The surprise release of Drake’s If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late came, a couple of weeks ago, precisely on the eve of the sixth anniversary of 2009’s So Far Gone, the mixtape that established his credentials as one of this generation’s preeminent rappers. So Far Gone led to Drake signing with Young Money Entertainment, an imprint of Cash Money headed by Lil Wayne, with whom Drake was already a frequent collaborator.
Two contextual issues have marked the response to If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late. The first involves the ongoing lawsuit between Lil Wayne and Cash Money – and Cash Money’s founder, Birdman – relating to issues of copyright and the delayed release of Wayne’s Tha Carter V. In January Lil Wayne filed a suit seeking the termination of his contract with Cash Money; $51 million in damages, citing money owed; and joint copyright over everything Young Money Entertainment has hitherto released. Wayne’s lawsuit thereby implicates Drake and Nicki Minaj, Young Money’s two biggest stars; and there are suggestions that both have fallen out with Birdman and Cash Money over personal differences and unpaid royalties. The sudden appearance of Drake’s record has been interpreted as a cursory attempt to fulfil contractual obligations; with its title read as a scarcely coded message directed at Birdman.
The second context revolves around the surprise nature of the release and its uncertain form: ostensibly put out as a mixtape, it has been embraced in essence as Drake’s fourth album proper, and the follow-up to 2013’s Nothing Was the Same. Discussing this debate on Twitter, the music writer Craig Jenkins suggested:
‘The distinction between albums, mixtapes and EPs is 100% a matter of marketing intent, ie. how badly the artist wants you to buy the product.
You drop a “mixtape” when you’re spitballing ideas out of sight of the charts or trying to regain some lost industry cachet.
You drop an “EP” when you think you’ve got your sound down and wanna float a more prestigious project to retail w/o the critics harshing you.
You drop the “album” when you are ready to rest your reputation on a single body of work.’
To some extent, this sudden manner of release is an inevitable result of albums leaking over the internet. In December, Madonna was compelled to make available the first six songs from her upcoming Rebel Heart owing to the leak in spates of assorted demos. Then in January, just one week after announcing a March release date, leaks encouraged Björk to immediately release the magnificent Vulnicura.
A case like Björk’s may well have occurred regardless; but Beyoncé undoubtedly signalled a decisive shift in the way major label stars conceive the release of their works. The old mode of setting a release date and advertising towards it has dissolved: a sudden release now serves as a means of promotion in its own right, as news spreads organically and from the ground up via the word of mouth of social media. Already this year new singles by Kanye West and Rihanna have emerged in a similar fashion, suddenly, with fragments first heard at fashion shows or performed live on television, videos teased on talk shows, and behind-the-scenes film footage put out via YouTube. The release of music today is increasingly a surreptitious and continuous affair, a multimedia and multispace endeavour revelling in the ceaseless (if short-spanning) attention of listeners.
Nevertheless, charging for what is professedly a mixtape is an interesting move. With DatPiff.com and competitors making so much rap and R&B available for free, serving to level the playing field while allowing aspiring talent – including Chance The Rapper, Rich Homie Quan, Young Thug, and Tink – to thrive, going the iTunes route was something of a risk. The tendency has been for mixtapes to appear for free – with artists using them as a means to establish themselves, to offer personal or unorthodox material, or for a credibility boost following a fallow period or critical or popular disdain – with some works receiving major label releases at a later date, provided they have received sufficient acclaim. This is a path taken previously by Terius Nash: 1977, for instance; and it was at one point the plan for ASAP Rocky’s Live.Love.ASAP, upon his signing with RCA and Polo Grounds Music. The So Far Gone mixtape was itself reformulated and reissued by Young Money as a shortened seven-track EP in September 2009.
In fact, DatPiff.com’s founder Kyle ‘KP’ Reilly has suggested that there were early negotiations towards making If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late a free release. Cash Money apparently intervened, and came to a compromise with the artist. The success of the approach taken has been immediately clear. In the first week of its release, Drake’s mixtape sold 495,000 copies and topped the Billboard 200. And this week all seventeen of the mixtape’s tracks have charted on Billboard’s Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs. With Drake featuring on four more hits, he has twenty-one songs on the chart in total: obliterating the chart’s previous record of fourteen.
Musically, If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late stands up to all this scrutiny. This is a late night album, with darkly looped synths, scattered samples, and beats which alternately stutter and hesitate then burst forward in brief spurts of momentum before again coming to a pause. In the space which the restrained production allows, Drake eschews the woozy atmospherics characteristic of his compatriot The Weeknd for a more focused outlook: with a present and thematically consistent set of lyrics; concentrated upon modulating and refining his verbal flow.
