When pop historians look back at Drake’s career, they’ll see 2015 as the year in which he transformed from a garden-variety pop star into an all-around cultural force. His surprise mixtape (If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late) became one of the year’s most popular albums, and his biggest hit ever was a SoundCloud throwaway. He buried damaging accusations about his writing process with two perfectly timed diss tracks and a barrage of memes. He became the face of Apple’s booming music division with a WWDC appearance, a radio show, and a handful of exclusive releases.
It’s the kind of success that should be impossible to protest, but something about it feels sour. The music he released was paranoid, icy, aggressive, and unusually villainous. He spent the year in a responsive mode instead of forging ahead with music made on his own terms. And while the mixtape-length Future collaboration What a Time to Be Alive sold well and spun off a huge hit in “Jumpman,” Drake sounded marginalized, a star made to play second fiddle on songs that didn’t suit him.
"I'm really trying to make music for your life."
"I mean, I’m really trying. It’s not like I’m just sitting here, just fuckin’ shooting with my eyes closed. Like, I’m trying. I’m really trying to make music for your life." That’s a telling quote from The Fader’s Drake cover story, one that helps to explain the appeal of his music at its best. He takes memories and scenes and translates them, makes it easy to plug them into your own life. His best songs exist in universes unto themselves, spaces separate from the musical world around him: the prevailing sounds of the day, the would-be contemporaries and rivals. It’s just you and him, alone in a song.
Too few of the tracks Drake released last year — "Know Yourself" and "Jungle," the aforementioned "Hotline Bling" — generate that connection; he was making music to intimidate and to impress. Views is his fourth studio album and seventh full-length release, and he’s spent almost two full years framing it as his next great statement, a return to the ideal purpose — "music for your life" — stated above. It’s not an unqualified success, but it comes closer to capturing his essence as an artist and public figure than anything since Take Care. It’s the sound of Drake at his best, worst, and absolute Drakiest.
Though it was described as tracing the arc of Toronto’s seasons in a release night interview with Zane Lowe, Views feels more like a tour through Drake’s own discography. Its best songs feel like expressions of mastery: he can do everything he’s done before on one album, and he can do it better. "Feel No Ways" is an ecstatic update of "Hold On, We’re Going Home," all dewy keys and effortless crooning; "Weston Road Flows" is a reflective journal entry riding a rich Mary J. Blige sample; "Redemption" is wobbly and heartbroken, a more sober version of "Marvins Room." "Hype" and "Still Here" are fierce, sinewy, and straightforward as anything on If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late. The album also plays host to the best pure pop songs of his career. Many of them look beyond the YOLO Estate, drawing from a global well of influence: there’s the buoyant dancehall of "Controlla," the UK funky and Afropop of "One Dance," the throbbing xx-isms of Rihanna feature "Too Good." Summer is around the corner, and more than a few of these songs will be inescapable.
And while Views is still shot through with the paranoia that has defined Drake’s post-Nothing Was the Same work, it doesn’t feel rooted in aggression. It’s a paranoia born out of loneliness, and the resulting songwriting feels truer and more natural than what’s come before. I don’t believe people are trying to murder Drake every time he leaves one of his compounds, and I don’t believe that the declaration he makes on "9" — "I made a decision last night that I would die for it" — is going to be tested by something other than old age. But I believe that loyalty means a lot to him, and that it’s harder to find than ever, and that it’s largely his own fault: he can’t trust anyone beyond Noah "40" Shebib, his longtime consigliere. Money looms over Views like a shadow. If you believe Drake, the women in his life sue him, sell his secrets, prey on him, sneak out in his car for trips to the corner store, and ruin his trips to the Cheesecake Factory. He doesn’t deserve your pity, and his angst isn’t always personally affecting, but it feels real.
Unfortunately, these moments of genuine emotion are islands, pieces floating in an ocean of clunky bars and tacky punchlines. Views’ two biggest problems are its writing and its length, and they work together in a vicious cycle: the longer the album drags on, the more time you have to spend contemplating the fact that he’s regressed to Thank Me Later-level wordsmithing. I don’t know what Quentin Miller was up to, but he's not listed in the Views credits, and it’s obvious he wasn’t chipping into the writing room under a pseudonym. If you’ve already spent some time with the album, you probably have a few "favorite" groaners: "You toyin’ with it like a Happy Meal?" "Creepin’ like Chilli without the tender love and care?" "You platinum like wrappers on Hershey’s, boy, that shit is worthless?" He’ll drown you in hashtag rap or die trying. It was tiresome in 2011, and it’s almost unfathomable in 2016.
The album’s song-to-song bloat is less glaring, but it’s just as pernicious. If you include "Hotline Bling," Views stretches out over 81 minutes. It’s living proof there’s a difference between generosity and poor quality control. And while anyone who has spent time with the album has a pocket list of songs they’d cut immediately — I’d knock off the overstuffed intro and outro tracks and the execrable What a Time to Be Alive leftover "Grammys," for starters — there’s weight that could be shed on every track. The album is riddled with extended transitions, orchestral outros, and beat loops. Take Care was just as hefty, but it was understandable: a young gun was trying to make his magnum opus, attention spans be damned. But a half-decade has passed, and we have proof of Drake’s restraint in If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late, a tape that’s lean and economical despite spanning 17 tracks. Views earns one of the harshest descriptors you can imagine in the streaming era: unnecessary.
Of course, none of this seems to matter to the listening public. If the projections are accurate, Views is well on its way to becoming Drake’s crowning commercial achievement. It’s going to sell over a million copies, dwarfing both his own first-week sales totals and that of Beyoncé’s new album Lemonade; it’s moving the kind of units reserved for people like Taylor Swift and Adele, the artists occupying the industry’s absolute peak. (Let Drake tell you himself: "I’m looking at the first-week numbers like, ‘What are THOOOOSE?’ / I mean you boys not even comin’ close.") He’s become one of this decade’s defining musicians, and it doesn’t really feel like much has changed since the salad days of So Far Gone: same charisma, same laughable bars, same questionable relationships with women, same disdain for editing. Views isn’t a bad record; if your expectations are properly calibrated, much of it is sublime. But everyone can agree that it’s just about time for something different.