Drake lost me five years ago. "Shot for Me," from 2011's double-platinum smash Take Care, did it. "The voice in your speaker right now, that's me / The voice in your ear, that's me," the Canadian superstar sang, goading an ex. Alone in my college dorm, listening to the album's initial leak in the aftermath of a breakup, his tone stung. He was being petty and insincere; my empathy went straight to the nameless woman he was taunting. I stopped the track so as not to hear another second of that self-satisfied tone. The song pushed me to root against its narrator, and I didn’t want to listen to an album whose emotional lead I couldn't follow. There was no reason to invest time and energy in music that made the bad mood I was already in feel even worse.
But as a music-loving teen, I knew I'd be back. Once I'd uploaded anything to my iPod, it would eventually get a fair shake, even Drake. Eventually I found myself nodding along to “Look What You’ve Done,” the rapper’s ode to his mother and the tensions they experienced as he grew up. "I leave out and you call me, you tell me that you're sorry / You love me, and I love you, and your heart hurts, mine does too," he confessed over a haunted sounding Playa sample. Drake’s feelings about getting older mirrored my own — things I didn’t want to feel but needed to see reflected. I felt a new compromise coming into focus: I would seek out the side of his music that mapped to my own emotions, and ignore the parts that didn't line up.
I've grown up slightly since then. Drake's grown, too – slightly. Take Care already showed significant growth in honesty and warmth from his debut, Thank Me Later; he’s since homed in on scene-stealing guest verses ("Fuckin' Problems"), career-making remixes ("Versace"), and loosie singles turned hits ("0 to 100"). Whatever little emotional development he's shown in that time, he's made up for it with music industry savvy. Late last month, he released his fourth proper studio album, Views. Early indications suggested Drake would be puffing out his newly swole chest: After last year's restless If You're Reading This It's Too Late and What a Time to Be Alive, his rightfully cocky collaboration with Future, came the one-off “Summer Sixteen,” where Drake was feeling himself enough to compare himself to the president of the United States ("Tell Obama that my verses are just like the whips that he in / They bulletproof"). But "Summer Sixteen" missed the album, and Views toned down that blaring machismo to striking effect.
There's no comically gruff "Worst Behavior" to be found on Views. Instead, Drake offers sad conversational asides ("All of my ‘let's just be friends' / Are friends I don't have anymore," he says in the album's opening moments) and stressed-out questions (on the DMX-sampling “U With Me?," he frustratedly hammers on the title question, in dire need of confirmation or closure). The harder-edged rapping style he picked up for If You’re Reading This and What a Time has faded away in place of Drake's well-trodden '90s R&B nostalgia (“Fire & Desire”) and echoes of New Orleans bounce (“Childs Play”), Jamaican dancehall, and Nigerian pop (“One Dance”). Even “Hype” and “Weston Road Flows,” the album’s more straightforward rap tracks, are backed by predictably moody beats from Drake's longtime musical partner Noah "40" Shebib. Views is a dispatch from a closed world, 81 minutes of Drake featuring Drake.
That chilly environment has its charms. Drake squirms delightfully on “Too Good," his duet with Rihanna: When he says “I don't know how to talk to you / I don't know how to ask you if you're OK," there is a bashfulness that feels earnest, even more so with a real-life on-and-off love interest on the other side of his words. The tone could feel cunning or sly in another context, but between those two it's engagingly real. Just two tracks earlier, though, Drake is as childish as ever on “Childs Play”: “Why you gotta fight with me at Cheesecake? / You know I love to go there / Say I'm actin' lightskin, I can't take you nowhere / This a place for families that drive Camrys and go to Disney.” He tries to offset his unearned pettiness with a little humor, but the overall effect still leaves me laughing at, not with, him — how seriously can you take a tale of hurt feelings set at an upscale Wendy’s? For every sign of emotional growth he shows, there's another line that makes me question whether he's matured at all.
That tension, though — the push and pull between a Drake who's mustering up the courage to chat with his mom and the one who stays hung up on relationships that didn’t end on his terms — is something I've learned to embrace. In some ways, Drake's inconsistency has yielded a more rewarding connection than the one that sustained fandom or burning hate would bring. It's freeing to not know what my reaction will be when I hit play. When I hold the mirror of his music up to myself, there is no guarantee of what I’ll see reflected — and that makes it that much more thrilling when his songs do resonate.
“One Dance,” Views's Nigerian-pop-by-way-of-the-U.K. single, sidestepped both of those poles and brought me to unencumbered joy on first listen. No longer was I sitting alone, wallowing in his emotional outpour — for maybe the first time listening to a Drake record, I wanted to dance. When PartyNextDoor sings, “It’s about us right now / Girl, where you going?” on the upbeat “With You,” the mood of the album shifts midway, shaking off the brooding production style that Drake and 40 perfected long ago. The remaining points of catharsis on Views triumph because they demand to be heard with other people, after maybe one too many albums of being trapped in Drake's own introspection. Even if the cover places Drake alone at the pinnacle of Toronto's CN Tower, eventually he’ll show up to the club when the opening notes of “Controlla” play.
"Hotline Bling," which turns up as a bonus track on Views, proves to have been a dividing line in his career. While Drake spent years positioned between the lines of rap and R&B, his best moments on this album come when he leaves behind both genres in favor of the kind of club nights that wouldn’t have use for his slower, old tunes. These open-hearted, upbeat songs — "Controlla," “Too Good,” "One Dance" — show the most forward artistic growth Drake has exhibited since Take Care. His emotional depth may continue to ebb and flow, but he's starting to understand that listeners might seek a life outside of their headphones.
Views's upbeat energy can get lost in an overstuffed tracklist, but that contradiction is classic Drake. Petulant fits — ”It's all because you chose a side / You're supposed to put your pride aside and ride for me / Guess it wasn't time," he carps tiresomely on “Keep the Family Close” — give way to sweet nothings like the ones on "Controlla." Views is an attempt to move forward, but Drake has to take one step at a time. As long as he keeps trying to reconcile those divided sides of himself, I'll be there with him.