Last year’s If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late was a bold move for Drake, moving away from the ultra-relatable, slightly neurotic rapper-singer and towards something closer to street-minded hip hop, taking aim at critics over dark, brooding beats that were glued together by an adrenaline-inducing energy.
It was mafioso rap for the selfie generation, Drake puffing his chest and showing off a glossy, tough exterior while holding onto the playful style of Puffy‘s “Shiny Suit” era. This was of course followed with a fairly lacklustre collaborative mixtape with Future, a victory lap of sorts with much of the same content boxed into hyper-repetitive noise, seemingly designed with “turnt” live shows in mind, but getting worse on each listen.
These two points of departure from Drizzy’s more sensitive material on Take Care and Nothing Was The Same must have successfully vented whatever aggression he held inside last year because the Toronto emcee has, for the most part, zipped straight back to the tender, poignant, and thoughtful for Views, a love-letter to his city and supporters and a thorned rose for those who abandoned him, coloured with self-indulgence and lazy punchlines.
Album opener “Keep the Family Close” is the emotional, dramatic Drake that’s busy cutting ties with the disloyal, blaming everyone else but himself for the cold, lonely nights spent serenading himself on the top of the CN Tower, looking down with furrowed brows as if he was some kind of rap Batman, restrained in his thirst for vengeance. Toronto producer Maneesh complements a pensive, paranoid Drizzy with chilly Toronto winds, a violent clattering drum pattern, and contemplative, orchestral strings; it’s unmistakably Drake, and here he is offering up one of his best vocal performances in years, kicking off Views in fine form before stumbling over the hum-drum struggle bars of “9”.
“I made a decision last night that I would die for it,” Drake outrageously raps on the album’s second track, referring the undying devotion he has for Toronto. A tough, endearing, if not ridiculous, track upheld by an excellent sample of “Dying” by Mavado; Drake’s right-hand 40 flipping a sharp and slightly tweaked “Dying” to sound like “Nine” for the hook.
Clever production like this saves Drizzy many times throughout Views, given the emcee is often too busy spitting questionable, intentionally goofy rhymes like “You tell me that I’m confusin’ / More immature than Marques Houston / Cuts too deep for a band-aid solution” and “You toying with it like Happy Meal”, both lines which feature on “U With Me?”, ironically one of the album’s strongest cuts.
It’s interesting to hear Drake so comfortable next to not one, but two DMX samples and a hook that references “How’s It Goin’ Down”, seeing as the gruff emcee has expressed his disdain for Drizzy a handful of times over the years (apparently Noreaga helped producers 40 and Kanye clear the sample). Still, Drake is a master at re-polishing and re-purposing old radio rap hits; he did it for Juvenile with “Practice” and now he is doing it for for X with this – could this change the Dark Man’s attitude? It being one of the absolute highlights of the album sure makes a good case for X at least opening his mind to Drake, who is in his element as he makes a magnificent, seamless switch from pining, paranoid R&B vocalist to braggadocious emcee towards the track’s end: one of the album’s few immaculate moments.
“Feel No Ways” rotates in the same universe as Drake’s breakthrough hit “Hold On, We’re Goin’ Home” with a package of modernised 80’s synth-pop from the mind of Jordan Ullman, vintage with skittering hi-hats and glossy keys. It’s a meaty, soulful tune that’s one of the only – if not the only – single on the album (aside from year-old bonus track “Hotline Bling) that could believably dominate the charts.
Another essential cut follows with “Hype”, Drake again brooding with bitterness over enemies and betrayal, disillusioned with the hype machine and industry fakes. The neo-mafioso Drake is at his best here, articulating his wrath with an increasingly impressive flow that sounds natural over the clockwork-like beat.
The autobiographical “Weston Road Flows” feels like Views’ signature offering – even more so than the later-on title track – and could have easily been placed at the very end, featuring an incredibly smooth, dreamy production that makes excellent use of Mary J Blige’s “Mary’s Joint”. It’s the Drake the world began to fall in love with on So Far Gone, and it certainly helps that he sounds the most comfortable when grooving into this mid-range style that perfectly balances his strengths as both a rapper and a singer.
