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Music Why did Drake drop a surprise record? It’s all about priming to be the best rapper of 2015

It was announced on Twitter with a single URL and an illustration: a surprise project from Drake, his first full-length release in 17 months, available right then through iTunes.

It was 11 p.m. in the rapper’s hometown of Toronto, late on a Thursday, and the Internet flickered back to life as fans scrambled to download If Youre Reading This Its Too Late (for $12.99).

If this was a full-length album, some on Twitter said, he’d pulled a Beyoncé, using the element of surprise to excite fans rather than play the traditional release game. But he’d teased it earlier in the week, with an unannounced short film and tweets bearing future song names. If it was a mixtape, though, he’d made a curious decision to charge for it, rather than offering it for free on various mixtape websites.

Drake, though, prefers to have his cake and eat it too. Rather than sing or rap, he chooses both. He can trade tough-as-nails boasts for Nice Boy From Toronto smirks in a matter of seconds. He loves Toronto – “The Six,” as he’s taken to calling it – but he pays regular homage to other major hip-hop communities like Houston and Atlanta.

If Youre Reading This Its Too Late, then, is just the latest power move by Drake – another example of having and eating all the cake.

So what is this record? In one way, it’s a statement that the distinction between free mixtapes and purchased album means little to nothing in 2015. Drake has, after all, gotten rich off a mixtape before. He may call this particular collection of songs a mixtape, but its purposeful, formal release via iTunes also signals its aspirations for album-hood, a distinction that may mean more to the rapper than his adoring public.

By bestowing on If Youre Reading This Its Too Late the trappings of a standard album, it’s rumoured that this may fulfill Drake’s contractual obligation to his label Cash Money Records, which is reported to be for four albums (he has already recorded three). If true, Too Late plays into the broader story of Lil‘ Wayne, Drake’s mentor, who is in the midst of an acrimonious split with Cash Money and co-founder Bryan (Birdman) Williams.

If Wayne leaves the label, he’s said to want Drake and powerhouse label-mate Nicki Minaj to join him. Putting this record out, then, makes a Wayne-led exit strategy much easier, and gives the Toronto artist much more freedom to work as he pleases. That includes the anticipated release of Views from the Six, a full-length album he’s teased for later this spring.

Birdman, Wayne’s longtime business partner, appeared on Drake’s last album, 2013’s Nothing Was The Same. In an unpublished interview with The Globe and Mail from that year, he offered nothing but praise for the rising rap star.

“It’s magic watching him do what he do,” Birdman said. “The sound that he brings to the table is something we never seen nor heard in hip-hop.”

Ironic, then, that what may be Drake’s last album for Birdman is a natural continuation of the moody, atmospheric sound he channelled on Nothing Was The Same.

Too Late is loaded with airy production from regular collaborators Boi-1da and Noah (40) Shebib, with a handful of contributions from others including Syk Sense, Mississauga’s PARTYNEXTDOOR and up-and-coming Brampton producer Wondagurl.

Drake’s previous homages to hip-hop history – Nothing Was The Same featured regular samples of and references to early Wu-Tang Clan songs – have shifted here to R&B. Ginuwine’s So Anxious from 1999, for instance, is sampled on two separate songs. And the song Preach take cues from iLoveMakonnen, the Atlanta singer whose Grammy-nominated track Tuesday became a chart-topper after Drake jumped on it last year. There are hints of dancehall, too, with emerging artist Popcaan making an appearance on Know Yourself.

As is his style, Drake spends the record swerving between requisite posturing and his special blend of sensitivity. Right out of the gate with Legend, he makes his case as an unstoppable force in rap: “6 God, the holy one.” But throughout the record, he’s reflecting on the struggle of an artist who has everything but time to give the people he loves. By time he gets to You & the 6, he’s making apologies to his mother for his absence and love life.

Toronto localisms are strung throughout: On Know Yourself, he’s “running through the 6 with my woes,” but he isn’t down on his luck. In Drake’s case, “WOE,” popularized by Toronto rapper Devontée, who’s produced for OVO affiliate P Reign, stands for “Working On Excellence.” He’s rolling with friends who share his ambitions, and his ambitions are higher than ever: On 6PM in New York, he says he’s ready to join Jay Z and Kanye West on on the throne of rap.

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Too Late, and its auspicious timing, signals that he’s ready to do just that. It came out just hours after West debuted a new song, Wolves, at New York Fashion Week. And earlier this week, Kendrick Lamar, arguably Drake’s closest competition in the up-and-coming rap world, was first to release a new single.

All three artists are poised to release new albums this year, each battling for fans’ attention. With this mixtape/album/contractual fulfilment, Drake is poising himself to win that battle.

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