This is a column called Major Keys written by Phil Witmer, the only actual musician employed by Noisey. It's about timbres, theory, chords (lots of 'em), and how these nerdy qualities make us feel things.
Drake’s current single, “I’m Upset,” tells us how he really feels. It is blunt and petty in ways that he has expressed before, not truly menacing but possessing an indignance befitting someone whose worst behaviour would probably involve suing the shit out of you rather than anything physical. “Worst Behaviour” showed us that Drake could be conceivably tough, and If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late rebranded him as a seething stunter, his Instagram-ready bars haunting bleak production. “I’m Upset” is the logical spot this approach would end up at, and Lord knows if Scorpion will follow that lane or the effervescence of “Nice for What” (rumour has it that it’s both). One thing is clear, though, the Drake that created songs like the Jay-Z collaboration “Pound Cake/Paris Morton Music 2” is gone, but that’s fine because he’ll probably never be able to replicate that particular track’s indefinable touch ever again. The song’s lush atmospherics and careful arrangement choices are key to its lasting appeal after five years, so who better to ask about said choices than its producer, Boi-1da?
Speaking to Noisey over the phone from Toronto, ( *full disclosure: the interview in this article was provided by Apple) the man born Matthew Samuels says that “Pound Cake” (he didn't work on "Paris Morton Music 2," as that was mainly done by Detail) is the result of his tinkering with an instrumental sketch that fellow producers Jordan Evans and Matthew Burnett presented to him, which already had the unearthly vocal sample of Ellie Goulding’s “Don’t Say a Word” present. “I liked the idea a lot,” says Boi-1da, “but I wanted to change some things around. So, I stripped it down to just the sample and added some new drum programming and got Matthew to play some new chords.” The producer skews from the elitist attitude of needing professional studio equipment at all times, crafting sounds for all devices and building hard beats to be played from earbuds and laptop speakers, and more recently home speakers like Apple's HomePod. We don’t know what the original "Pound Cake" beat sounded like, but Boi-1da rebuilding the new version around that sample—rather than letting it sit as an embellishment on top—gives the finished song its tightly composed feel. The rhythm and composition flow outwards from Goulding’s voice.
After an easygoing, smoky intro sampled from a live record by jazz organist Jimmy Smith, “Pound Cake” proper begins with a heartbeat of percussion under the sample and keys. On the first bar the snare doesn’t hit on the second beat, but rather on the fourth, resuming a regular 2 and 4 pattern on the remaining three bars of the measure before repeating. The kick drum hesitates, and the momentary lack of snare on the upbeat allows the instrumental to billow like a vaporous cloud and hang there for a moment. It’s a zero-gravity effect that creates breathing room, which is what Boi-1da wanted. “I was trying to go against the grain and get my own kind of bounce,” he says, “I was thinking of something very simplistic for Drake to get some bars off, and I thought that was very much fitting.” On an album (and a general era) where most singles rode the strict 120 to 140 BPM of trap, “Pound Cake”’s 82 beats per minute and prominent drums were almost a retro choice, intentionally harkening back to the sparse, late-night funk of 90s New York rap. But if that music was all toughness through its rhythms, then the harmonic content of the song spins it another way.
Burnett’s keyboard chords are perfectly executed smooth R&B. In the key of G major, the progression goes ii-IV-vi-I and then switches that final chord with a V/vi on the second go-around before repeating (there are a few passing tones in there too). If you’re wondering why in the hell this chord looks that way, that’s because it’s a slash chord: a chord that’s been altered with the root note of another chord. In this case, the last chord is a D major, but with the left hand playing a single E note rather than a D. The result is overtly jazzy, heard not only in classic quiet storm ballads but also plenty of yacht rock. These chords are unresolved, throwing the ear pleasantly off balance. Combined with the tried-and-true sultriness of beginning on the supertonic (A minor), “Pound Cake” could be a slow jam if it was actually about sex. Instead, Drake and Jay brag about their millions and Timbaland does the hook from “C.R.E.A.M.” in lieu of a chorus, a feature that Boi-1da says “just made sense” for Drake to organize seeing as how Jay and Tim were both working on Jay’s Magna Carta Holy Grail at the time. To hear Boi-1da tell it, “The whole song turned out really special … It’s just such a chill song. The beat really matches hookah vibes.” No surprise, then, that the “Pound Cake” instrumental found a home not only in the Vines of vaping enthusiasts but in a beloved freestyle by Childish Gambino.
Much of “Pound Cake” is bathed in reverberating echo, from the Goulding sample to the drums. It feels like the song exists in a void with no floor. Drake and Jay’s capital-R rapping grounds the track somewhat, but “Pound Cake” is still representative of the molly-rap era, psychedelic and dreamlike. Drake, 40, Boi-1da, and the Weeknd’s spin on that haziness helped codify the Toronto Sound in rap, not just evoking intoxication but also deep wells of emotion. Nothing Was the Same represented the zenith of that approach, so “Pound Cake,” the most blissed-out song in Drake’s catalogue, was a fitting send-off to that album.
After that, we get If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late, which found Boi-1da experiment with different mixing techniques and sounds. The drums knocked dryly on “Energy” and the sample loops on “Know Yourself” and “10 Bands” pulled from what sounded like horror movie soundtracks, with eerie chimes backing up Drake’s boasts and threats. The latter song wasn't actually a sample, according to the producer, but a custom loop created by fellow Torontonian studio whiz Frank Dukes. “I think it was just the space in both of our minds,” says Boi-1da, “ If You’re Reading This is very ‘rappy.’ Drake really just wanted to rap and have fun on the beats, not thinking so seriously. It was a cool time for both of us.” Songs like “Summer Sixteen” and “Free Smoke” went even further with what Boi-1da calls the “dark but energetic vibe” that he was pursuing, avant-garde samples meeting unaltered, hard-hitting drum sounds.
Drake is a different beast now, both a lean and mean banger-producing machine and an international romantic pop star. That’s fine, every artist should evolve and not stay stuck repeating past glories. But as Boi-1da said, “Pound Cake” is a special song. Maybe that just means Drake should move past it, rather than mine its formula. The producer sounds excited when I ask him about Scorpion. “I can’t wait for you to hear it,” is all he’ll say, and then, with an audible grin, he adds, “It’s something new. It’s a great album and I can’t wait for everyone to hear it.” “Pound Cake” itself was created by chasing the new, so maybe Scorpion will have an accidental sequel to Drake’s ultimate chillout song.
Phil is on Twitter.