Similar things can be said for the excellent “Redemption” which inexplicably muffles up Ray J’s “One Wish” to add a bit of colour to the skeletal, spacey beat, providing Drake with a palate on which he again delivers the perfect mix of strong vocals and strong rhymes – the best on the album – to give us one final glimpse at the mature, more likeable, and slightly insecure Drake before it all falls apart.
With seven tracks of straight quality, it’s unlucky number 8 that has Views soaring a bit too high, first bringing in an uninspired guest spot from PARTYNEXTDOOR and Jeremih for the playful yet boring “With You”, which gives way the even more forgettable “Faithful” complete with a very unnecessary, recycled Pimp C verse that would feel just as natural on a Zayn Malik song. “Still Here” tries to pick things back up with a slight trap-leaning sound but ends up a generic Drake throwaway.
The dorky “Controlla” at least pulls things in a completely different direction with Drake showing off his Barbados influence (thanks Rihanna) that, while interesting, pales next to the following “One Dance”; a shapely, adventurous attempt at chiseling another hit from the house that “Hotline Bling” (a tacked-on bonus track here) built with pop-friendly but slightly awkward contributions from Kyla (her 2008 single “Do You Mind” is sampled here) and Wizkid. This dive into the tropics is a good move from Drake and while it’s biggest cultural impact will likely just be fashion instagrammers/pop tabloids appropriating Jamaican slang, it at least adds some greatly needed texture to Views.
And then we dip back down again; even lower this time as the record’s quality tumbles for the woeful (but turnt) “Grammys” with a dull spot from Future, again oddly slotting in that hyper-repetitive What A Time To Be Alive style before the bizarre “Child’s Play” comes around, an entertaining but ultimately filler cut that only works because of 40 and Metro Boomin’s nicely done, unexpected interpolation of New Orleans bounce.
“Pop Style” is a dark, drill-inspired track that sadly removes Kanye West’s excellent verse from the leaked version and has Drizzy riding solo over something that sounds connected to Big Sean’s “Blessings”, although with less substance. Moving back towards a lighter tone has Drake trading miscommunication with Rihanna on the charming “Too Good”, two-stepping back towards a tropical sound that unfortunately fails to live up to their stellar collaboration on Take Care’s title track.
The highlight of the album’s back-end comes from the sultry turn of Majid Jordan on the vintage vignette “Summers Over Interlude”, setting the tone for the sinewy R&B of “Fire & Desire”, drawing on a very old Brandy track (“I Dedicate (Pt.II)”). Drake takes the listener from the top of CN Tower to a warmer, candle-lit room before throwing on The Winans classic “Question Is” for “Views” and reflecting on everything he’s seen on the road to riches, deciding that he doesn’t actually need the disloyal, just faith, passion, and family.
The lethargy in Drake’s lyrics indicate that the rapper may have been in a creative rut at times when recording Views, even if his producers weren’t. Kanye West is an example of another rapper who has some horrendously lazy lyrics sprinkled throughout his albums (most notably Yeezus and The Life of Pablo) but the difference between ‘Ye and Drake is substantial.
Kanye is an exemplary producer who has mastered the way he arranges his music; weak punchlines fit into his productions and while disappointing, they are forgivable for it. On the other hand, Drake has little reason for clumsy lines like, “On my way from the studio so get undressed/Let’s do the things that we say on text”.
If (mostly) any other rapper had made Views, the running undercurrent of bitter feelings over betrayal and resulting insecurities would have been replaced with laments of faux-friendly money-grabbers (“Back then hoes didn’t love me/now I’m hot hoes all on me” – Mike Jooooooowwwnes) but Drake is still quite clearly standing outside of traditional rap circles, and I assume that’s largely due to the city he was raised in and how he was raised.
It feels like a good idea for Drake to really express where he has come from and where he’s going, but much of the execution is off, despite the style. The first seven tracks on this album are excellent, and if Views ended there it would have been a great project, but the record is much too long and nothing – especially the latter half – really justifies its length, with fillers that lack the substance of Take Care, the exploration of Nothing Was the Same, and the commitment of If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late. As it stands, Views is more on the level of Thank Me Later in terms of quality, and that’s a bit disappointing for someone who has come so far.
Review Score: 7.2 out of 10.
VIEWS is out now.