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critic’s notebook

Drake gestures after watching an NBA basketball Western Conference Play-In game between the Los Angeles Lakers and the Golden State Warriors in Los Angeles on May 19, 2021.Mark J. Terrill/The Associated Press

Adrian Lee is an editor in The Globe and Mail’s Opinion section and the host of The Globe’s future of cities podcast, City Space. He is also a former juror for the Polaris Prize whose music criticism has appeared in Maclean’s, The Globe, and The Coast.

No life, in art or otherwise, is infinite.

Drake has understood his musical mortality, at least theoretically, for the better part of a decade. He was thinking about the end even at his start (“I really can’t see the end getting any closer, but I’ll probably still be the man when everything is over” in 2010′s Over); during his meteoric ascendance in the mid-2010s, (“Longevity, wonder how long they’ll check for me,” he muses on 6 PM In New York); and then becoming so paranoid about it that he could barely enjoy his crown when he actually became pop’s most indelible superstar (“They still out to get me, I don’t get it I can not be got, and that’s a given”).

As much as he works to project untouchability, though, no artist is immune from time: meteors do obey the parabola of gravity. It’s been 13 years, after all, since the world learned that DeGrassi’s “Wheelchair Jimmy” was serious about rap with the mixtape So Far Gone. On Weston Road Flows, he said he was planning for retirement at 35 (“man, it’s already funded”); now, he finds himself at that very age, and with a son in tow, to boot.

And so there has begun to be a growing sense of inevitability with every new Drake project, including his adventurous if uneven seventh studio album, Honestly, Nevermind. No one’s reign can last forever because our attention spans are just too short. And while streaming-service algorithms are destined to make his latest a commercial success – he’ll be inescapable for longer than he’ll be essential – his days of being the centre of the hip-hop and pop universe may be slipping away.

His last record, 2021′s inward-looking Certified Lover Boy, was so obsessed with a petty spat with Kanye West that it sounded as if he made it only for him, these two neighbours in a California gated community complaining about tree lines and sonic lineages on everyone else’s time. Even before that, he’d begun to earn a reputation for bloat and self-indulgence.

But there are new tricks on Honestly, Nevermind, which even in its title signals a reset. Drake has long been a musical omnivore (or, to critics, an appropriator), and even though he could now rest on his laurels, it is worth celebrating that his latest instead returns to the more adventurous spirit of 2017′s More Life. His usual production consigliere Noah “40″ Shebib has a much smaller role here, leaving showcases for the likes of Grammy-winning South African DJ Black Coffee and the Congolese singer Tresor. Indeed, while the release itself was a surprise – it dropped early Friday morning with just a day’s notice – the sonic choices should be less of a shock. A dance album (highlighted by the tech-house banger Massive) with a splash of flamenco (Tie That Binds), a dash of Jersey club and just a hint of his more typical dark-utterance rap (the standout Sticky, one of only two songs with any rapping at all) is still of a piece with Drake’s previous forays into U.K. grime, Nigerian Afrobeats, throbbing electronic, New Orleans bounce, and even bachata (the game Odio, with the king Romeo Santos).

Drake’s vocals, perhaps a still-underrated part of his repertoire, have also gotten smoother and sweeter, now nailing the casual low-to-medium-range melisma he made his trademark in the underappreciated second half of 2018′s Scorpion. He downright floats over many of the high-gloss samples – and sometimes behind them.

Indeed, while his choices once felt taste-making, some of the sounds now seem to almost subsume his star. The unlistenable Currents louchely samples Trillville’s squeaking bedspring, and it isn’t even the best song to reference a bouncing bed in his own oeuvre (the 2010 Young Money crew cut BedRock was at least fun). There are songs studded with electric choruses but surrounded by filler verses loaded down by baleful whines (Texts Go Green, A Keeper), presaging a future in which a later-career Drake can still feature in newer stars’ tracks as either a rapper or a hooksmith, especially as he experiments here with house’s more severe vocal processing.

This, then, is the most revealing finding in the latest album by an artist who loves to self-reveal: Drake may now be mortal.

It is hard to grow old in music, much less in hip-hop, a what’s-next genre that’s only about 50 years old. “Y’all ... don’t tell Bruce Springsteen that he’s 60 years old and he can’t do rock and roll anymore,” Darryl McDaniels of the legendary Run-DMC complained to me in a 2016 interview – and yet in almost every case, no matter the scale of their peak, rappers are given a best-before date and then shipped off for cultural glue. “There’s a big lack of respect for the elders in hip hop,” he said. Jay Z, at 52, is perhaps the only modern example of a hip-hop statesman still producing vital music – but to some degree, that has encased the lyricist in amber, requiring him to get younger rappers to drop features on his albums and to branch into other avenues such as fashion, alcohol and sports management to keep relevant.

Drake has made some of those same plays – “I used to wanna be on Roc-A-Fella then I turned into Jay,” he acknowledges on Summer Sixteen – but his range is bigger. So Honestly, Nevermind is forward-thinking in a different sense: by stretching the definition of what a Drake song can be now, while he’s in his superstar era, these party platters help set him up to be a more enduring icon later, when he eventually steps down from that status.

In recent years, Drake has worked to tie his legacy to Michael Jackson’s, either through lyrical reference or full-on cameo (2018′s Don’t Matter To Me). This makes sense, to some degree; who wouldn’t want to have MJ’s supernova decade, with his generational albums Off the Wall, Thriller, and Bad? But the thing about supernovas is that they burn out. And if we were being honest about Jackson’s late-career output, which was being eclipsed by even his own family members before his untimely passing at 50, he had become far from essential, with the worst of his material trying to desperately recapture a somewhat narrow sound that his listeners expected.

“I want a long life, a legendary one,” he told us last year on Popstar. By cashing some of his current superstar capital to expand the definition of what a Drake song can sound like moving ahead, the wider range on Honestly, Nevermind helps set him up for exactly that: a potentially richer next act, unlike Michael’s.

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