Drake - If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late
If you’re reading this it’s too late, as in “this review is absolutely too late.” The current memetic status of Drizzy’s “cryptic” title has already established an organized cloud of modern re-constructions that read anything from “if you’re reading this bring chipotle” to “if you’re reading this so is the NSA.” And, even though the title is a nod toward fragmented time (the moment of “reading the work” is lost to the infinite potentiality of hype), it serves to demonstrate that it will always be “too late” for us (the listener), perhaps since often we don’t even know what we’re reading in the first place. “This” is a mixtape, probably an album, but ultimately a paradoxical assertion of Drake’s branded identity, one that seeks to underwhelm itself as a coy strategy for its own creative manipulation. That is to say, “This” is a put-on hyper-drama — a commanding iteration of Drake’s brand space — a meme, a mixtape, loaded with content, delivered at $11 for the consumer to fully, literally consume.
The presentation of Drake as the contemporary forlorn actor definitely ruffles feathers over here at the TMT office. Of course, the analytical tug-of-war between pop and non-pop is a war that is consistently waged, with factions sometimes hailing T. Swift as the union between readymade quality and subversion, or, my personal favorite, Yen Tech as “reducing [the] gap until it is so thin that we can’t even really hear it any more; we can only think it.” Especially with these performances, we can see the application of Fredric Jameson’s definition of pastiche: the re-assemblage (memetically and mimetically) of cultural content to shadow existing structures, to replicate them, to embody them, to critique them through vacant beauty or riled misanthropy, as an attempt to materially define the realness of capital through tackling it to the ground and kissing it. Often, the fetishized pop tune is dialectically situated in a continuum that proclaims newness — new sounds, a new angle, a new perspective on (x) cultural structure, etc. But the dialectical model always ends up outputting waves of macro/micro dominance. A cultural feature is constantly “rising” or “falling” to contain or swallow another feature; as James Parker and Nicholas Croggon describe it, something is always seen to be “eating” something. I personally believe this model to be flawed, since the feed of content has subsumed itself innumerably to suggest the need for Zen-like labor regarding music-making processes. Working matters. So does content. Therefore, as a feature of late-capitalist hip-hop, Drake’s “mixtape” plays an interesting and relevant role: it costs money; it is simultaneously “hyped for now” and too late; it serves to necessarily open the stifling and archaic need for contractual obligations and release dates; and, more importantly, it demonstrates a consistency of vision that is tied to his ability to deliver an experience specific to himself.
Drake’s strategy is to “ball-hog” while concurrently minimizing his product. He participates in the netizen trend of coding pride through nonchalance, to calmly call a full-length that occupies 42% of Billboard’s hip-hop chart just a “tape.” The manipulation of a relatable ego is what’s so fascinating about Drake, and, ultimately, what makes him so dominantly played in vehicles cruising across the trans-North American experience and beyond. As a character, he plays the toiler and the landlord, the monk and the sinner, the local and the expat, the replicant meme and the original content creator. His effort to minimize and aggrandize is essential to the modern ego; and, ultimately, our culture’s infatuation and hatred toward Drake demonstrates the complex evolution of our own egos into diffuse, cyborg opinion holders — egos that navigate the cold seas of privilege and net anthropology — that are tied inextricably to Drake’s own self-consciousness and brandhood. If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late is a process of freezing the ego by withdrawing into “the house with the phone off;” Drake’s effort to encapsulate the “tape” format seeks to hold his momentum at bay while also immortalizing his consistency. Throughout, ego is rightfully extended through the sheer material force of his content generation. The listener must ultimately face their visceral love or hate toward his character, or, at least, observe how the majority of any given subway ride is in their feelings with his music. It is the massive consumption of the tape’s intimacy, rather than just the raw consumption of its lifestyle aesthetic, that serves to further Drake’s supremacy. In this way, hearing his “woes” are similar to keeping up with a sickly-sweet teen manga franchise, a serialized experience with simultaneous “depth” and marketable style. Of course, his music has relationship to the object-oriented “POP” of other Top 40 artists, but his is a narrative of reflexively identifying with approachable self-dramatization, rather than interpellating the progression of unfettered pop music. I can’t help but think that Drake’s music has more in common with Netflix than Weezy.
TMTer Nick Henderson hit the nail on the head in his Nothing Was The Same review:
“In highly pretentious music criticism and in rap music alike, especially in the cases of mainstream rap superstars and unpaid, embittered former liberal arts students, art is ego. Rather than trying to shed the ego through the formal recreation of a superpsychic, egoless state through waves of anonymous, deliberate repetition, rap music and music criticism revel in the mythologizing, aggrandizing, and general exploration of the creative subject’s ego.”
And boy, can that “exploration” go far. I’ll admit that Drake’s use of the “prayer hands” as artwork led me to brainstorm some embittered liberal arts student-type junk, some of which got as hilarious as “Drizzy’s ‘Ball-Hogging’ as the Universalization and Reverse-Plagiarism of Blunt-ian Redemption” — a mythology-driven critical impulse that should probably never see the light of day. Yet, with If You’re Reading This, there is union between his effort to “mythologically aggrandize” himself and to relieve creative pressure by half-redundantly (and “meaningfully”) delivering what people want: Drake content, Drake lyrics, Drake beats… a Drake album. Why should we expect anything else, really: does the majority desire a big, dirty, genius Frankenstein of a record à la Kanye West? Absolutely not. Drake’s ability to deliver a genre-“specific” experience helps to preserve his craft in the hearts of a mass public, an effort that keeps plenty of “critical listeners” at arm’s length. But his product delivers, enough so to prompt artists like DJ Paypal to crank out 30 remixes or for publications to describe something as having a “sad, happy, listening-to-Drake sort of feeling.” Essentially, regardless of how you feel about his primped effervescence and faux-bad-boy croon, it’s important to ask: Why do you love or hate Drake?
