Drake, Drake, Drake, Drake, Drake, you sadistic little mesomorph. Are you trying to kill us, guy? Only an omnipresence this drunk on his own blood, sweat and tears could summon the hubris to stuff a pillowcase with 81 minutes of table scraps, smother our faces with it and call it “More Life.”
The highest-selling pop star of 2016 is also calling his half-alive, entirely overlong new album a “playlist” — as if to suggest that it should be weighted differently in the official Drake canon. What matters more is how “More Life” will be measured on the platforms that began streaming it on Saturday.
As streaming becomes our dominant mode of listening, Billboard has begun measuring success song by song, stream by stream. In turn, pop albums are expanding. The more tracks an album contains, the more coin it can generate, the better the album can perform on the charts. As the container changes shape, so does the stuff that goes inside. And not necessarily for the better.
Check out the Weeknd’s latest, “Starboy,” an 18-track album that feels not just long, but tedious, too. Like “More Life,” it aspires to cool uniformity, presumably in hopes that brain-chilled streamers won’t hear any weird noises and decide to change the proverbial channel. Shrewd move, at least in the short term. Because no matter how handsomely Drake and the Weeknd stand to profit from their new background music, they’re still global superstars responsible for making foreground music. That’s why attentively listening to all 22 tracks of “More Life” might make you feel as if you’re being waterboarded with Febreze.
You might ask, Hey, what about Future? Isn’t he playing the same games? It’s true, the great Georgia psychonaut (and occasional Drake collaborator), has already released two sprawling albums in 2017, “Future” and “HNDRXX,” 17 tracks each, chart-toppers both. But the rapper’s stylistic steadiness doesn’t feel like an attempt to stay on-message so much as an odyssey through his own fogged psyche. The Future songbook is an ectoplasmic river of dreams. The Drake songbook is a self-replicating brand strategy.
Which means that anyone hoping to hear a few renegade thoughts or melodic loop-de-loops on “More Life” is hoping for far too much. Instead of responding to the heavenly sounds of “Madiba Riddim,” in which a twinkling guitar riff tiptoes through a computerized Caribbean pulse, Drake recycles some signature boohoo: “I cannot tell who is my friend,” and then, “Teach me how to love you again,” and then, “My heart is way too frozen to get broken,” and then some more sad-bro lines that wouldn’t pass the Turing Test.
He seems even more oblivious deeper in the proceedings during “Lose You,” a song that allows the most successful rapper alive to wonder why he isn’t being properly congratulated for conquering the world: “I don’t get a pat on the back for the come up?” Moments later, he’s working through his latest radio-eater, “Fake Love,” whining about how the respect he gets is superficial and untrue. Is there anything more irritating than a man on top of the world complaining about how he just can’t win?
Not when they’re sitting this still. Pop music has long provided shelter to the perpetually aggrieved, but artful grousing is acceptable only when the artist is pushing against something. Drake has been plopped in the same aesthetic papasan since 2013, generating a supersaturation of sameness that threatens to erase all the good music he made once upon a time in 2009 — back when his vulnerability communicated his humanity more than it stabilized his brand. Maybe he knows this. In the very last line on “More Life,” he promises to shut up for a while: “I’ll be back 2018 to give you a summary.” Cool, cool. But not a minute sooner. Please.