Sunday, January 9, 2011

R&B Futures #1: Drake

This post is not about dance music.  Avert your eyes if this scares you, and be assured that Futureproofing is not about to become Popjustice.  The rest of you reasonable people, please read on.

It occurs to me that there is a considerable love for modern R&B underlining the tastes of many of my friends, colleagues, and co-conspirators -- myself included -- and there's got to be a reason.  While most would be quick to dismiss the likes of The-Dream, Drake, Nicki Minaj, Ryan Leslie, Cassie, Ciara, what-have-you -- nevermind the stunningly snobby tastes of electronic dance music acolytes -- for those who like melodically rich, verbally playful, and beautifully textured music, there's no reason not to explore.  There is a large discourse surrounding this kind of stuff: whether it's indie rock juggernauts like Pitchfork giving considerable journalistic push and credibility to Drake and Dream, or more 'underground' and dance-focused sectors like FACT Magazine giving prominent press to the same (and more), a considerable dialogue begins to emerge.  While some might cite it as gimmicky bandwagon-jumping or minstrel-show novelty, that sort of attitude is even more close-minded than what it feigns to condemn, because there is actual merit in this music.  This dialogue has been ever expanding in recent months, particularly with the release of a fantastic Cassie remix EP and a post on the Guardian Music Blog about the cult of Cassie that led the head of the Tri Angle Records -- a label that is often attributed the title as a leader in the 'witch house' game, but we're not going to talk about 'witch house' here and suffice to say the man himself insists he doesn't release it -- making contact with the hallowed chanteuse, a virtual meeting that seemed like an impossible task.  As for what it means, that remains to be seen, but it proves that there's something about modern R&B and pop music really tugging at some of the most influential minds in electronic music right now.

One of the largest figures looming over this crossover is Canadian rapper Drake, disciple of the ever-divisive Lil' Wayne, and a figure that seems to only inspire vitriolic hatred or embarrassingly gushy praise.  He's easy to hate: he's Canadian, he's got an awkward flow that's robotic when it's not clumsy, his lyrics are a slower and more deliberate version of Wayne's patented associative rapping style ("this time I'm really going off. fireworks." etc ad nauseum), and he has a heavily introspective, sometimes whiny perspective.  Too bad that the guy has dug his own little completely unique sector of commercial rap and made a masterpiece in it, then.  Drake's debut album Thank Me Later is stunningly visionary, a mainstream hip-hop album that almost never bangs, doesn't really have any party songs, and consists of the most monochromatic, sleepy production heard in a good long while.  It's the sound of cold sweat pooling on a pillow, summer-induced heatstroke haze, complete and utter exhaustion, and the conditioned entitlement of a whole generation of spoiled brats obsessed with "swagger" and self-aggrandizement on a pathetically personal scale.  Yeah, this record has some baggage.

Look at that terrible album art. Jesus.


One of the biggest weapons in Thank Me Later's arsenal is its production, and moodwise the album has a wonderful ebb-and-flow of stirring melodrama, but for the most part it's a drab and spartan affair.  The simplicity is often mistaken for laziness, but it's the album's greatest asset: in perfect tandem with Drake's often oversimplified rhyming schemes and linear thoughts, each beat drives each song forward with that particularly potent after-midnight kinetic energy: you're too tired to go on but you do it anyway, pulled by some unknown force.  Whether it be the springy, fluid drums on "Firework," the metronomic breaks on "Karaoke,' or the cavernous thrum of "Light Up," each has its own distinct bed of minimalistic percussive energy.  When the album breaks out into colour, it does so histrionically: "Over" practically billows out neon streamers, all warm jets of strings and marching band triumph so overblown it's practically Disney, while "Fancy" chops up... something into an endearing and summery melody.

But even the album's most fist-pumping moments end in remorseful dread: "Fancy," probably the most straightforward track on the entire album, slips off into a clouded medical haze two thirds through its duration, where Drake sounds like he's rapping from behind a wall of gauze.  The album's party songs are just plain depressing: "Unforgettable" is the sound of Drake seeing through his own facade, ruminating on his longevity, and when Jeezy boasts "this is my realest flow ever" it sounds as if he's delivering a eulogy.  "Up All Night" manages to sedate even Nicki Minaj, producing her slowerest flow ever, and Drake's tales of the good life ring hollow and nervily uncertain.  When he toasts to himself on "Light Up," it's a distant whisper: it's a superficial trope about setting a club on fire, but it begins to seem like he's really talking about something more dangerous, something self-inflicted.

