Drake’s ‘More Life’ Will Need More Radical Tenderness
The burden of expectations
A Drake release being pushed back is one of the least important pop cultural moments in the world right now. The U.S. president takes flagrant vacations to his own hotel chains, tweets baseless accusations and silences dissenting opinions as “fake news,” even as we all continue to make sense of the eerie reality that Russia manipulated our election. There are rifts—white nationalists and immigrants, young and old, the rich and the poor. These people do not speak, but exist in their own internet bubbles, their experience of the other side mediated and pigeon-holed. It’s traditionalism against progressivism across the board.
Even Drake feels this, from his groaning in a recent interview with DJ Semtex—released tellingly in the place of More Life’s expected release this weekend—about outmoded GRAMMY nomination committees pigeon-holing him as a rap artist because he’s black.
The name for the upcoming More Life first appeared in an Instagram post penned before Trump was in office, but echoing the reasons that got him there: the racist and inhumane murder of Alton Sterling. “I BELIEVE THINGS CAN CHANGE FOR THE BETTER,” he wrote, “THE FIRST STEP IS HONEST AND OPEN DIALOGUE,” before signing off, “BE SAFE OUT THERE. MORE LIFE.” The idea that Drake used a man’s death to promote his long-planned title is too gruesome to consider, so I can only assume that this was the name’s inspiration.
A week ago, George Saunders, widely acknowledged as one of the greatest living American writers, appeared on The Late Show With Stephen Colbert. The interview was ostensibly a press run for his new book Lincoln in the Bardo, but Saunders being a prominent skewer of establishment politics and Colbert being Colbert led the conversation unsurprisingly into Trump territory. Saunders’ call was not so far from Drake’s request for honest and open dialogue, though I prefer Saunders’ less buzzword-y term: “radical tenderness.” A tenderness that could let nationalists feel compassion for refugees, white supremacists feel compassion for minorities, and generally let us all be better humans to one another.
If Saunders is our preeminent writer, Drake is our preeminent bard. No one else comes close, aside from Kanye or Jay Z—but both are at this point generations removed. His influence is undeniable.
For an artist who’s built his brand on crooning relatable, plainspoken sensitivities, Drake has few moments of actual emotional vulnerability. He’s certainly not radical, and he’s not even that tender. For More Life to succeed in pushing Drake forward, and live up to its name and our expectations, he’ll have to venture into uncomfortably personal territory.
It would be optimistic to expect all of this from a Drake record, even unfair. From the cheeky, single-emoji Instagram posts, to his calculated collabs, cosigns, and release schedules, one gets the impression that Drake’s public persona is somehow engineered by a PR team to reach peak Drakiness at every turn. He doesn’t break form, stays on brand. This tendency has been so frustratingly consistent that it’s reached the point of self-parody. As Jeff Weiss described in his seminal piece on Drake’s schmuckery, “He’s in on the fun, both an Internet piñata and firmly within the cultural pantheon.” If this makes Drake sound like an arch-supervillain of the rap game, it’s only because that’s exactly what he wants. He has eyes and ears everywhere, ready to cherry-pick dope (read: marketable) sounds the world over, able to respond to any diss track in an instant. He’ll steal your girl and laugh it off in an interview sponsored by a billion-dollar streaming platform.
Described as a playlist, More Life is exactly the kind of music-consumption-as-shared-experience play that we should be used to by now from the OVO braintrust. The stakes are noticeably lower than Views—no billboards, no meme-generating cover art, no grand gestures towards making a Toronto classic. It’s a safe, low-risk-high-reward, release. If More Life succeeds, best believe OVO will quickly claim as an intricately sequenced, unified thought, thus proving even their throwaway playlists can go plat. Chance made history with the first mixtape to be nominated for much less win a Grammy, why not a playlist? But if it flops, it will remain a playlist, not an album—a low-stakes documentation of songs that Drake & co like, just for fun. This sort of hedging would seem to disqualify the work from “classic” status off rip.
The confusing thing is, Drake speaks effusively in the few interviews he allows about his insecurities. Whether it be personal struggles, GRAMMYs, or challenging rappers, he never seems to be lacking for painful fodder. But on-record, this becomes another well-placed emotional dip from the 6 God, rather than a believable angst.
If “Fake Love,” one of the first singles off More Life, is meant to be the record that addresses these insecurities, it unfortunately falls victim to the same slick veneer of self-aware irony. Rather than explore what it means to be one of the most powerful artists in the business and the phenomenon of people being fake, Drake flips into the boastful, “They look up to me!” Self-affirming, but hardly tender.
It’s also why Drake’s flip on XXXtentacion’s flow was met with the same sort of eye rolls as when he flipped D.R.A.M.’s “Cha Cha.” Domestic abuser X may be, you can’t deny his emotional investment in every track. In typical fashion, Drake has flipped it into something marketable yet toothless. If he wants to try out a new flow, why not go whole hog and scream over peaking basslines? Meanwhile, fellow rap mogul Future, perhaps music’s reigning king of radical tenderness, is over here making bold-faced confessions on HNDRXX about how his “codeine habits ain’t got nothing to do with my little child,” even pleading a women to “Use me!”
Drake could never.
While not the most headline-worthy reveal, the piece of information that gives me most hope for More Life is Drake casually remarking to Semtex, “We DJ all our own parties.” It conjures images of crew kickbacks in lofts and penthouses, mansions, spanning Toronto to L.A. to London.
This scene exists outside of the major Drake modes: he’s not alone, he’s not in the club, he’s not having one-on-one emotional intimacy (with a friend, or a woman). So even in depths of my jaded skepticism, I am perversely curious about what goes on at these parties. What is Drake like in private, among those he trusts most? At his most tender.
If More Life can carry that energy of a family house party, cutting through the calculated veneer, it’ll be a success. Even if the thematics remain centered around vanquishing haters, self-mythologizing accomplishments, and achieving authenticity by name-checking the underground. Given that, and the direction of past OVO episodes, I’d expect the extended family to get some shine. Party, Roy Woods, Majid Jordan, sure, but also Baka, Puffy L’z, Smoke Dawg, Jimmy Prime, and the newfound UK connection. And Giggs. A lot of Giggs.
Or, it’ll lapse into predictable schlock: typical song structures and bloodless boasts. Grime used as an “exotic” feature to jazz up otherwise boring records. A hands-off, low-stakes play to keep the Drake brand relevant as we move into Q2 2017. But if our most prominent pop artist, he of the boastful pen, cannot move into the emotionally tender territory necessary to justify a title based upon a racist murder… it does not bode well for any of our emotional tenderness, nor Drake’s ability to move forward as an artist.