If You’re Reading This, It’s Too Late feels stunningly empty. Its beats (primarily produced by Boi-1da and Noah “40” Shebib) are dark, reflective and entombed beneath an unusually unemphatic Drake — despite many instances of Young Thug-via-Lil Wayne intonations. He sounds almost like the victim of an early midlife crisis, carrying the weight of too much experience too early. In astrology, when you turn 27, you have your Saturn return and it can shake up your entire sense of self. The horoscopic belief is that the universe’s largest planet has finally orbited back into the position it was in when you were born. The stars then challenge you to shed a layer of yourself before you move to the next phase of adulthood. It’s Too Late is Drake’s skin all loose and scrunching up his body like a snake’s before it comes off in one fell swoop, but the Toronto rapper has always contained dualities.
He is Captain Save-a-hoe, but will carry a lot of disdain for girls who reject him, always treading on scorched Earth. There were his days as Degrassi wheelchair-bound heartthrob Jimmy Brooks, but this was followed by a lowly middle period between being the actor Aubrey Graham and the OVO head honcho Drizzy. He is constantly fighting to paint us a preternaturally accurate picture of his experience: yes, bands and bottles get popped, but he isn’t hiding the emotional depth he experiences underneath so much spilled champagne. Despite his enormous popularity, Drake is still awash in memes and punchlines because of these two-sided portrayals of himself. We want our superstar rappers to sit conveniently within a paradigm we’ve invented for them; Drake just refuses to stay there.
His latest is his most primed canvas to convey his multitudes, but its opening triptych almost feels like a troll. He coos, “Oh my god, oh my god / If I die, I’m a legend” on the opener over a warbled sample of Ginuwine’s ‘So Anxious’. Gunshots fire over the vaguely dancehall-infused ‘Energy’, where he laments Internet-obsession and how many enemies he has. It’s all too familiar and so very boring. Oh, your “acting days are over,” bro? It doesn’t sound like it, particularly when ’10 Bands’ kicks in. It’s the ‘Now We’re Here’ companion to ‘Started From the Bottom’, down to the beat – all Calabasas braggadocio and “my ex asked me where I’m going / I said onto better things” snot-nosery. But then he sheds a layer; ‘Know Yourself’ possesses, as evidenced by its title, a ton of introspection and a hook so meta it is undoubtedly aimed at people with a slim rap lexicon. On it he repeatedly yelps, “running through the 6 with my woes.” He’s embracing New Orleans slang to talk about crew-cruising through Toronto, and there is no more perfect word for “friend” than “woe” for him to pull an aural okey-doke on his listeners. It’s the perfect preamble for a project that is missing the sore-thumbness of a cheesy yacht-rocker like ‘Hold On, We’re Going Home’ or obvious pop crossovers like ‘Best I Ever Had’ or ‘Take Care’. It’s Too Late is a woozy, scattershot thing – Late Night Drake, if you will.
Still, what is a Drake album that doesn’t toe the line the between misogyny and heartfelt slobbering? The latter Drake, for whatever reason, seems to make the Drake who gets angry at women unacceptable, despite the fact that rap has always had “lady problems.” It’s hard to imagine, however, that he hasn’t entrenched himself to a certain sector of his fans as “the good guy” even if he hasn’t been since ‘November 18th’ or ‘Say What’s Real’. Whether he’s rapping about considering strippers virgins or wanting to aggressively court a woman who “could be as big as Madonna,” he makes no bones about his feelings. He refuses to lie to us and it’s probably because he’s been fighting between fan-love and real love since he was 14. Of course teenaged pussy is wholly different, but the male fear it instills is just the same. When it’s being lobbed at you left and right, but still dreaming of finding The One, do you acquiesce or employ patience and hold out? Drake still hasn’t figured that one out yet.
Drake’s most concrete duality is that he is black and Jewish, two pieces of his vast identity that come under constant scrutiny. With ‘You and the 6’, an almost-anti-‘Only One’, even though Drake uses himself as a proxy to have his mother speak to him, we hear this most. Before he even gets into the nitty-gritty, overly-revealing bits of conversation with her, he raps, “I used to get teased for for being black / Now, I’m here and I’m not black enough / Cos I’m not acting tough / Or makin’ up stories bout / Where I’m actually from.” Here, he’s shining a light on how consistently in his life there has been a push-pull on who he is expected to be. He also accesses the “Jewish prince” trope, the beloved son who is constantly coddled by his mother who no other woman is ever good enough for. It’s probably why he complained about the “tuna salad on a bagel” sandwich, less so because of teen show star ego.
It’s important to consider that If You’re Reading This Now was thrust on us with little warning, the same way one barfs up their guts when they’re feeling too much. And that as solemn as it sounds, it’s Drake’s most confrontational work. Will his actual full-length Views From the 6 have more pop polish than this release or will Drake make an even more emotional tome in which he is, in fact, “keeping it real”? He probably doesn’t even know yet, but it’s clear he wants us on his journey.