It’s unclear how, exactly, Drake pulled it off. On “Don’t Matter To Me,” a late song on the rapper’s latest album Scorpion, he recruits Michael Jackson for a duet. The late King of Pop is listed as a feature, and true to that billing, his voice handles chorus duties over a brooding beat that feels tailor-made for a Drake song called “Don’t Matter To Me.”
Jackson’s estate declined to comment on how his vocals made it to Scorpion, but sampling his voice isn’t entirely unheard of. Large Professor famously flipped “Human Nature” for Nas’ classic Illmatic cut “It Ain’t Hard To Tell,” in 1994, establishing the move as a flag in the ground. Since then, sampling Jackson is designed to show you’re at the top of your game, a flex by publishing rate.
Just sampling Jackson, though, wasn’t enough for Drake. Instead, he uncovered an unreleased song (or, equally as likely, an unfinished chorus), secured the Jackson estate’s permission, and built a song around it. “Don’t Matter To Me” opens like most Drake songs, with gloomy, atmospheric synths and Drake singing sweetly to an ex-lover. Then Jackson comes in; even with some digital quivering added to his vocals, he’s unmistakeable. While the “featuring Michael Jackson” billing would feel like an unnecessary flourish in almost any scenario, it’s close to earned here.
This retroactive style of collaboration with Jackson has happened once before, when Justin Timberlake – another ostensible heir to the King of Pop mantle – dueted with him on “Love Never Felt So Good,” a single from Jackson’s 2014 posthumous album Xscape. In that case, though, Timberlake was invited and inserted into a Jackson album, not the other way around. Drake created the song in a similar manner, but “Don’t Matter To Me” is wholly his.
Just one track later, Drake repeats the feat, this time placing Static Major – the late, influential songwriter of Ginuwine’s “Pony” and Lil Wayne’s “Lollipop” – alongside man of the sumer Ty Dolla Sign on “After Dark.” That means that of the four listed features on Scorpion (there are more that are subtler, and unlisted), half are posthumous appearances. It’s an attention-grabbing move that’s in line with Drake’s entire career.
This is not the first time Drake has dug up Static Major material: The singer, a tragically gifted figure in modern R&B, also popped up in the form of a sample on “Look What You’ve Done,” Drake’s touching ode to his family from 2011’s Take Care. The sample there came not from a recorded song, but a YouTube clip of Static rehearsing in an echo-y room, accompanied only by a piano, that producer Chase N. Cashe discovered and chopped before 40 built it into its final version.
Five years later, on Views, Drake excavated an unreleased Pimp C verse for the track “Faithful.” The UGK rapper died in 2007, but left behind some music. One of his unreleased verses made its way to Drake, whose passion for all things Houston lends the move some credence; he dropped it into the song alongside OVO signees dvsn.
Drake takes pains to find samples that no one else has, and weaves them into songs to make them feel like features – collaborations, even.
Drake’s most persistent, deeply felt musical relationship outside of his closest collaborators is his relationship with Aaliyah. Drake’s sampled Aaliyah, has a tattoo of Aaliyah, interpolated Aaliyah on Scorpion and once embarked on producing an ill-fated album of Aaliyah’s unreleased material.
All of this to say: Drake really likes working with artists that are no longer here. Rappers deploy samples of dead artists all the time. The way Drake does it is different. He takes pains to find samples that no one else has, and weaves them into songs to make them feel like features – collaborations, even – rather than just a clip used to create a beat
A cynical reading of this is that’s he’s showing off his influence (and his bank account); these artists are hard to get to, and Drake loves to flex. Kanye West has rapped about being the next Michael Jackson for about a decade, but getting his estate on your side is a more difficult proposition. Of course, that’s not all that’s going on here. The artists Drake picks seem to be the artist he genuinely believes he would be working with, had he been born in another time.
Getting an artist like Jackson, or Aaliyah, or Static Major, or Pimp C on a song does function as a straightforward prestige move. It provides an immediate sense of sadness to the proceedings – a quality Drake prizes in much of his music – but it also ties Drake to a broader historical legacy (in rap, lending a feature to someone is as strong a cosign as they come). By including these voices in his own catalog, he influences how he’ll be talked about when he’s not in the conversation.
In the curious case of “Don’t Matter To Me,” the trend bends further than it ever has to date. From listening to it, the song doesn’t sound like Drake found an unreleased Michael Jackson song and made it work for his purposes. It sounds like Drake wrote a hook for Michael Jackson to sing. The effect is an odd one, closer to Drake cosigning the biggest pop star to ever live rather than the other way around. Everything feels uncanny when you play with death.