Let's be honest here: Drake is full of shit.  He boasts and complains about fame numerous times, and keeping in mind that he only had one hit song prior to Thank Me Later, it's a bit hard to take.  But the thing is, Drake knows it too: he ponders his sudden and devastating personality change in "The Resistance," one of the most reflective tracks on the album.  "The Resistance" seems to surge with leftover unused energy, synth melodies billowing out at the end of certain bars as if completing an aching charge, and these little bits of synth make it one of the album's most breathtaking tracks, a dreamy aerial view of Drake's life in 2010, beautifully nostalgic and bitterly regretful.  It's a regret that's immediately subverted in the decadent excess of "Over," as he decides at the end of "The Resistance" in a resplendent turn of fuck-it-all money-grubbing: "ain't no going back for me, I'm in it till it's Over."

The album's gorgeously groggy opening stretch -- which is rudely interrupted by the technicolour of "Over" and strung along by an ongoing chemical high -- is reprised with the vaporous sensuality of "Shut It Down," the album's centerpiece featuring extreme ladies' man The-Dream.  The drums dissolve on impact, channeling into pillars of translucent sand, as Drake tries his darndest to croon.  His pick-up lines are transparently and off-puttingly sleazy, and he's easily showed up by The-Dream, whose helium-addled hot air is like a choir of angels in comparison.  The chorus rises and falls like the laboured breaths of the track's protagonist, only growing in intensity, and as the dual-pronged bridge unfolds it becomes clear that this is an audio-drama of Kellsian proportions, complete with desperate exhortations of "You shut that thing down! Go get em girl!"  But it's when the song fades back in with those same gaseous wafts of steam that were all over "The Resistance" that it becomes a true epic, as Drake - finally reaching the soft, affecting tone he's been aiming for the whole song - coaxes the girl to "take that fucking dress off" and he "swears" that she'll be happy he met him.  Desperation still isn't sexy, but it usually isn't this heart-tugging either.

I'm not the only one gone nuts for Drake. The album was somewhere around my second favourite of the year, its mixture of fascinating beats and affecting songs proving endlessly addicting, hopelessly thrilling, and impressively enduring.  There was something about the warm jets of nostalgia, the gut-wrenching tinges of regret, the sheer abandon of Drake's careering, the self-aware decadence, that all comes together for one seriously impressive and cohesive statement.  "Fireworks" was memorably remixed by Deadboy -- the track even given a vinyl release -- and also by Physical Therapy, who paired the track up with "Bette Davis Eyes," totally fulfilling its potential for gooey, wet behind the ears warmth.  The album continues to be lauded by those who originally supported it, and even the head of world-renowned experimental record label Type gave the record a #1 nod on his Boomkat end of year charts.

So go ahead, give it a try.  It's not for everyone, I'll -- grudgingly -- admit, but if you can find your way into this record's disgustingly self-serving and unashamedly arrogant world, you might just get lost in it.  This record soundtracked a whole summer for me: the cool, sunny mornings where you could feel the impending heat creeping up your back, threatening globules of uncomfortably cool sweat.  The scorching heat waves that sent me into those dazed states just like the hazy submerged passages of "Light Up," "Shut It Down," or "Fancy."  The long nights as exciting as they were conflicting and frightening, the hopelessly exciting and inspiring times, and the darkest and most paranoid times.  It's a record that lives you as much as you live it, with nooks and crannies for every mood and every feeling, every memory.  Pretty soon Drake's bullshit stories and narratives become your own, and suddenly they aren't so bullshit anymore.

5 comments:

  1. Great reading! I've been downloading and deleting this album three times from my hard drive. I guess it had to be played at the certain moment for me to get on it. And yeah, i would agree, it's not for everyone.

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  2. Great read, well thought out.

    Would like to point out one thing though:

    "Let's be honest here: Drake is full of shit. He boasts and complains about fame numerous times, and keeping in mind that he only had one hit song prior to Thank Me Later, it's a bit hard to take. "

    Drake was HUGE on US radio way before Thank Me Later came out. Best I Ever Had, Forever and Successful were all totally unavoidable on US radio in 2009. The summer before his album came out he was already playing to 4000-15000 people a night on tour.

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  3. Thanks for that input, it does put things a bit further into perspective, but seeing as how his fame -- whatever its magnitude -- was still rather new at the time he would have been recording those songs, I still think it's a bit hard to swallow at times.

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  4. what a great post.

    that is true about Drake being big pre-album - i remember going to the States around that time and if you didn't hear both Successful and Best I Ever had when you were out something was wrong - but it was the album that really put him over the top.

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  5. Her has also been famous (in certain circles, consisting mostly of adolescent girls) for staring on Degrassi. That fact alone predisposed me to dislike him, but somehow his last mixtape became the soundtrack to last January and this album has been played all year.

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