In 2001 Jay-Z was the biggest rapper in the world. A string of crossover hits over his career (Hard Knock Life, Can I Get A) along with records that were as big on the street (Big Pimping, Money Cash Hoes) placed him in the unique position of being a pop star AND one of the best pure MC’s on the planet (a space that seemed mutually exclusive to many hip-hop fans). He dropped his sixth album that year, The Blueprint, and it encompassed everything that made him great. It was a record where he could scorch the careers of his competitors and find time to hang out in R&B songs with Pharrell. Life was good for the self-proclaimed God MC.
Then the next year he dropped Blueprint 2 and that good will came to a halt. It should have been a lean mean album of 10 or so tracks; another easy victory lap. Instead at 25 it became an unwieldy juggernaut. Jay-Z was still rapping at a phenomenal level but it was lost in a continuous grind of interchangeable tracks that sounded like rehashes of his previous work. To the fans he had lost his way.
In 2016 Drake suffers from a similar situation. He’s coming off a 2015 where he had one of the biggest pop singles in addition to gaining the begrudging respect from hip-hop aficionados for winning one of the most entertaining rap battles in years. His unofficial album, If You’re Reading This It’s Too late, was released to critical acclaim and his collaborative effort with Future was an underrated success at least judging by its cultural impact.
But now we have his fourth album Views, something that should have been a victory lap of an album but comes off like a forced march at gunpoint. It’s Drake at his most Drake-iest; bittersweet regrets towards women he’s dated? Check. Lamenting how his life has changed, often for the worse, since he got famous? Check. Flirty dance floor come-ons? Check. Braggadocios rhymes with a tinge of low self-esteem? Check.
His longtime producer Noah “40” Shebib steps it up; somehow making the album’s production sound both maximal and minimal with his contrasting overuse of drum programming along with imaginatively sparse samples and synths. But at 19 tracks (and one interlude) it comes off as a chore; Drake sounds bored with himself. There are some great songs buried in here like “Controlla” and “One Dance” which are great nods towards Jamaican Dancehall. The title track is a solid slice of chipmunk soul popularized by the aforementioned mentioned The Blueprint. “Pop Style” and “Still Here” are solid sinister slow burning tracks with trap high-hats.
And that’s what’s most disappointing about the record; it is bad by no stretch of the imagination. But we know Drake can do better because he has. It’s just time for him to dig deeper and find a reason to rap. When Jay-Z was faced with this problem his solution was a pseudo ‘retirement’ album that pulled all the stops, The Black Album, which placed him back on top of the rap pedestal. Throughout his career Drake has hinted he planned on retiring from hip-hop in his 30’s and he’s precariously close at his 29 years. Hopefully the will to retire on top will be the fire he needs to end his career on a high note.