Borne aloft on a blaze of horns and flanked by three all-time greats, this was Drake’s entry to rap’s big leagues: “Last name ever / first name greatest”, is how he opens his verse. It’s a rather corny boast and gets cornier still – punchlines like “at the club you know I balled: chemo” could be included in Christmas crackers, were they not deeply insensitive. But his cockiness connects, and the chorus hook is memorably strong.
The collaborative album with Future, What a Time to Be Alive, is overrated, Drake wanting to tick off an Atlanta trap project but struggling to write hooks find purchase in the cold snares (the club-igniting Jumpman is dumb, boring and rips off Gucci Mane, do not @ me). But he closes the album with a beautifully jazzy take on a particular Drake mode: executive slam poetry, as if delivered conversationally to businessmen around the Nespresso machine in a first-class airport lounge.
For someone who attaches himself – some have said parasitically – to all sorts of global music styles, Drake has done relatively little drill, though this track from the water-treading Dark Lane Demo Tapes suggests he’s well-suited to its bass lurch and asymmetric cymbals. Hopefully, the new album Certified Lover Boy will expand on this.
With a beat that offers a nice tropical twist on Hotline Bling, this isn’t Drake’s finest lyrical hour – ah, how relatable the tribulations of having to deal with insincere people when you’re famous! But the chorus is karaoke-strong, Drake singing forcefully in his higher register, as if doing an impromptu performance on a banquette in a busy club.
In the past decade, rap has streamlined – and in the worst cases, devolved – its songwriting to deliver lyrics in a single melody line over and over again. Songs live and die on the strength of said melodies, and the one in God’s Plan’s verses is a little dreary. But the bridge is stronger, then Drake jumps off the end with the biggest punchline moment in his catalogue.
It’s a measure of Drake’s supreme confidence that this track from his breakthrough mixtape So Far Gone uses a Jay-Z beat that features a sample the Notorious BIG made famous. He justifies elbowing on to the top table, stretching out across the disco track with breezy banter before passing the mic to Lil Wayne for an equally enjoyable longform verse. Drake’s top lines would later improve and his coalescing flow is still in thrall to Wayne’s at this point, but the tradeoff across So Far Gone is energy like a puppy skidding on to a kitchen floor: tracks like Successful and Say What’s Real are still riveting for their audible hunger.
Drake can tend towards self-aggrandisement or non-specific beef with shadowy individuals, and it can be difficult to be remotely bothered about either. He’s much better when getting into the gossipy, soul-baring particulars, in this case his relationship with his parents and the women who got away, making “Courtney from Hooters on Peachtree” briefly famous; he’s further aided by Aiko’s exquisite chorus. marzo 14, about the son he fathered following a brief fling, is another good example of this style: “We only met two times, two times!"
“I fuck with the mob and I got ties / Knock you off to pay their tithes”, Drake claims, as he swaps “Louis bags in exchange for body bags”. In truth, Drake’s violent criminality only extends to his horrific mangling of a London accent on his Behind Barz freestyle, and he hasn’t actually paused his career as the world’s biggest pop star to conduct contract killings for the mafia. He nevertheless transmits simmering resentment strongly here.
Beginning with a rant that sounds as if it has slipped outside the beat before it finishes triumphantly on top of it, this recent single shows Drake has mastered the triplet times of Atlantan trap while maintaining his own particular artistry. The switch into a strangely lovely chorus is expertly done, too – the emotional temperature suddenly shifts, but is it warmer or colder?
Many have cringed at Drake’s takes on dancehall and his omnivorous appetite for foreign Black slang, seeing him a little like a middle-class posho extolling the virtues of rum and Ting to his “marndem” at carnival. Comunque, he’s really very good over these rhythms, using beats that never blandly pastiche them. The watery morass of Blem’s backing is gorgeous, as is Drake’s melodic invention. He even gets away with saying “wasteman”.
