So far in 2022 music fans have been treated to career highlights in the form of new records from the hip-hop behemoths Pusha T and Kendrick Lamar. And so, when Drake announced his next album was being released with less than 24 hours’ notice this week, along with pixelated, metallic text artwork, the assumption was that he was coming to contend with the year’s great rap releases. This was a dubious prospect: it has been a very long time since the Canadian artist has released a solid full body of work. This is not to belittle his catalogue from the past five years entirely; though his most recent full-lengths have been gluttonously long with little to say, Drake has always sailed by with at least one banger per era – a lithe hook to earworm its way through the clubs, radio, viral videos and streaming platforms.
Honestly, Nevermind is Drake’s seventh studio album, arriving just nine months after last year’s passable Certified Lover Boy, and sitting at a mere 14 tracks (a meagre sum for an artist whose last few releases have averaged around 20). The album is dedicated to Virgil Abloh, the fiercely influential fashion designer and Louis Vuitton artistic director who died last year, and who was also a DJ and producer, notable in dance music. And so, it makes sense that Honestly, Nevermind is not the rap record people were expecting: instead, it is perhaps best categorised as a sequel to Drake’s 2017 “playlist” More Life with its smooth, poolside dance tracks. But where More Life still had harder moments and textures cutting through, it feels like this latest record is trying to operate on pure vibes – to middling effect.
Drake has often been accused of being a “culture vulture” for cherry-picking different styles from across the world, but here his leaning into deep house hardly feels “of the moment”, despite a couple of somewhat pastiche nods to boisterous Jersey club and the dance style du jour, Amapiano, as in the airy horns of “Massive”. Then again, even this shows a savvy knowledge of his global audience, as does his choice of collaborators: South Africa-based artists such as Tresor and the exquisite DJ and producer Black Coffee, who appeared on “Get It Together”, a highlight from More Life, and provides executive production here with his characteristic poised, warm beats.
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Other than the squeaky bed noise on “Currents”, there is plenty to enjoy about the taut sonics across the record. The beats are slow-building, thumping. Sure, there is much more exciting work happening in the dance world right now, but the swaying humidity of songs such as “Texts Go Green” and the gentle, choppy heat of “Sticky” ensures this album will be on plenty of summer playlists, and there is ample possibility for fun remixes. Maybe the problem lies in the energy of the beats not fully being matched – let alone enriched – by Drake himself.
While Drake is known for his forlorn rich boy shtick, the text the album appeared with (including the line “My urge for revenge wins the game against my good guy inside every single fckn time”) suggested a return to the joyous, urgent vim on some of his best songs. Instead, much of his delivery falls flat and is uninspired, while his lyrics feel slightly embarrassing for a man in his mid-thirties (a personal favourite: “Calling me daddy/I taught you things that a father can’t teach”).
By the time we get to the final track, “Jimmy Cooks”, with the London-born, Atlanta-based 21 Savage, there is an immediacy in the clean, classic rap sound. Drake sounds like he’s actually enjoying himself but 21 (the only credited feature on the record) overshadows him with his delicious, elastic delivery.
The problem, really, is not that Drake put out a dance album. Throughout his career he has shown a proclivity towards genuinely outstanding songs that get hips moving and legs shaking (“Take Care”, “One Dance”, “Passionfruit”). But back then he felt like our main character, a Prince Hamlet giving us summery grooves or else crying-in-the-club catharsis. On Honestly, Nevermind he is more of an extra, playing background music. There are enjoyable moments here and it’s certainly not a terrible album, but it’s probably more pertinent to think of it as, say, a Black Coffee record that happens to feature a relatively tepid Drake.