album review

Drake Is Still on Vacation

Photo: Drake via YouTube

Black music traverses the planet along the same winding, unpredictable pathways Black people do: over oceans, up and down coasts, out from rustic hinterlands, and into bustling metropolises. Wherever Black people are subsisting, there’s culture — ways, wares, and wisdom — exchanged. New musical concepts blow in like developing storm systems, and vibrant art springs up in their wake. When you trace the steps of intrepid travelers at the foundations of these movements — like DJ Kool Herc, instrumental to the birth of hip-hop in the ’70s by virtue of the concepts from dancehall culture he brought to inner-city youth parties when his family moved from Kingston, Jamaica, to the Bronx, or Fela Kuti, the Nigerian cultural titan and Afrobeat pioneer whose music was a colorful response to homespun artistic traditions and local current events that also synthesized the innovations of jazz and funk bands across the Atlantic — sounds that once seemed far removed and totally unique to their geographies are revealed as distant relatives.

You have to imagine Drake sees himself as one such traveler. The Canadian rapper and singer owes his career as a pop heavyweight to his gall as a savvy early adopter and chameleon who softens the turns his music takes with plaintive vocals, self-aware lyrics about angst and desire, and aqueous sonics from frequent collaborators like Noah “40” Shebib. Drake is sort of like a rock-star venture capitalist: He latches onto a great idea, and it creates a feeding frenzy, and sometimes the original idea gets watered down, but there’s a lot of money in following the sure bet around. His 2009 mixtape So Far Gone braided southern rap, Swedish pop, ’90s R&B, and ’80s synth-pop; in a four-song stretch near the top, 2012’s beloved Take Care breezes from the triumphant trap of “Headlines” to the hypnagogic soul of “Crew Love” to the xx and Rihanna fan service of the title track to the spectral and mournful “Marvin’s Room.” They’re subtle, careful evolutions, smart annexations of regional and international sounds, the better to make Drake feel less like a businessman breaching new markets and more local and on the pulse. Sharp turns lose people. More Life — the 2017 mixtape where the expected train of trap-soul hybrids was derailed by nods to U.K. grime, Jamaican reggae and dancehall, South African house, and Nigerian Afrobeats, and where the XXXTentacion-lite flows of “KMT” sit unusually close to the J.Lo karaoke job in “Teenage Fever” — is not unanimously appreciated for its creative twists. Some see it as a carefree, unrepeatable peak, and some see it as the beginning of a doldrums for Drake. On 2018’s bloated, combative Scorpion and 2021’s surprisingly cranky Certified Lover Boy, he reined it in, centering pillowy trap beats and the passive aggressive mood of 2015’s If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late, the mixtape where his art hardened and skepticism began to edge out romance. It all succeeds because Drake is monoculture.

Honestly, Nevermind, Drake’s seventh album, released with little advance warning, seems designed to raise eyebrows. It’s both a noisy genre pivot and an embrace of sounds Drake has given his spin on in the past. Like the four-song streak where More Life posts “Passionfruit,” “Jorja’s Interlude,” “Get It Together,” and “Madiba Riddim,” Honestly, Nevermind celebrates the shared DNA tying African dance music to its international diasporic siblings. It’s as much a musicology exercise as an attempt to push one audience outside its comfort zone while making inroads with a totally different one (typical Drake shit). But this time, the genre experiments that might’ve peppered prior projects as garnishes are the main course. Does the artist behind More Life’s intercontinental scope, who guested on tracks like Jamie Foxx’s disco jam “Digital Girl” and the remix for U.K. dance producer SBTRKT’s “Wildfire,” pass as a full-time dance-pop divo? Kinda, sorta. Honestly, Nevermind casts a wide net, taking inspiration from past Drake singles like “Hold On, We’re Going Home” and the moonlit, hypnotic grooves of South African DJ (and guest star of “Get It Together”) Black Coffee. Congolese Afropop star Tresor pitches in vocals, and EDM-trap producer Gordo (f.k.a. Carnage) produces a batch of songs that make use of his love of Baltimore club music and his track record as a wayfarer for rappers dabbling in EDM. With 40 in the mix as producer and engineer, Drake drizzles his vocals across these tracks, easing off the tightly constructed lyrical exercises of past records and singing universal lines about lust. Foregrounding the romantic longing that made him a star at the end of the aughts, and avoiding the vengeful discourtesies of his recent releases, Drake arrives at his smoothest listen in years.

