March 30, 2015 | Rome, Italy | Patchy rain nearby 11°C

Ego and perseverance

By Patrick Masterson
Published: 2015-02-23

Drake: "If You're Reading This It's Too Late" (Cash Money).

ip-hop history is a vibrant oral timeline flush with brief, fleeting moments of zeitgeist-capturing characters that transcend their art.

Aubrey Graham, best known as Drake, is just such a character. Yet his singular ability to craft decadent songs and albums is trumped only by his exceedingly rare ability to survive — the guy has been in the thick of the hip-hop conversation longer than some people have had careers.

The perseverance continues on mixtape-but-not-really If You're Reading This It's Too Late (Cash Money). Released with a nominal charge through iTunes, the album leaves open a lot of questions regarding his status with rapper Birdman's crumbling Cash Money Records enterprise. With Lil Wayne suing, Tyga unhappy, and Nicki Minaj probably also looking to bail, Cash Money is more akin to a sinking ship than a pop-rap record label.

But there are no questions regarding the man behind the microphone. These 17 tracks will not change your opinion of Drake, if you have one: He still has an enormous ego ("Oh my God, oh My God / If I die, I'm a legend" is the first hook); he's still incredibly self-involved, and he still flows over beats that sound more expensive than anything you could ever hope to afford. Case in point. As an avatar for hip-hop's perceived "softness," penning a song to your mother asking her to forgive your father is about as vulnerable as they come. That he does it on "You and The 6" over a beat by longtime co-conspirators Noah "40" Shebib and Boi-1da is just as cloying as it sounds.

To his undeniable credit, though, few can swing so seamlessly, so fast from sensitivity to addictive trash-talk. Though it's not on the level of Run the Jewels or Kendrick Lamar, Drake's noticeably disgusted laments to hangers-on through "Energy" and "No Tellin'" are matched only by his diss of fellow Cash Money cash-in Tyga on closer "6PM in New York." There's versatility at work.

Only Kanye West surpasses his masterful mixture of icy cool and intrapersonal drama. The difference is that Drake takes no musical chances. The beats here are simple and lush from an arsenal of familiar producers, as they have been for years. Though he shifts his flow occasionally, the most addicting songs here ("10 Bands," "Star67") fall more or less in line with his biggest hits ("Headlines," "Started From the Bottom," "Hold On, We're Going Home"). Even when it's a supposed mixtape in preparation for a coming album (Views From The 6 is supposedly due later this year), you get the feeling he knows the stakes are high and everyone's watching. Which they are, of course.

That only makes If You're Reading This It's Too Late just as polarizing as anything else he's released over the last half-decade. Drake is always in his lane. At this point, hating him seems counterproductive. He inhabits the rarefied air of global recognition. There's no getting rid of him. More interesting and worth debating are the vulnerabilities he's willing to expose.

This release sees him retreating entirely inward — there are hardly any guest spots and no discussion of Cash Money. There's only Drake and the increasingly unbearable tedium of his youthful success. Life at the bottom as written from the top — it's a wonder he's endured this long in this climate. And what if the only thing stopping him is old age?

"10 bands, 50 bands, hundred bands... Let's just not even discuss it, man..."

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