Dropping a surprise valentine off to his fans in the middle of the night on Thursday, six years to the day after the release of his career-launching mixtape, “So Far Gone,” was one thing. But Drake couldn’t do it without a little wink. The Toronto rapper’s largely unexpected mixtape arrived with the title “If You’re Reading This, It’s Too Late.”
Too late for Internet scavengers to scour for links to zip files. Too late for rapid-response critics to pick through the batch of Drake’s most nocturnal concessions for a review in advance.
Too late for rappers to do anything about it.
Even on a day when Kanye West unveiled an Adidas clothing collection, and three days after Kendrick Lamar cracked the earth with a super-charged single, “The Blacker the Berry,” Drake managed to hop into pop culture’s cockpit and hijack the spotlight, taking the same sneak-release route as Beyoncé and D’Angelo before him.
To call Drake’s 2014 quiet would be unfair, considering that he had enough loose singles (from “Trophies” at the start of the year to “0 to 100/The Catch Up” by the summer) and guest spots (from iLoveMakonnen’s midweek-party anthem “Tuesday” to Lil Wayne’s false start of a single, “Believe Me”) floating around to remain omnipresent.
He hinted at the release of the follow-up to 2013’s “Nothing Was the Same,” understood to be coming later this year.
A sudden 69 minutes of Drake binging on hypnotic soundscapes, spitting out gleefully hung-over flows. It’s as if he knew he had some catching up to do with the outside world, so he purged the past year in rhymes.
With Lamar gaining ground in the obligatory “best rapper alive” conversation, Drake cuts to the heart of things on the opening song, “Legend,” asking himself questions that can be seen only as rhetorical: “I’m the one / Why do I feel like the only one? / Why do I feel like you owe me one? / 6 G-O-D, I’m the holy one.”
The songs bleed into each other with the oneness of a Sade record, muffled bass thumps and samples of old Ginuine records whispering in the background to stitch them together. The R&B leanings that have formed a part of Drake’s DNA are barely there, just a free-flowing stream of raps, hooks, and verses, blending without much differentiation.
Drake’s always been devilishly good at crawling into the flows and cadences of other rappers. His influences are equally external (ask Migos, Chief Keef, Big Sean, Lil Wayne, Future, all the way back to his early days mimicking Phonte from Little Brother) and internal (the Weeknd, PARTYNEXTDOOR, P. Reign). The voice he found on “Worst Behavior” from “Nothing Was the Same” seems to be one he’s settled into: warping words however he wants, most noticeably using a sort of wizardlike “Wario Flow” on “6 Man.”
In its best moments, “Too Late” recalls the sound that Three 6 Mafia created in Memphis a decade ago, which eventually evolved into the trap music that dominates the radio now. And Drake’s shapeshifting is freakishly natural, whether in “Energy,” resurrecting the crybaby wails from “Ridin’ Spinners,” or “6 Man,” channelling the creepy Michael Myers keys from “Dope Boy Fresh.”
Drake doesn’t leave many subjects untouched, from the strength of his relationship with his mother in Toronto and the strains of their relationship with his father in Memphis to reaching his breaking point with rappers taking shots at him in a subtle counterpunch at Lamar, or a not-so-subtle jab at label mate Tyga and his 17-year-old girlfriend, Kylie Jenner (“6 P.M. in New York”).
Drake’s recurring theme, though, is the people and places that made him. He’s completely cozy in his role as the face of his hometown, where he throws an annual music festival, sits courtside at Raptors games as the team’s “Global Ambassador,” and on billboards stands in front of a line-drawn owl, the mascot for his October’s Very Own label, keeping watch over the city. Songs like “6 God,” “6 Man” and “You & the 6” are all references to Toronto, area code 416.
Even on a day when Kanye West unveiled an Adidas clothing collection, and three days after Kendrick Lamar cracked the earth with a super-charged single, ‘The Blacker the Berry,’ Drake managed to hijack the spotlight.
But borrowing the Three-6 sound is just the most subtle of several nods to Memphis. He name checks his cousins — “Ashley, Tasha, Biama, Julia, Ericka, Southern America, part of my heritage” — and puts prison visits to see his father into perspective: “At least I been to a prison, at least I know what it’s like, I used to rap on the phone, one of his friends doing life, and now I got me a Grammy, that could be part of the reason, let’s just call [it] even.”
Along with hand-scribbled artwork, Drake added a long list of scrawled thank-yous: longtime right-hand men such as producer Noah “40” Shebib and Boi-1da, who left their fingerprints all over the project; celebrity outliers including Madonna and Riff Raff; and rearview friends like “Nicole that used to come see me in my mom’s basement.” Conspicuously absent: Bryan “Birdman” Williams and his label, Cash Money Records, where Drake’s spent his entire rap career.
With the much-chronicled tension between Drake and Cash Money, and the distance that Drake has created for himself with OVO, the common view is that instead of offering this new music as a mixtape to honor the anniversary of his breakthrough, Drake instead released it commercially to fulfill contractual obligations.
Retrace the bread crumbs to last December, when OVO artist P. Reign and Toronto Raptors star DeMar Derozan mentioned hearing Drake’s new tape, and there were subtle signs that he had something up his sleeve. Whatever his reasons, Drake played things close to the vest, possibly making one move while plotting another.Julian Benbow can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @julianbenbow.