On his new album-length mixtape, "If You're Reading This, It's Too Late," released by surprise on Thursday, the Toronto rapper Drake opens with grim realization. If the 28-year-old superstar dropped dead today, he'd become one of a rarefied few: artists who died too young, at the peak of their powers.
The notion is the hook to the first track, "Legend": "Oh my God, oh my God, if I die I'm a legend," he sings in a theme-setting tone on the misty, minimal, Partynextdoor-produced work. Implicit are questions: Am I worth more dead than alive? What makes a legend? How many more years of relevance do I have?
Or as he more eloquently puts it on "6 PM in New York," "Longevity, wonder how long they'll check for me."
A pent-up collection that blurs the line between album and mixtape (the latter are usually free, but Drake's charging $12.99 for this one), "If You're Reading" revels and/or wallows in isolation. At the center is a man uncertain of others' intentions, tired of posting bail for friends, sick of women asking for his Wi-Fi code. Wary.
"Only see the truth when I'm staring in the mirror," he raps on "Used To," longing for days past.
The 17 tracks read like a fed-up farewell note penned in Drake's typically introspective, first-person style. It's so fresh the ink's still wet: bracingly honest and filled with observations about the darkness just outside the circle of the spotlight.
Tired of disciples, dismissive of rivals, wary of enemy and entourage alike, nervous of predatory women and journalists, afraid of ambush, recalling a time "way before hashtags," the artist pours forth with exasperation, despair and indignation. "They don't love you like they used to," he says on "Used To." "I'm afraid I'm going to die before I get going," he confesses on "Now & Forever," as a distant female voice echoes as if from within some gaping maw.
Since he brings up his own mortality, it should be noted that Drake has already survived the terrible 27s, when artists including Amy Winehouse, Kurt Cobain, Jean-Michel Basquiat and Jimi Hendrix died. He's made it about four years longer than Biggie Smalls, three more than Tupac Shakur, six more than Aaliyah.
Regardless, Drake needn't worry. He's nothing if not a professional. If he's in fact partaking of any of the illicit substances of which he boasts, at least he's doing so with a sober driver or in the privacy of his own home.
Whichever setting he lands here, Drake's exploring pathways far removed from his early empathetic emo-rap masterpieces "Take Care" and "Thank Me Later." He's doing so with keen self-awareness of his current job description: "I'm young but I'm making millions to work the night shift." He's in the clubs, at the shows, in the late-night studios because his employers, the fans, demand it. It's a great job, he seems to say throughout, but not without its drawbacks.
In his quest for honesty, though, Drake reveals the same boring strand of misogyny that taints his lesser work. Specifically, few are the interesting, thoughtful women likely to melt before his desire as conveyed in "Preach" to be with a less "messy" lover, "one out here who is good at taking direction." What's he looking for, a relationship or an assistant to work the night shift with him?
It's one of the few bum notes on the release, one that, like most of Drake's projects, mostly features producers and track-makers with whom he's collaborated in the past. At the center, as always, is Noah "40" Shebib, whose icy, minimal work here is heavy on twittering high-hat eighth-notes and lots of rumbling bass runs.
The Drake-affiliated young artist and producer Partynextdoor and longtime collaborator Boi-1da also occupy prominent space on the record. The Boi-1da-produced final track, "6 PM in New York," is a standout, one that soundtracks a series of veiled Drake swipes at peers Tyga, Kendrick Lamar and Kanye West. "Now & Forever," produced by Eric Dingus & Jimmy Prime, has a snare-beat that sounds like a sledgehammer clanging railroad spikes. Samples from Ginuwine, Hot Boys and Original Concept dot the mix with a retro-synthetic vibe.
Through it all, the artist at the center, who is due to release his next studio album this year, sounds like a taskmaster getting his troops in formation. During "You & the 6," Drake explains his mood like the most rational drill sergeant in the platoon: "I'm not here to give out compliments or boost anybody's confidence."
Drake hangers-on are right to be a little worried. It's a battlefield out there. It might even be a good idea to send a resume to his protege ILoveMakonnen. Word is he's hiring.
"If You're Reading This, It's Too Late"
(Young Money/Cash Money)
Three stars (out of four)