On More Life‘s “Gyalchester”, in reference to where he ranks among the planet’s current crop of rappers, Drake states “I know I said top five, but I’m top two / And I’m not two”. I absolutely believe Drake thinks he’s the best rapper on the planet – he smashed the Spotify streaming records twice! – but most familiar with the rap game would fail to see things that way (especially when the undisputed king recently murked him on back to back tracks). I’d put Drake somewhere around 10th myself, probably after Kendrick, Danny Brown, MC Ride, the guys in Run the Jewels, Vince Staples, A$AP Rocky, Chance and Earl Sweatshirt. But one thing is for sure – Drake is the most listened to rapper on the planet, and not for no reason. He puts out a new project every year, often twice a year. The list of collaborators on his albums reach to every corner of the hip hop sphere. He has built up an image and actively maintains it and evolves it, moving from sad boy to asshole and back again on a semi-annual basis, all while being a genuinely funny SNL host. And he puts out both catchy, poppy songs that land all over the charts as well as deeper cuts that see him exploring new styles. Drake’s not top 5, but he’s not, like, Kodak Black, either. His music is generally likable, even when it’s a massive disappointment.
The majority of the criticism I’ve seen about More Life stems from two general camps. The first is along the lines of “Oh, Drake called this a “playlist” rather than an album or mixtape because it lets him use half-baked ideas, over-stuff the track list, and include Views b-sides under the guise that it’s still original content” (though I’m pretty sure all the Views b-sides still made it onto that record). The second is that Drake is co-opting a bunch of foreign styles and ideas, white-washing them, and presenting watered down versions to the masses, specifically dancehall (Jamaica), grime (England) and trap (Georgia, state, not country (though that would be awesome)).
To the first point, I say simply, Drake put out a collection of original music, I’m going to evaluate it the same way I evaluate any album, EP, mixtape, soundtrack, etc. He could have put it out exclusively as a video laserdisc and called it a ‘laserecord’ and I wouldn’t have given a fuck. If there’s shit on it, people will call it a shit playlist. I don’t believe in raising or lowering expectations based on if the release is free or physical or what have you.
To the second point, I’ll say yeah, Drake draws from styles that he had no part in helping form, and delivers his own version. Is that a problem? Music is a art – no one owns trap music. If Drake makes shit trap music, then call it shit, but don’t get on his case for making trap music to begin with. Did George Harrison ‘whitewash’ traditional Indian music? Did the Beastie Boys co-opt ‘black music’? God, who the fuck cares if Drake raps in a fake patois or a fake British accent – no one is being exploited here, there are no victims as a result of Drake messing around with silly accents. The only one at risk is Drake himself – if the music is corny and sucks, then he’ll lose cred and play counts.
More Life, at least to me, is interesting and cool because it is a record of Drake trying on other people’s ideas. Just when his trademark ‘style’ was getting stale, Drake took the opportunity to throw it all at the wall to see what sticks, with a few traditional Drake tracks thrown in, and a ton of traditional Drake themes, tying the whole project together. “No Long Talk” is a grime song. Drake raps about his ‘tings’. “Passionfruit”, “Madiba Riddim” and “Get It Together” draw from the same low-key, tropical house vibe that fueled “One Dance“, and Drake similarly abandons rapping for singing. All three songs are warmer, chiller and catchier than similar outings from Views. “Portland” is basically a Migos song, with Quavo delivering the same style of ad-libs on the chorus that endeared me to “Get Right Witcha“, the flute riding the beat throughout sounding like a perfect match for the production on Culture. Similarly, “Sacrifices” is a fucking Young Thug song, not just because it features Young Thug and a trap beat, but also because Drake imitates Thug’s cadence and vocal styling to a tee. Honestly, it’s probably my favorite song here – the beat dropping out in favor of solo piano on the hook is amazing. 2 Chainz’ verse is great, and Thug’s verse brings some nice energy at the end.
“Fake Love” is “Hotline Bling” 2.0, but I don’t really mind, I think the beat is catchy enough, and I like the use of the “Pick up the Phone” sample (great song, btw), I just wish it arrived earlier in the track list. Ditto for “Ice Melts”, another Thug feature, which is the funnest, sunniest song here but unfortunately arrives in the penultimate position of an 82 minute album. Kanye on “Glow” is kind of awkward, and I think the album could have benefited more from aggressive Kanye than sing-songy Kanye, but his inclusion adds to the album’s theme of being a showcase for some of rap’s biggest names, including Sampha, Travis Scott and Mercury prize winner Skepta.
Lyrically, its the same old Drake bullshit. There’s a fair bit about women (I especially like “I drunk text J-Lo / Old number, so it bounce back”), but mostly Drake is talking about his paranoia regarding and distrust of those he surrounds himself with. This concept was most thoroughly explored on the best song on Drake’s best album, “Energy“, and the fact that Drake still obsesses over it, after years of fame fame and more fame, is worth noting. The whole message of the record is summed up in a voicemail from his mom at the end of “Can’t Have Everything”:
“You have reason to question your anxieties and how disillusioned you feel, as well as feeling skeptical about who you believe you can trust. But that attitude will just hold you back in this life, and you’re going to continue to feel alienated.”
Never before have I seen Drake’s trademark internal struggle so concisely summed up and slain before, and by his own mother no less! Similarly to how Frank Ocean’s mother’s voicemail warning him about using drugs fit perfectly within the story of Blonde, so too does the voicemail from Sandi Graham. But there is additional destruction to the fourth-wall when considering that Sandi is likely referring to the same songs that bookend her speech, and because Drake sings about communicating with her so often.
There are plenty of negatives to More Life. It’s too long. A lot of the songs (specifically on the back half) are boring, lag behind and feel like filler. It’s all over the place (though as I said before, that’s somewhat to its benefit). The sequencing doesn’t really make sense (which you think would be of paramount importance for a ‘playlist’). Drake’s not saying anything new or inventive, his bars and flow aren’t always tight, and his voice can sound tired after awhile. But I find myself truly enjoying listening through this thing, and with some editing, it could have been a very strong album. The good songs are better than the best songs on Views, the hooks are catchier, the structures, beats and features more varied and colorful. This isn’t a bad project, it’s just way too loose and scattershot to be a great one, either. Which no one, probably not even Drake, believes it was meant to be.