Despite the endless flurry of reminders that Drake’s not actually the “best rapper alive,” his last 365 days made plenty of good cases that he’s at least half-serious about the throne Lil Wayne once occupied at the height of his powers. From What a Time to Be Alive’s mixtape calisthenics, to If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late’s compilation format, to a variety of guest appearances in advance of his proper follow-up to 2013’s multiplatinum smash Nothing Was the Same, Drake was not only trying some new shit out, but he also genuinely appeared to be having fun with music again, getting back to his roots as “that kid in the basement.” Besides, Drake works better when he moves quicker, embodies youthful vitality, and doesn’t overthink things. But the reality of VIEWS, his highly-anticipated new album, is something far less earth-shaking than it was hyped up to be: a casual, only slightly-different-than-usual release smothered in atmosphere with one solid R&B song (that’s reportedly been kicking around in a vault for a while) left stranded in the album’s penultimate slot.
There really isn’t a whole lot that can be said about VIEWS that hasn’t already been said about Drake’s three previous albums. For an artist so eager to entertain, so set on proving his superstar status in a fickle industry, he surprisingly doesn’t take any risks in order to do something truly different. In turn, VIEWS functions more as a career travelogue than a grand statement. There’s a nod to virtually every stage of his career, from the sparse Take Care emo-isms of “Redemption” and Nothing Was the Same’s glistening pop ambitions of “Feels No Way,” to the menacing If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late production of “Hype” and the What a Time to Be Alive-influenced finger gun posturing of “Grammys.” The biggest names and innovators in music certainly warrant an eventual cycle back through the work they’ve crafted, but it’s somewhat disconcerting with Drake, who, at 29, is still spinning the same tired myths as before. Three years ago, it used to be that every hit song sounded like “Drake featuring Drake;” fast-forward to VIEWS and the guest appearances (yes, including PARTYNEXTDOOR) are actually a blessing in disguise.
What we have in VIEWS is essentially an album split into two halves. Although the album boasts an impressive list of guest appearances — Rihanna, Pimp C, Future, Wizkid, Kyla, and an uncredited Jeremih — most of them just come and go in the blink of an eye. The first half of the album is the more familiar of the two and features Drake mostly riding solo. Where there was a universality to last year’s “Know Yourself” that worked whether you were overlooking Toronto from the CN Tower, walking in Brooklyn at night, or sitting around a campfire, tracks like “9” and “U With Me” go straight for standard lascivious proclivities and ultimately bypass engaging the listener on a human level. Sometimes VIEWS veers awfully close to sleepy, background music territory, which is practically a death knell in rap music: The ambient washes and synth accents over a sample of Mary J. Blige’s “Mary Joint” on “Weston Road Flow” are awesome flourishes, as is the brisk and summery production on “Faithful,” but both are showcases for production than songwriting chops.
On the other hand, VIEWS’s second half is nothing more than a continuation of the rough-around-the-edges rap persona Drake’s created for himself, starting with “0 to 100” and hardening on If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late. But even with Drake’s usually sour content and tough-guy bravado taking up the bulk of the album’s lyrics (failed romances, trust issues, observations on fame, excess, and self-doubt), it isn’t without his occasionally impeccable taste for clever, quotable one-liners propping up. Sure, Drake never hit a home-run joke quite like how Ludacris did in his prime, but his most underrated attribute as a songwriter is definitely his small, concise humor and audience participation, creating a ripple of sustained chuckles. A good example is on “Weston Road Flow,” where Drake effortlessly destroys his competition with a simple “what are those” reference, cracking at their inferior first-week sales numbers. And yet, in place of VIEWS’s glaring lack of consistency in lyrics, song ideas, and good humor is his tendency to namedrop friends nobody knows or cares to know about.
VIEWS is no masterpiece, but it does briefly scale some pretty dizzying heights, like on the soulful “Views,” which showcases some of his most fluid and succinct rapping in recent memory. Elsewhere, Jamaican and Nigerian producers Supa Dups, Di Genius, Wizkid, and Sama are tasked with creating a mini-dancehall soundtrack with cuts “Controlla,” “One Dance,” and the Rihanna-assisted “Too Good.” While they may feel out of place within VIEWS’s bloated tracklisting, these moments tastefully capture Drake’s global ambitions, where songs are elevated because of the entrancing sonic alchemy, not his shaky fake patois. Should Drake never craft a flawless album, it should hardly matter. Someone will eventually put together a best-of compilation that will be almost impossible to cram onto a single disc. For now, VIEWS isn’t The Blueprint, but Drake is still miles better than much of his peers.