As arguably the biggest artist of the post-Kanye era, Drake has exerted a transformative influence on how pop music works, what it does, how it can matter. Hip-hop used to be all about being hard; he opened it up to softness. It used to obsess over regional purity; he’s helped it feel more global. Sometimes Drake flaunts his casual disregard for conventions as a matter of course, like calling his last album, More Life, a “playlist,” cleverly suggesting the record was more a roving catalog of impermanent passions and desires rather a fixed position statement. Now, in a stroke of characteristic grandiosity, he’s got a new two-song single, titled Scary Hours, that he’s calling an “EP.” Pavement’s Watery, Domestic EP (four songs) and R.E.M.’s Chronic Town EP (five songs) are not impressed. Come on Pilgrim by the Pixies (Eight. Flipping. Songs) is on a plane to Toronto as we speak. It wants answers.
Scary Hours does evoke one kind of EP. At seven-or-so minutes, it’s about as long as an early Eighties hardcore-punk extended-play, a minute longer than the Minutemen’s Paranoid Time and two minutes shorter than the first Minor Threat release. The harsh austerity of punk might be a good jumping off point for getting at what Drake is up to here. The music brings you in, the vibe less so. More Life was the peak of Drake as pop’s most ambitious and welcoming internationalist, swerving from house to disco to various Caribbean and African beat flavors, bringing on buddies from Atlanta to England and beyond. With a title that references an old ominous Wu-Tang Clan joint, Scary Hours is less open-ended. Neither of these songs are top-shelf Drake. They’re passing updates from his tower suite, a conference call of one.
“God’s Plan,” produced by Cardo, Yung Exclusive and Boi 1da, is blearily bumptious, with Drake doing his “heavy is the head that wears the crown” thing over an organ gauze and creeping bass rumble, surveying his empire while casting a wary eye over his shoulder at all the haters, “I don’t wanna die for them to miss me,” he offers. “Yes, I see the things that there wishin’ on me.” Awash in Seventies strings, “Diplomatic Immunity,” produced by 1da and Nick Brongers, is more gorgeous sonically but harsher in its (fairly rote) brags about success, money, jealousy and power: “I listen to heavy metal for meditation,” he hulks. “Closed off but I never stay closed,” he says later, shut off to the world but always open for business.
Scary Hours evokes a grandiose aloneness that’s often been Drake’s fallback position. But that doesn’t mean it feels disconnected from events happening around him. Released the weekend of the government shutdown, the gilded insularity and sense of cold-stare wagon circling you hear in these songs brought to mind the dark isolationist mania that was taking our country to the brink (“Violatin’ the Treaty of Versailles,” he raps on “Diplomatic Immunity,” unintentionally drawing an interesting historical parallel we should probably just leave alone). 2016’s “One Dance,” Drake’s last classic hit, gathered sounds and co-workers from around the globe, arguing for a borderless optimism that flew directly in the face of the rise of the Trump, and he followed the mood into the summery yacht-rap smoothness that guided a lot of More Life. We want that world. He does too, which is one of the reasons we love him. But at the dawn of 2018, it doesn’t feel the one we’re going to get. Scary hours indeed.