‘Views’ in review: Drake marks his hip-hop ascension

When Drake first came into the spotlight, it was on the back of his single “Best I Ever Had.” The song, which reached Number 2 on the Billboard Hot 100, was simultaneously heartfelt and tongue-in-cheek, corny and relatable, kind of douche-y but kind of sweet. In essence, it embodied the core characteristics that are now associated with Drake.

As he released more and more music, Drake honed these characteristics into a persona that is easy to make fun of but ultimately unassailable. This is the Drake that we have now; he has evolved into music’s most effortlessly charismatic major figure, propelled by his easily traceable improvement as a lyricist, stylist, and rapper from project to project. Each of his albums was a step up from the last, culminating in 2013’s superb Nothing Was the Same, an album that was uniformly sleek and musically durable. And on his new album, Views, Drake reaches heights that seemed unattainable — even if he does falter on occasion.

The pressure for Drake to deliver with Views was unfathomable, as the year leading up to it was his biggest yet: he dropped a surprise record-shattering mixtape, scrapped with Meek Mill (and won), received the key to the city of Toronto, released the ubiquitous “Hotline Bling,” and made an entire mixtape with the unstoppable Future. Drake had seized hold of the hip-hop crown, and the questions that quietly accompanied Views were whether or not he could handle it at the top. Could he bear the pressure? Could he remain true to his artistry while appeasing his masses of fans? Could he destroy — once and for all — the notion that it matters that he uses ghostwriters? Well, the answer is yes. He could, and he did.

Album opener “Keep the Family Close” is stunning. A sonic portrait of Toronto is painted with the rush of traffic, the howling of the wind, and a girl remarking on the frigid air. A piano and string section weave a quilt of harmonic dissonance and tonal instability, the string section provides a snaking ascending flourish, and in comes Drake, wrenching hold of the ear in a commanding tenor: “All of my ‘let’s just be friends’ are friends I don’t have anymore.” And there we are, in the middle of Drake’s relationship problems. Not only is “Keep the Family Close” Drake’s best album opener by a long shot, it’s one of the best openers of any hip-hop album in recent memory.

“Keep the Family Close” establishes romantic themes that pervade most of Views. Drake’s relationship issues are on full display, alleviated mainly by surefooted braggadocio tracks reinforcing that although Drake is an emotional artist, he’s still the guy that can destroy the careers of rappers who attempt to undermine him.

But producer Noah “40” Shebib deserves equal praise: Views is spotless, with each sound on the album giving the impression of been pored over and meticulously adjusted. The best example of this precision comes with “Fire & Desire,” one of the album’s final tracks. 40 samples Brandy’s “I Dedicate (Part II),” transforms it into the chipmunk-soul style that Kanye West pioneered, then adorns it with lush, muddy synth chords and crisp, nuanced percussion. It’s an ideal platform for Drake to drunkenly confess his feelings for a woman in his characteristic singing style. No wonder Drake frequently goes out of his way to sing 40’s praises. And thanks to 40, Drake still sounds good even when he stumbles.

Take “Child’s Play,” for example, when Drake suggests for a woman to “bounce that shit like wooooah.” The line turns sexual experience into a lament — a motif for which Future is well known. But while Future uses it to affectingly portray his inability to connect with women, Drake, whose boon is his intimacy, makes the transactional nature of his sexual encounter off-putting for the listener. Drake would have done well to trim the fat from this 20-track album — “Child’s Play” included.

Ultimately, nobody really knew what to expect from Views. Drake’s superstardom raised questions as to whether he would succumb to his popularity, or pursue the battle-hardened weariness of If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late. Views offers a bit of everything, operating on the basis of expansiveness in the place of cohesion. It’s a smart move considering his versatility, but Views occasionally sinks as a result of its own sprawl. The highlights make it all worthwhile, though, offering a sharpened example of what got him here in the first place.

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