‘Legend’ opens on a slowly reverberating rhythm and Drake’s spectral voice, which cohabits the song with samples from Ginuwine’s ‘So Anxious’. The mixtape’s opener does serve as a sort of manifesto for what follows, in so far as it begins on a note of confrontation, with Drake rhyming ‘When I pull up on a nigga tell that nigga back, back / I’m too good with these words watch a nigga backtrack’; sees Drake with bold confidence declaring ‘I got this shit mapped out strong’; but also has him admitting ‘It’s so hard for me to let new people in’.
Beyond the occasional reference to missing cheques, If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late is marked, not by anger, but by distance. Drake adopts a covetous persona, fiercely proud of his accomplishments and just as eager to ensure that nobody muscles in on his position at the pinnacle of popular music. There have already been numerous attempts to decipher all of the disses on the record: towards Tyga and Diddy, and perhaps also towards Kendrick Lamar, who has directed several lyrics at Drake amid a half-playful attempt to reignite the hip-hop feud as a micro-genre. Further than this there seems among some commentators the inclination to scan every reference to a fellow rapper as a slight. Broadly, over piano keys, the hook to ‘Energy’ sees Drake affirming ‘I got enemies, got a lot of enemies / Got a lot of people tryna drain me of my energy’.
But more than keeping his distance from other artists, there is Drake’s distance from the wider world. On ‘Energy’ he states ‘Fuck going online, that ain’t part of my day’ – a cutting throwaway, considering how pivotal the online community has been to his career, a key facet of his art always subsisting in its interplay with online trends, and the release of his first three mixtapes gaining him a significant audience via the internet. More, Drake can rap about running through Toronto with his ‘WOEs’, but at the same time depicts himself locked up in his studio, isolated and accepting no calls. Toronto is at the forefront of If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late, its various locales repeatedly referenced and portrayed in relation to Drake’s life and upbringing; but as on ‘Uptown’ from So Far Gone, he offers his representing on Toronto’s behalf in place of his regular physical presence in the city.
Throughout Drake’s flow is casual and loosely experimental while his tone remains resolute. ’10 Bands’ is one of the tape’s most driving and hypnotic cuts, with breaking percussion and a climax of sorts as Drake revels in his city having him ‘feelin’ like the one again’. His vocal stylings on ‘Know Yourself’ clearly echo those of Young Thug – Birdman’s latest protégé, along with Rich Homie Quan. ‘No Tellin” really comes alive in its final third, with Drake’s robotically rhythmic lines, delivered over mechanised soul, including the demand ‘Please do not speak to me like I’m that Drake from four years ago I’m at a higher place’.
After such a strong first five tracks, ‘Madonna’ and ‘6 God’ merely keep the tape ticking over. ‘Star67’ begins in the same vein, but then opens out with a change in tempo and Drake’s lingering voice transferring into song. Then on ‘Preach’, with its wobbly bass, industrial clanging, and rapidfire beats, PARTYNEXTDOOR arrives with a vocoder to give If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late new impetus. While this and the follow up, ‘Wednesday Night Interlude’, comprise two of the chillest pieces on the record, still Drake offers paranoid sentiments like ‘I am convinced that my calls are being recorded’; and he continues to navigate a relationship with women that veers from distrust and disinterest to their being on his mind ’24/7′.
‘Used To’ features Lil Wayne; ‘Now & Forever’ has Drake labouring over an interesting instrumental – which includes industrial sounds, ethereal spliced vocals, and a looped sample from Nas and Ginuwine’s ‘You Owe Me’ – conceivably in relation to his split with Cash Money; and ‘Company’ has Travis Scott on the microphone and contributing to the production.
As the mixtape comes to a close – before the melancholy soul of ‘Jungle’ and the triumphant finale of ‘6PM In New York’ – ‘You & The 6’ has Drake open up through a sustained address to his mother. Mother songs in the realm of rap are destined always to be compared to Tupac’s ‘Dear Mama’ – and Tupac, always occupying a central position, has recently returned to the forefront of the form courtesy of Kendrick Lamar’s ‘Keep Ya Head Up’-referencing ‘The Blacker the Berry’ – but the intimacy of Drake’s address makes the comparison apt in this case. In a manner that quickly becomes conversational, in the first verse of the song Drake attempts to reassure his mother, doing his best to deflect her concerns and come to a mutual understanding regarding his romantic life. The beat shuffles, and Drake’s voice is replete with sighs and hesitations before he thanks his mother for raising him well.
In the second verse, Drake brings his father into the discussion. He notes that his father ‘made mistakes throughout his life’, but realises ‘he just want our forgiveness, and fuck it look how we living / I’m content with this story, who are we not to forgive him?’. Recalling his father spending time in prison, and his younger self rapping over the phone to his father’s fellow inmates, Drake considers ‘now I got me a Grammy, that could be part of the reason / Let’s just call this shit even, we got some things to believe in’. Utterly eschewing simpler concepts of being wrought through struggle, and overcoming the perpetual strife and bragging of rap, Drake momentarily offers a calm, submissive graciousness which rarely finds expression in any art.