But what makes Honestly, Nevermind feel intimate can also make it feel sleepy. Drake is a sharp lyricist whose gains as a vocalist have come from intense practice, and his instrument is being stretched to its limits here as he glides between an ever sweetening falsetto and the coarse low end he uses in songs like “How Bout Now.” “Falling Back,” “Texts Go Green,” and “A Keeper” give him room to emote over placid, barely there production, carrying these songs with his melodies rather than sliding into elaborate vehicles specifically engineered to make his words more magisterial. Sometimes these lengthy stretches of vocals, gossamer synths, and delicate drums feel invigorating, like the bedroom invitations at the start of “Calling My Name,” and sometimes it feels like we’re being treated to a performance of Drake trying to cut loose. From its opening lines — “Finding myself / Showing myself / Finding a way to stay out of the way” — to the two minutes of Auto-Tuned coos toward the end, “Falling Back” feels like the questionable kind of spontaneity, the freestyle where the words don’t quite come together. Leading with that song feels almost confrontational, a warning to the fans looking for more “Way 2 Sexy” and “Pipe Down” that we are checking all that bossy, flossy shit at the door this time. (That subset must really be upset about the soupy sounds throughout this album if Drake was already steeling himself against the backlash on the day the record was released, when we saw a video of him promising that naysayers will catch on in due time — an intriguing forecast for a project whose nearest musical antecedents are Tresor and Black Coffee releases from last year. Imagine all the tepid crossover attempts in store for us now.)

Stick with the album, and it rewards your attention. The beat change in “Calling My Name” raises suspicion that Drake is circling ballroom culture; on “Sticky,” he demolishes a Jersey club track, delivering a performance that holds up to the existing Jersey club remixes of his hits (if “Sticky” doesn’t quite outdo them). Gordo gets us in the ballpark of tech house with “Massive,” then “Flight’s Booked” and “Overdrive” dip to explore the expressive guitars and soulful repose heard in Sade, Santana, and xx records. “Down Hill” and “Tie That Binds” venture a little further out, coolly juggling aspects of Afropop and drippy adult-contemporary pop. Descending into Honestly, Nevermind feels like drawing a warm bubble bath. It’s a comforting, frictionless environment, a sensory deprivation tank with not much more to ponder than your innermost desires. The drums don’t pop. The vocals don’t soar. The synths don’t stab. It’s a head massage. It’s the shit you play at the after hours, where you stop answering texts because you’ve found someone for the night, and very notably not the shit burning down the club where you met. Dance music doesn’t have to always be brash, though. It can sooth and smolder. (Nightclubs need bangers, and so do retail shops, tanning salons, and doctor’s offices.) It’s strange to see these songs dismissed as house music when many don’t even qualify; it’s poor form dismissing the genre, and it’s rude to the half-dozen ideas crashing into each other in order to make anything as lotion-y soft and intercontinental as the part of the album where “Overdrive,” “Down Hill,” and “Tie That Binds” go full spa-resort on us.

Black artists should feel at ease traversing traditions. There’s vital Black history in every scene, and especially along the intersections of dance music, rap, and soul, the busy thoroughfare joining “Come Into My House” to “Buffalo Stance” to “I Wonder If I Take You Home” to “I’m Every Woman” to “I Wanna Rock” to “Together Again” to “B.O.B.” to “Lose Control” to “Climax” to “212” to “Vogue Train” to “Ima Read” to “On Sight” to “Explode” to “Gasoline.” When you take that route, you must show out. As much fun as it is to think about Honestly, Nevermind as a temporal curiosity, a work that couldn’t exist if not for decades of international movements, betting the farm on the cinnamon-and-hot-chocolate blend of Drake’s breathy, burnished, unobtrusive singing and drums that tap when they needed to slap results in an album that is perhaps better appreciated as a brilliantly sequenced sex or sleep playlist than the summer dance party “Texts Go Green,” “Currents,” “Sticky,” and “Massive” may suggest. Honestly, Nevermind is more like Drake’s Soulection mix — a pleasant if subtle gesture, the heated hotel hand towel in the catalogue, a geographical shift ushered in as comfortingly as possible, a muted vacation from a much busier place he’ll get back to after a while.

Drake Is Still on Vacation