When Drake posted “Dreams Money Can Buy” on his label’s blog in May 2011, two historic events were just over the horizon: the U.S. launch of Spotify in July and the inauguration of “YOLO” as the national catchphrase in November. These two things would, of course, help define the Drake we know and love (and some love to hate): the meme-savvy titan of the streaming age, swole and immaculately bearded, feuding with the likes of Kanye West over who’s got the bigger swimming pool. But at that time, Drake — who released his debut album in 2010, and would later bestow YOLO upon the world via “The Motto” — had yet to fully arrive. He opens “Dreams” with his half self-deprecating, half self-aggrandizing version of a dating-app profile: “I got car money, fresh start money / I want Saudi money, I want art money / I want women to cry and pour out they heart for me.” Now, of course, he’s got diamond-encrusted-Damien-Hirst-skull money, and the song opens up this compilation of non-album tracks previously only available on SoundCloud and YouTube — an entirely reasonable play to monetize singles that have outlived their purpose while reminding the world that Drake’s not going anywhere.
Drake has never merely plucked low hanging fruits from the revenue tree. In between creating cohesive statement albums (or mixtapes, or “playlists”), he pioneered the now ubiquitous strategy of steadily firing off singles. The songs collected here are the tracks that didn’t make the albums and never hit the top 10 of the Billboard Hot 100 (22 of his other songs have). But as missives from an artist whose genius is surfing trends, staying in the conversation and testing to find out what works at any given moment, they collectively get at the soul of his artistic project.
Some are cherished minor hits, like the cheerfully asymmetrical reprisal on an ex from his Acura-driving days, “How Bout Now” (“Remember when you had to take the bar exam / I drove in the snow for you?”) and the silken ode to a real-life model, “Paris Morton Music” (“Having lunch and debating Ferrari prices / 23 and going through a midlife crisis”). Others showcase his essential modes: gleefully, energetically in-your-face (“4pm in Calabasas”); sullenly, stringently in-your-face (“5am in Toronto”); unapologetically in his feelings (“I Get Lonely”).
“Trust Issues” and “Days in the East” remind us that when Aubrey Graham first got into the game, he was formulating a contrarian take on the then-dominant hip-hop and R&B: slowing down and softening up the former, and bringing TMI intimacy to the latter. He has since become known, of course, as the great synthesizer (or appropriator, if you’re saucy) of his era: rap flows, global sounds, Lauryn Hill micro-hooks — they’re all rolled up into a neverending real-time homage to his cool friends, childhood crushes and SoundCloud finds. His boldest and also, somehow, most sly borrowing is here: “Girls Love Beyonce,” in which he and featured vocalist James Fauntleroy reduce the chorus of “Say My Name” by Destiny’s Child down to the quintessence of indolent male longing. It’s Drake directly addressing his forebears, but also in conversation with himself. Like most of this collection, it was, and is, an evanescent pleasure — a ripple worth remembering in today’s seemingly endless stream.