Drake’s got me thinking about the existential subject of time again. Thanks Drake.
Two weeks back, the Canadian superstar surprise-dropped his new album, Honestly, Nevermind. Last year, he released his Certified Lover Boy record, a woefully misguided 90-minute attempt to incorporate fatherhood into his damaged public image. This album was teased for quite a while so it was described as ‘long-awaited’, despite him releasing a 50-minute mixtape in 2020 and the Care Package B-sides compilation in 2019, since his 2018 album Scorpion.
In fact, since 2015 there has been at least one full-length Drake project every year. This means that Drake is never far from public consciousness, whether in the charts or on the ‘gram. Unfortunately, apart from a couple of outliers, most of these projects have been quite crap. So why doesn’t he, you know, stop? Well, there’s a wider issue at play here.
And before I carry on, look. I know you might not care about Drake. He’s an astronomically popular mainstream artist, and I understand that for many readers of this website, mainstream music is something you last interacted with a long time ago before you knew better. But if you treat the mainstream for what it is – a theatre, a circus – there’s great fun to be had in following the career of an artist like Drake. He emerged at the start of the 2010s as a former child actor who positioned himself as an underdog, trying to carve a path in this ridiculous entertainment industry. He sang and bared his emotions in the hip hop space – an often hyper-masculine music culture – releasing these late night meditations on dreams, ambitions and destiny. We heard his supposed struggles with establishing himself and then achieving fame. It was compelling, most so on his first three or so albums which are legitimately great. Whether or not you believed the narrative was almost beside the point – it sucked you into the protagonist’s story, like any good film.
But Drake has been on a downward trajectory for some time, and this is where the concept of time comes back in. The lifespan of his career has run alongside society’s increased demand for instant gratification. The emergence of smartphones, the ubiquity of social media, the establishing of streaming dominance has run alongside the travails of Drake. Back in the early 2010s when he released his best work, it was still normal in hip hop and music at large to take time between releases. Technological limitations of waning but still prominent physical media meant that you pretty much had to spend a couple of years between albums. A new release was an event, something pored over in the interim period since the last record you loved.
But now, in hip hop especially, there’s the fear that if you’re not constantly in people’s feeds and faces, you’ll lose relevance. And this plays into the constant new releases we see at the moment, from Drake and from many other popular artists. Future was an early trendsetter (11 releases between 2015 and 2017). Kanye West is maybe the most high profile, seemingly announcing new albums before he’s begun recording them. I’ve not heard February’s Donda 2, but I get the impression that it’s a career nadir.
And the trend of rapid releases seems to be expanding beyond hip hop. To name a couple of recent examples, Dry Cleaning have announced an October album release, 18 months after the last one. Idles released Crawler last year, 14 months after the last. And Black Country, New Road’s Ants From Up There came an exact year after their first record. “But that last one was really good!” I hear you cry. To be clear, I’m not saying that it’s always a bad thing to release something quickly after your last one. History shows that if you’re on a roll and you have more to say, get back in that studio and make a record even better than your last. Some classics have come out almost immediately after a previous effort.
But what I am saying is, I think this is the exception rather than the rule. Art requires inspiration. We’re constantly changing human beings, but how much change can your life go through in months? Not only in events that have happened to you, but how much does your music taste change in that time? Do a few months really give you lots of new and interesting things to say? Can your approach to recording change? Is this new album good, or should it be left on the cutting room floor?
I don’t have a prescribed solution to offer here, but if a new album arrives a couple of years after the last, that seems like an acceptable standard to me. And you can leave it too long. We’re getting new Beyoncé for the first time in 6 years and we got Kendrick for the first time in 5. These people have personal lives and don’t owe us anything, but any longer and it seems legitimate to ask about retirement (I’m looking at you, Frank Ocean).
I’m only a few listens in to Honestly, Nevermind, but it seems like even though he had an (actually good) idea to switch up his musical approach, having achieved that astronomical fame he once dreamt about on record, he has so little to say that he puts down cariacture-like lyrics that barely serve as references to be filled in later.
And that turns me into the annoying voice that goes, remember the old Drake, when he took a bit of time? Remember the extra year between Take Care and Nothing Was The Same? The anticipation for the new sound, what he had to say about his incredible success, which guests would feature? The composition of a song like ‘Tuscan Leather’ alone seems to have been made with more love and care than the entirety of Honestly, Nevermind.
And it just ends up hurting the artist. Sometimes it’s good to wait to get what you want. Because though the noise of the internet is temporarily gratified, our collective desires will never be sated with mediocre products and diminishing returns. And it means that each time we get a ‘surprise release’, we care a little less until we don’t care at all.
Words by Tom Burrows