Though it seems that these days everyone’s heart beats for Canadian export Drake, it wasn’t always the case. ‘True’ hip-hop fans once disavowed Drake’s RnB/rap crossover style as too soft. Critics saw his rejection of traditional gangster rap in favour of emotionally vulnerable verses as lacking the masculinity required to make authentic hip-hop.
But then he dropped If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late, a gritty 60-minute mixtape about killing the competition and everything changed.
It was a savvy move.
From Afrika Bambaataa and the Soulsonic Force in the 70s to 50 Cent’s 50 Cent Is the Future to Chance The Rapper’s Acid Rap, the mixtape has long been seen in rap culture as a platform to launch careers while keeping a certain sense of authenticity. Of keeping it real.
It wasn't his first mixtape but with If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late Drake could stake both his legitimacy in hip-hop culture and his unconventionality as a rap star with lines like, “I got rap niggas that I gotta act like I like, but my actin’ days are over fuck them niggas for life” and “Please don't speak to me like I'm that Drake from four years ago I'm at a higher place”.
Originally intended as a free release, Cash Money Records slapped a $12.99 price on IYRTITL and watched the profits roll in. IYRTITL reached platinum success even before it became available in physical form and helped make collaborators PARTYNEXTDOOR and Travis Scott household names. Reviews heralded the release as a success of epic proportions, and considering it was “only” a mixtape, it was considered one of the most important hip-hop works of modern times.
Even without a hit such as the insipid “Hold on, We’re Going Home”, that was found on Nothing Was The Same, Drake landed 14 tracks in the Billboard Hot 100. This was something not even Taylor Swift’s mega album 1989 managed to do. Almost overnight the Canadian singer/rapper became a universally acknowledged hip-hop sensation.
Drake swiftly followed this in September 2015 with a second mixtape, What a Time to Be Alive, a collaboration with Atlanta hip hop star Future.
Both IYRTITL and WATTBA were released with zero promo or sales targets. What a Time to Be Alive took only six days to create. It was believed that these largely imperfect digital releases were helping Drake to fulfill his contractual obligations but they were generating the same sales as commercial releases. Drake proved that mixtapes could reach the same success as albums, quicker and more economically.
There was a two year wait for Views, Drake’s fourth proper studio release. In it's lead up it received everything that mixtapes do not in terms of a large marketing budget, promotion rollout, and radio singles. A notoriously press-shy Drake did interviews with Zane Lowe and The Fader.
There’s no base to discredit Drake’s genius on the album and right-hand man Noah “40” Shebib’s production has never been better, but one can’t help but feel that with Views a whole lot of industry hoo-hah came between Drake and his fans. This, coupled with boiling point anticipation, meant that by the time of its release a lot of the fire had burned out. Once everyone had simmered down and actually compared the album to the flaming hot masterpiece Drake had promised, Views felt lukewarm. It had none of the unexpectedness or surprise of IYRTITL, or Beyoncé’s Lemonade, which arrived several days before Views.
Views was so hyped that meeting fan expectations was almost impossible. Instead, it morphed into a release that at times feels like an 80-minute essay Drizzy is relieved to hand in–albeit knowing it’s overdue and over the word count.
While it’s wrong to lump mixtapes with fleeting notoriety and albums with career longevity, the mixtape in itself provides a rare chance to circumvent the music industry. Consequently IYRTITL, the little mix-tape that could, became the appetiser, and the main course. Drake’s latest release is still good because it’s Drake, but where IYRTITL was fun and impulsive, Views feels caught in the crossfire of a whole lot of egos, including Drake’s own.
But then again, we’re all ‘Still Here’, huh Drizzy?