away on a bonus track. Take Care arrived as Drake was hitting a winning stride that few rappers are lucky enough to ever reach: "I'm On One" showed he could own a summer on a song that technically wasn't even his, "Marvins Room" saw him turning a glorified drunk-dial into an iconic single, and "Headlines" was a lead-single heat check that he openly admitted wasn't an album highlight, but still topped the rap charts. Take Care kept the streak going, as an album with wider reach and firmer grasp than TML, equally successful splitting bars with Rick Ross over a Just Blaze symphony on "Lord Knows," launching a thousand Twitter 'shippers with the delectably tense Rihanna duet title track, and introducing a young Abel Tesfaye to the mainstream on the fan-favorite "Crew Love" and closing "The Ride."

Why not No. 1 then? Well, as a front-to-back listen, the album is still a little lumpy. Take out the Birdman hat-tip "We'll Be Fine," the surprisingly extraneous Andre 3000 collab "The Real Her" and the Juvenile-tributing "Practice" -- and give Nicki Minaj a better scene to steal than the mildly patronizing "Make Me Proud" -- and the thing could've been Drake's five-mic moment. Instead, we have an album good enough to earn Drake's superstar status, but maybe not quite good enough to keep him there. That's fine, though -- Drake wasn't counting on his second album marking his ceiling, even boasting on "The Ride": "My junior and senior will only get meaner." He was half-right.

1. Nothing Was the Same (2013)

The definitive Drake album? There may never truly be one -- dude evolves too quickly, changes his mind too frequently, turns friends to enemies and vice versa too easily. Nothing Was the Same might be the best Drake album just because it feels like the greatest consolidation of his strengths. Take the three songs that everyone knows: "Started From the Bottom" was the street single; the catchphrase-spawning, Internet-pleasing anthem for the "real friends," re-establishing his hip-hop dominance. "Hold On, We're Going Home" was the crossover; the unignorable, heartfelt (if slightly mysoginstic) pop smash to demonstrate he wasn't just competing with Kendrick and Cole, but Taylor and Gaga as well. And "Worst Behavior" was the club-slayer; the song guaranteed to turn any party into The Wolf of Wall Street, uniting all in emo opposition to an unseen force of haterdom. Triangulate those three singles, and the midpoint is pretty quintessential Drake.

But Nothing Is the Same is also special because the LP in its entirety is stronger than just its highlights in isolation: It's the Drake album with the most consistent vibe throughout, the one where the songs most feel like they're all stemming from the same moment. Nocturnal transmissions like "Wu Tang Forever," "From Time" and "Connect" wouldn't make a lick of sense on radio, but they have the hypnotic pull of Aubrey and 40 locked in on a moment of late-night realness and buzzed introspection. It's also the Drake album with the fewest high-profile guests, and thus the least-distracted Drake album -- and sadly, it may also be the final Drake album before streaming sales equivalents motivated him to maximize the number of titles on his track lists. Nothing Was the Same's title may define the artist's year-zero approach to every new album he releases, but four years later, it also exemplifies how none of his ensuing LPs have yet matched it.