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Drake’s More Life doesn’t know what the hell it wants to be, which makes it great

B+
Photo: Cole Burston / Getty
Photo: Cole Burston / Getty
B+

Drake

Album: More Life
Label: OVO Sound/Young Money/Cash Money/Republic

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Drake has always been an album artist. That’s what was sort of surprising about the four-album run he made from 2009’s So Far Gone EP to 2013’s Nothing Was The Same: Each release held together marvelously, one long, lush production cut into an almost narrative sequence of hits, unlikely guest spots, and thoughtful deep-album cuts. Drake’s pair of 2015 mixtapes never quite read as tapes either—they were fussy and thoughtful, from the man-cave melancholia of If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late to the careful cohesion of his split with Future. Even last year’s weirdly maligned Views, which featured some of the artist’s most shimmering pop music, felt like a conscious statement. He stays in the popular consciousness via carefully leaked one-off tracks and manipulation of his own public image, but he shifts culture via his records.

More Life is different. Its most clear concept is its lack of one—that is, its branding as a playlist rather than an album. The difference may be semantic, or it may be marketing, but either way it seems to have freed him up to make the loosest, most spry set of his career, moving from grime to sun-kissed pop, from ocarina trap to meandering ambient R&B. It’s never exactly smooth, and it doesn’t try to be. The excess is the point; there isn’t time to deal with segues when, at 22 tracks and 81 minutes, the record is already too damn long, and almost exactly too damn long to put on a single CD, which feels intentional. It has the feel of a vault being cleared out, like Dylan’s Basement Tapes or Nas’s Lost Tapes.

Fortunately, like both of those, it’s all also very good, thanks in part to Drake’s typically impeccable curation, but mostly to his abilities as a performer. There was a time when people questioned whether or not the kid from Degrassi could rap; now the biggest critique against him is some sort of abstract corniness, charges he does little to allay on More Life. (Relevant quote: “I don’t take naps”; elsewhere, whinging: “Did I just read that you just got engaged on me?”) But that corniness is pretty clearly a bit at this point, one of many for the emcee, and on More Life he cycles through them all—the self-aware schlockmeister, the hovering ex, the real-talk motivational speaker, the international ambassador to Toronto, the dude who knows people, the love-struck kid, the post-Meek world-weary battle emcee. Here, that shape-shifting tendency continues to dilate: more patois, more Soundcloud-sharked flows, more guest tracks, more styles, more music, more lives to live. It’s an exercise in excess. This is the guy who once claimed as his hometown a hypothetical nowhere called “Houstatlantavegas,” before the Raptors got good and he decided to own the whole Toronto thing a little more. It’s all a bit; it always has been.

For people still concerned with “realness” in hip-hop, this may be troubling. But it’s part of what has made Drake one of the most interesting figures in the genre since 2000—someone who, like Kanye West, comes at it with wide-reaching cultural tastes and an eye to expand it from within, challenging us and himself through reinvention. Kanye can’t do it without self-immolating in the process; Drake, though, just keeps burning through tracks, never breaking a sweat even though he’s probably wearing an insufferable sweater. We don’t think of Drake as a pop chameleon because he never calls attention to the transformations. Here, tracks like “Passionfruit” and “Can’t Have Everything” feel at once tossed-off and canonical; it’s easy to forget, but so did “Hotline Bling” when it first came out, a goofy cover of a D.R.A.M. track that had already made the rounds. That song initially dropped as one of Drake’s intermittent multiple-track Soundcloud leaks, a process he uses to lightly float new concepts and see what sticks. You’ll notice that “Sneakin’” and “Two Birds, One Stone,” which came out alongside More Life’s “Fake Love,” didn’t make it on the final album. The one that was a hit did.

Yeezy used to be like this, a sort of omnipresent tactician of rap’s intersection with popular culture, but now the two artists circle each other like they share a single life-force. Remember: Drake’s break-out EP came about because of a moody remix of an 808s & Heartbreak track. He’s still refining West’s innovations: It’s hard not to see the influence of The Life Of Pablo on More Life, which similarly served as a clearinghouse for all of its creator’s ideas. That album’s erratic highs, half-finished sketches, and its long period of post-release tinkering felt like proof of the adage that art is never finished, only abandoned. That More Life is titled like a sequel to that record may not be coincidental, but there’s a clarity to Drake’s take on the concept that West never found. More Life is light, often weightless. Despite its playlist tag, it is unmistakably a Drake album—it even has a Blueprint highball closer like each of its predecessors—and as an album, it is probably Drake’s worst. But as a collection of totally atomized songs and ideas, it’s up there with anything he’s released. Maybe that makes it a playlist after all.