I believe that if we were to search around “in our feelings” for the germ of our visceral opinions about his music, we can see a reflection of our ego playing out in the very same manner that’s essential to Drake’s project. And if that’s the case, to “read” Drake, you have to meet him on his terms — once you’re there, it’s too late — the man just sold you “the feeling” you were already feeling anyway. It’s rough shit. Regardless, there are some themes with this specific release that exaggerate and further highlight some of the dangers within contemporary music. Personally, I absolutely love the release, but I simultaneously recognize how and why others don’t. In 2015, when sometimes it’s hard to imagine an authentic experiment in hip-hop, does the efficacy of content become the primary qualifier for the work itself? Does Drake’s ability to summarize contemporary, emotional mass appeal artistically justify its redundancy?
1. Running Through The Styx
Hype is a dangerous thing these days. For one, hype is often applied to personhood. The feeling of “power” that comes packaged with feeling any kind of hype is specific to feeling a sense of exclusiveness to the whole of normalcy. Drake’s use of “hype” as it relates to feelings of emotion and power are complicated by how we situate ourselves in opposition to normalcy. His popularity stems from his ability to maintain a distinct relationship with his fans by fooling them into thinking that he’s speaking “directly to them” (and only to them). And, conversely, his detractors only see a generic, trite form of catharsis, totally unaware of how real his message can be. The danger of applying Drake (positively or negatively) to our lives can easily be seen in tracks like “Know Yourself,” “Now and Forever,” and “Jungle.” These are amazingly medicated jams that smooth over virtual and physical trauma like a soft wax of contemporary twenty-something emotionalism. Drake’s “woes” embody the act of musing about our isolated lives in relationship to geography, be they the paradigmatic “Six” (physical space, way before hashtags) or the quarantined state of virtuality. The frustration peaks in a vision of escape in “Now & Forever,” a track so sweet in its optimism toward egoistic control that it empowers our disenfranchisement, telling us we “have to know the road,” even relegating our fear of death and perpetual loneliness into capital, into the luxury experience of “not having to sit in coach.” Are we to experience these moments as isolated ghosts, applying their “meaning” directly to our lives in solitude? Or, are we to ignore their meaning while everyone else in the apartment complex goes for it alone (together)?
2. Last Season’s Wardrobe
We’re also given traditional Drizzy bangers dripping with bravado. The instrumentals are all tight, simple 808 beats that still skitter the hi-hats like it’s 2010; they’ve just been distilled into threadbare rhythms that support his characteristically sing-songy verses. At its best, this looks like “10 Bandz,” a no-nonsense test in utilitarian hip-hop that delivers on every musical promise Drake’s ever made. “6 God,” “Used To,” and “No Tellin” ride the vibe out, fleshing out the tape with a consistency that’s satisfying with no-frills, effective design. “Madonna” and “Star67” punctuate the “hardness” with traditionally downtrodden environments; and, occasionally he’ll experiment with a new vocal cadence. Of course, it’s easy to both appreciate and criticize the hegemonic relationship between Drake, Boi-1da, and 40: the economical beat design isn’t attempting a newness; it emphasizes the signature nature of Drake’s “brand.” It’s hard not to wonder if Drake would even work if he were experimenting even slightly with hip-hop’s fundamental forms. Many will and do argue that the 808 and heartbreak shtick that made Drake’s career’s isn’t going anywhere, but I argue back that deconstructing the framework is just not Drake’s lot, nor should it be. We do see a level of experimentation with the PARTYNEXTDOOR features, tracks with a slightly different bump — oddly enough, those are the tracks I usually end up skipping. The tape’s lack of sonic experimentation or newness is something that’s easy to describe as being necessary, but why? In plenty of other musical situations, I would find myself in stark opposition to the way Boi-1da treats hi-hats, yet here the experience of identifying the record as being distinctly “Drake” is comforting, even beautiful.
3. Fieri’s Kitchen
And yet, as strange as it sounds, it’s Drake’s grotesque use of “Guy Fieri” as an image that helps him keep his edge. Drake is bent on spoon-feeding us content to bait us into his emotional world; his use of reference can be seen as feed-style image sharing, meme reference, even poetic clickbait. But it’s this tactic that makes him truly, actually modern. The sharability of his phrasing has given him massive generational dominance where teens even dress up as a Drake lyric for Halloween and nearly everyone actually gets it. The novel history of Drake’s supremacy in hip-hop, as flawed as it may be, must be paid attention to as ethnographic evidence of where our cultural mythology is headed. For many, Drake helps emotionalize the mundane features of contemporary culture, where even a diner-hopping foodie with Oakleys and bleached hair is both our salesman and our “Pierrot” — we laugh, we cry.
Before you love or hate on the paradigmatic aspects of Drake’s “Boyhood,” before getting lost in the concrete jungles of put-on ego constructions and branded sentiments, before you go down the self-referential rabbit hole that Drake provides for millions to hide in, we must remember that, in the world of mass appeal, it was always too late. There’s comfort in that, and there’s something to be said for taking it at face value, Now and Forever.