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With 'More Life,' Drake flexes a license to roam

With 'More Life,' Drake flexes a license to roam
Drake performs last year at Staples Center. (Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

An album. A mixtape. An audiobook in which he annotates his old scripts from "Degrassi: The Next Generation."

At this point, it doesn't really matter what form a new Drake release takes. The Canadian rapper and singer — and former teen actor — is so popular that whatever he puts out is almost certain to attract listeners in record numbers.

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But if designations can seem increasingly irrelevant for a superstar at his level — and at a moment when the shift to digital streaming is already turning everything into context-free clouds of ones and zeroes — that doesn't mean labels are without meaning for Drake.

In 2015 he presented the chest-beating "If You're Reading This It's Too Late" as a mixtape, proudly aligning himself with hip-hop's tradition of rushed-to-market trash talk. Yet last year's "Views" was clearly billed as an album, with all the structure and ambition that term has historically evoked. (Both efforts debuted at No. 1, the latter moving more than a million units in its first week.)

Now Drake is back with "More Life," a collection of 22 songs that he's referring to as a playlist and which premiered Saturday on his Apple Music radio show before becoming available to stream and download.

So what's he telling us with this latest exercise in taxonomy? For starters, he might be managing expectations.

Hyped for months in advance as a kind of grand document, "Views" struck some as too long, too sulky, too loaded with heavy musings on the alienating effect of celebrity in the social-media age. By calling "More Life" a playlist instead, he's promising a lighter-weight experience, one not necessarily designed to clarify What Drake Thinks.

But the jargon also goes some way toward justifying the breadth of styles and attitudes here; it gives Drake license to roam as a compilation of various artists' songs would.

Not that he didn't go wide on "Views," which completed his move from rap into clubby, global-minded pop with hits like "Controlla," "One Dance" and "Too Good," the humid duet with Rihanna that more or less functioned as a sequel to her Drake-featuring "Work."

Yet "More Life" ventures decidedly further, and with less anxiety on Drake's part about being seen as a kind of creative colonist for the way he adopts far-flung styles for his own advancement.

"If we do a song, it's like I'm taking my kids to work with me," he raps in "Do Not Disturb," seemingly addressing the various underground artists whose cool he's borrowed, "You overnight celebrity, you one-day star."

Here he travels to the Caribbean for "Passionfruit" and "Blem" and Africa for "Get It Together" and "Madiba Riddim"; London is the scene for "KMT," featuring Giggs, an important figure in England's grime scene.

A few times Drake gives over an entire track to a guest, as in "4422," a moody electro-soul cut by the British singer Sampha, and the hard-edged "Skepta Interlude," which showcases and takes its name from another grime star.

But even when he sticks closer to home, as in the Atlanta-centric "Sacrifices," he can cede the spotlight to his accomplices — in this case Young Thug and 2 Chainz, who steals the song with a beautifully laid-back verse in which he insists, "Yeah, I love my fans / But I don't wanna take pictures in the restroom."

Lyrically, Drake embraces some of his pet topics on "More Life." There are tunes about his fame-induced paranoia: "I cannot tell who is my friend / I need distance between me and them," he croons over a jaunty guitar line in "Madiba Riddim."

And there are songs about his disapproval of women he's broken up with: "Did I just read that you just got engaged on me?" he asks in "Nothings Into Somethings," a reference perhaps to his ex Serena Williams, who recently announced her plans to marry a founder of the website Reddit.

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Yet Drake is also flashing signs of emotional growth — glimmers he might feel more confident displaying on a happily jumbled playlist than working into a cohesive album-length statement with its own internal logic.

"Can't Have Everything," for instance, ends with a snippet of what sounds like a voicemail from his mother, who urges Drake to move beyond the suspicion and disillusionment she says she's been hearing in his voice.

Then comes "Glow," an ebullient duet with Kanye West (complete with Earth, Wind and Fire sample) in which these two creatures of toxic fame threaten to leave it all behind.

And if Drake goes back on that idea and stays in our faces through the fall? Hey, it was only a playlist. You can't hold a guy to that.

Twitter: @mikaelwood

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