A rattle of arms fire is followed by a hard-recoiling trap beat for Drake to confront the vampiric forces in his life. His downward-bending sneers about the extremely boring women he sometimes meets, borrowing his wifi to show him their social media feeds, are amusingly done.
Produced by the underrated but consistently good Supah Mario (alongside SL), Drake benefits from a Young Thug chorus penned during his highly creative “Jeffrey” era, sounding like a wise wood sprite dressed in Atlantan drip. Drake plays the patient lover waiting for his would-be girl to get over her last relationship, the latent joke being that if you’ve heard even one other Drake song, you know he’s low-key champing at the bit.
Another dancehall-adjacent beat for the first of Drake’s 65 UK Top 40 hits, and his purest pop moment: something a boy band could happily deliver in matching combat trousers and vests. The chorus melody has the perfection of a golden ratio, Drake turning a daydreamer’s hope into steely determination.
The artwork for second album Take Care was accidentally parodic of second albums, when fame turns out to not be all that great after all: Drake staring sadly at a gold goblet, surrounded by classical paintings. But that histrionic dolefulness is served colder on Marvin’s Room, as he sketches a life of meaningless sex to a woman he’s trying to have sex with – is he genuinely trying to find a connection with her or is she just tonight’s target? Drake keeps his cards close; perhaps even he doesn’t know. The chords are as numb as he is and the sinister, inveigling feel to the chorus melody creeps up your spine as you listen.
In a semi-fond diss, rap blogger Big Ghost once renamed Drake “Yung Garnier Fructis” on account of his softness and smoothness. When he tries to be hard, it can be like seeing a dad yell impotently at teenagers who have just thrown toilet paper over his house. But on the anthemic Worst Behaviour, there’s something unhinged and aggressive about his stop-start delivery: “Remember? Motherfucker?"
Drake’s biggest ever hit changed the life of the British artist he unexpectedly sampled and is credited here: Kyla’s UK funky track Do You Mind? is slowed to a dancehall tempo, but her eyes-across-the-bar sultriness is preserved. Also vies with MIA’s Paper Planes for the greatest gun fingers moment in pop.
As well as Kyla, Drake has fallen for a number of UK stars over the years: Giggs, Sampha, Jorja Smith, Dave and Jamie xx, whose remix of Gil Scott-Heron’s I’ll Take Care of You is faithfully covered here. What a strange life that song has had – Makaya McCraven’s jazz reworking this year is another beautiful version – and Rihanna’s take on Scott-Heron’s chorus is so wise, serious and earnest, her hand seemingly squeezing Drake’s with real tenderness. Drake smoothly switches between hard flow and soft singing, bar by bar at times, as if pacing a room while she tries to calm him down.
The production from Majid Jordan is like Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis heard through a double-glazed window, a nostalgic yet strange beat with a ghostly Malcolm McLaren calling out like a soothsayer: “World! Famous!” Is it a warning or celebration? There are so many brilliant vocal melodies here that any sense of verse-chorus-verse dissolves – Drake’s line at 1.50, searching high and low for what he’s feeling, is staggeringly beautiful.
Drake’s best dancehall track – again the producers complicate the Caribbean beat, here with an ear-tickling nest of trap percussion. There’s a jazz vocalist’s freedom to his delivery of “I think I’d lie for you / I think I’d die for you” before locking imperceptibly back into a waist-winding rhythm. A subtle and deeply sexy performance, even if his accent verges on fake Jamaican.
Drake’s shameless courting of the dance-craze crowd on TikTok with the craven and insipid 2020 single Toosie Slide was doubly unnecessary, given he’d already organically had one of the most cheering dance challenges in the history of social media, created by the pink-tracksuited, heartfingers-popping Shiggy for In My Feelings. The song itself is a classic of Drake’s po-faced yearning top lines, with a wonderfully arranged beat that sounds like a Miami bass event happening down the street.
