Maybe it was the anxiety of leaving his 20s behind. Maybe it was, as he puts it, “getting tired from holding the grudges.” Maybe it was some desire to have the last word, whatever that is. But Drake had plenty to get off his chest on the 30th birthday episode of his OVOSound Radio show, aired on Beats 1 yesterday (Oct. 23), firing lyrical jabs almost indiscriminately over four new tracks.
Taken together, the four new songs — a remix of British rapper Dave’s “Wanna Know,” “Sneakin'” featuring 21 Savage, “Fake Love” and “Two Birds, One Stone” — are representative of the place Drake is in right now as an artist, almost eight years into a career that kicked into hyperdrive with his breakout 2009 mixtape So Far Gone. There is precious little introspection here, a lack of relationship talk on any level, and almost no celebration of the MC’s ascent to the highest levels of the rap game. Instead, there is weariness and bitterness, mixed with what feels like frustration and exasperation. There is satisfaction in making it to the top, it seems, but that evaporates when the goal becomes staying there.
Drake has heard the bad press over what should have been his magnum opus, Views: The fans have spoken, making it the biggest album of the year so far by any metric, but the critics seemingly spoke louder in dismissing its creativity and vitality. There’s a moment of clarity and self-awareness on “Two Birds, One Stone,” in which he raps, “My numbers out of this world / No wonder they got me feeling so alienated.”
But it’s immediately undone by a sloppy and ill-timed swipe at Kid Cudi, who just checked himself into rehab for depression and suicidal thoughts, and falls apart further when viewed in a musical landscape where numbers mean as little as they ever have. Even the Teflon Don Rick Ross — alongside whom Drake delivered arguably his best conventional diss track, 2012’s rebuke of Common, “Stay Schemin'” — dismisses any numbers talk on his latest guest verse (on Gucci Mane‘s “Money Machine“), though Ross may have his own reasons for moving beyond that topic.
So Drake, bereft of the challenges he’s spent his career boasting about overcoming, unable to truly deliver the undisputed classic he’s been promising and buoyed by his victory-by-decision that didn’t quite rise to a knockout in last year’s meme-ified battle with Meek Mill, has finally gotten truly angry. He seems tired of the constant swipes at his authenticity and ability, at his perceived “realness,” at the “soft” emotional perception that delivered him a fan base early in his career but which he has largely tried to abandon in the years since. He’s turned from underdog to rising talent to superstar to singularly successful artist for these times, but he’s undeniably changed as a result.
What’s left now is a Drake who is lashing out. He calls out rappers subliminally for running to Twitter to voice their gripes with him, not acknowledging that he himself does the same thing on Instagram, and often does so passively. He picks at emotional vulnerability — “Life of the angry and famous,” he digs at Cudi — seemingly forgetting that he has used a facsimile of that concept in his lyrics time and again over the years, and without awareness that Cudi’s issues are more serious than the rap game. Sometimes, these things are not games at all.
In his extended riff aimed at Pusha T on “Two Birds, One Stone,” he attacks Push’s credibility and drug-running past in a way that feels more reckless than clever — in contrast to his lyrical punches at Meek Mill on “Charged Up” and “Back to Back” in 2015, lines that were alternately boldly and subtly damning and made the listener think Drake knew more than he was letting on. Back then, he was bragging about Meek “getting bodied by a singing n—a” — self-acknowledging that he’s not the the traditionally tough MC usually found at the heart of such beefs — and now he’s dismissing King Push as a Scarface wannabe, against his own status as “the realest.” He seems to be swinging blindly at this point, searching for gaps in the armor in all the wrong places in a battle that, frankly, he might not win.
Drake’s sense of weariness is rubbing off on his music, too, rendering lines that in the past may have come off as funny or sly — “I’m like a real estate agent putting you all in your places,” for instance, or “I get the hits like somebody pitchin’ underhanded” — more cringeworthy than they might normally seem. If Drake is no longer laughing, no longer the crafty outsider coming in to shake up the world with an approach from left field, but instead the very voice of the establishment — in other words, if he’s completed his turn to heel status and forgotten the goodwill that got him there — then what are fans left with? “Two Birds, One Stone” is much closer to the 2016 campaign trail than it is to 50 Cent‘s “Back Down,” if we’re considering quality disses. He’s twisting reality rather than presenting receipts.
It seems there could be an issue with restlessness — both Drake’s own and, to a lesser extent, fans’ as well. In the long build up to Views, there was a feeling that when the album finally arrived, it would be the cherry on top of all that Drake wanted to accomplish in the rap world, giving him the status and bulletproof credibility to walk away and, perhaps, make movies for a while, indulge in some of his other creative ideas and talents. He could go out on top, retire from the throne and willingly bequeath it to the next in line, knowing that he could always come snatch it back when he wanted.
At times, that result seemed inevitable, but the reality wound up different, for whatever reason. Now he finds himself the ruler almost trying to quell a rebellion, and doing so without the keen and calculating eye towards the future — his previously-peerless ability to see what was coming next before it arrived — which had always helped him emerge unscathed from such previous insurrections.
Of the new releases, “Fake Love,” produced by the one-two punch of Vinylz and Frank Dukes, is the standout track of the bunch, if largely for the quality of the beat and its thematic similarity to prior successful loosies, like “0 – 100 / The Catch Up” and “Trophies.” The song is also squarely in the realm of what Drake has always done best: taking a common gripe or annoyance, laying it over a lush production, switching up his flow when the moment requires it and delivering a defiant song with a catchy, universal hook that will light up clubs for the foreseeable future. It could, and probably should, take its place among the benchmark tracks that have defined his career, alongside “Started From the Bottom,” “Hotline Bling” and so many more.
That’s not to say Drake should stick to just that type of song; far from it. But the other tracks threaten to turn Drake into the very thing that has undermined countless careers in the past, and to fix him with a tag that was first thrown around after his headlining performance at his OVO Fest in August 2015: a bully. Lord knows there are enough of those around these days.