Drake‘s ambitious, lengthy, excellent “playlist” More Life, released last Saturday night, serves as affirmation of his desire to take over the pop world. Even when institutions like the Recording Academy refuse to recognize him as such — the mostly sung trop-pop of “Hotline Bling” was nominated in two rap categories at the most recent Grammy Awards — Drake is a pop star, and perhaps our biggest post-Justin Timberlake male pop star of the new millennium.
Aware of the way the world sees him, Drake’s been vigilant with refusing to fit into the “rapper” mold he has clearly broken from. Instead, he holds a mirror to the world to show it what he sees. In the reflection is a vision of blackness and the alternative routes in which the culture manifests itself across various borders. For all the talk he does of seeing himself as an artist with few peers, he fits himself into a larger picture of what it means to be a black artist in 2017: “I’m apparently a rapper, even though ‘Hotline Bling’ is not a rap song,” Drake said in a rare interview with Britain’s DJ Semtex about his Grammy wins. “The only category that they can manage to fit me in is in a rap category, maybe because I’ve rapped in the past or because I’m black.”
Drake’s contemporaries who have clearly claimed top-billing in the pop strata, like Rihanna and Beyoncé, have also failed to be recognized outside of R&B, hip-hop and “urban contemporary” designations for the majority of their careers, and when they are deemed pop, they rarely win. R&B has long been integral to pop performance, as showcased by the successful transitions from teen stardom to adult careers done by the Timberlakes and Biebers of the world, and rapping has become a tool for many white artists like Ed Sheeran who is exclusively recognized as “pop.” Still, the black artists blurring and innovating the vision of how R&B, rap and traditional pop work with one another remain confined.
For Drake, Caribbean music and Jamaican patois on last year’s Views confirmed his global ambition – and in the process, gained him some of his biggest, most pervasive Top 40 hits, including “One Dance,” his first Number One as a lead artist. More Life‘s own highlights include the sweaty island breeze of “Passionfruit” and the soothing throb of “Madiba Riddim,” two potential summer hits-in-the-making. This time, he makes connections between London and his hometown of Toronto, two cities with large West Indian communities, specifically composed of Jamaican immigrants. Grime, a British hip-hop genre with roots in dancehall and reggae, rules much of the heavier moments on the project, with guest appearances from grime’s biggest stars Giggs and Skepta. Elsewhere, he lets British soul crooners Sampha and Jorja Smith belt out haunting solos.
On the journey between Toronto and London, he makes detours to South Africa (Black Coffee’s “Superman” is reworked for “Get It Together”), Australia (Hiatus Kaiyote’s “Building a Ladder” is sampled on “Free Smoke”) and, of course, Jamaica proper, with “Gyalchester” paying tribute to a local nickname for Manchester Parish, located in west-central Jamaica. Atlanta’s Young Thug, Quavo and 2 Chainz perform lyrical acrobatics on back-to-back tracks while Chicago’s Kanye West has a Chance-like moment with the sung, uplifting “Glow.” The Bronx’s Jennifer Lopez gets referenced more than once, but it’s the reworking of her debut single and first Number One hit “If You Had My Love” on “Teenager Fever” that steals the show. Drake’s own mentor Lil Wayne pops in briefly to “talk about More Life” at the end of “Blem” in his thick Louisiana drawl. OVO signee and Toronto native PartyNextDoor goes head-to-head with Drake on the smooth “Since Way Back.”
To borrow from one of his hits, Drake’s running out of pages from his passport, and the decision to call his latest project a “playlist” may reflect how he has curated the varying locales, inspirations and relationships of his most recent years. Titling his current European tour Boy Meets World feels like more than an early hint of what he would present with More Life. This is the sound of an artist ready to revamp the map of where pop is heading, stopping at nothing to get his well-deserved recognition outside of just the rap world.