One of the most beautiful productions in Drake’s catalogue, with a cashmere millefeuille of coos from the Weeknd set against fitful bass and percussion. Drake often uses an aggrieved “me against the world” tone to his voice that can be grating, but against this softness, and charged with a relentless nihilist energy, it cuts deep. An eventual celebration of wealth and fame rings horribly hollow after what comes before, a numb journey through excess including a truly nightmarish image of sex with a young woman healing from plastic surgery.
If he’s not doing some aggrieved beefing, Drake is the patron (Patrón?) saint of getting ready for a night out, hoisting you into your feelings with a blend of anticipatory romantic drama and tequila-friendly ass-shaking. The high point from his debut album is actually about this process itself, Drake impatient but fond as he appraises his girlfriend’s styling efforts over harps and angelic cries: a celestial beat by Swizz Beatz.
It’s been debated just how low the “bottom” was for Drake, who had a measure of teenage fame acting in the soap Degrassi Junior High, but by his account his childhood was financially unstable, and these things are relative, anyway – he is now a very long way from any kind of normality. He charts that come-up with this minimalist classic, in which the near-monotone of the title line in the chorus has its own subtle, mournful, infectious musicality.
After the letdown of 2020 mixtape Dark Lane Demo Tapes, any fears that Drake’s creativity was petering out were extinguished by this blithely joyous single full of barely subliminal jabs at his current foe, Kanye West: “Distance between us is not like a store, this isn’t a closeable Gap” is so catty and economical (West is a designer for said store).
All rappers need a civic anthem and Drake had the good fortune to be from Toronto, a city without an extant rap figurehead. Know Yourself retells his earlier years there (“way before hashtags”) over a trudging beat, building to his greatest climax with “I was running through the Six with my woes”: an underwater explosion on record, it is a firework-popping emo highlight of his live show.
In the opening line, Drake scolds his girlfriend for not texting him back as quickly as his other girlfriend – the kind of “no he didn’t” bit of cockiness for which he is loved and despised in equal measure. But delivered over a flute riff by Murda Beatz so cute you want to squish it against your chest, it comes off as playful and archly self-aware. The overall track is a working definition of that nebulous concept, “a vibe”.
Timmy Thomas’s 1972 ballad Why Can’t We Live Together? features a perfect tempo and finely crafted pacifist longing for racial harmony, so of course Drake sped it up for a song about a booty call. tuttavia, it turned out to be amazing – his defining anthem to many. The lyrics are slut-shaming, jealous and needy, and yet he somehow the song is full of the poignancy of fleeting lust: witness Drake’s supernatural charisma at work.
Third album Nothing Was the Same continued the grouching and paranoia from Take Care, but also took a moment to return to the cleanly sung boyish romances of his debut. “I want your hot love and emotion, endlessly” looks ridiculous on the page, but Drake’s earnestness eclipses any irony. Very little in this life is as good as dancing to this song in your socks on laminate flooring after eight units of alcohol.
For all his fits of glumness and tissue-paper skin, Drake can occasionally be really, really funny. Qui, a night out at his beloved Cheesecake Factory – a perfect self-satirising detail – is ruined by squabbles with a girl who also borrows his Bentley to go and buy tampons. “Don’t make me give you back to the hood!” Drake chides her in the manner of a stern parent, realising he is in a self-spun web of terribly toxic daddy issues. The high-speed beat, a take on New Orleans bounce, keeps this screwball comedy bowling along.
Bounce artist Big Freedia stumbles into a pitched-up Lauryn Hill in an abrupt collage by Murda Beatz, and they crash on to the dancefloor for an exhilarating – even rather moving – club track about the emancipatory power of going out-out. Drake is like a motivational speaker flexing on the balls of his feet, telling his female charges to ignore their lacklustre social media – “That’s a real one in your reflection / Without a follow, without a mention!” – then forget men, round up their girlfriends and shake it on the floor until they feel better. This is fraternal energy – for once Drake is neither lustful nor jaded – and, despite his millions, Nice for What shows he hasn’t forgotten the paradoxically zen feeling of being in a nightclub on a Friday after you’ve been paid.