Hard to believe now, but in 2001 Jay Z’s career was at a crossroads. His single “Big Pimpin’” had hit the top 10 and he’d brought Michael Jackson on stage with him at Hot 97’s Summer Jam concert, but something was wrong. Years had passed since Jay Z had been able to drop an album that affirmed his place at the top MC in the game, and his peers were smelling blood. Intrastate rivals Nas and Prodigy from the group Mobb Deep sent out diss records, making their own claims to the throne. There were even rumblings that Jay’s protege Beanie Sigel was overshadowing him. Jay could have ignored this, continuing to make crossover hits and swimming in his money for the rest of his career.
But he didn’t. He cared about being the best. He knew that backing up his claims as the God MC was as important as any chart-topping glory.
So Jigga responded to the would-be usurpers by creating The Blueprint, arguably his best album ever. He delivered vicious takedowns of Nas and Prodigy, eviscerated soul-sampled beats by Kanye West and Just Blaze and firmly asserted himself as the standard-bearer for rap music. That’s how you respond to a challenge.
Fifteen years later, Drake is in a similar position as his rap idol Jay Z. His status as rap’s top dog is under siege, with Kendrick Lamar ascending, Steph Curry-like, as the best MC, releasing two instant-classic albums, headlining Grammy shows and putting meaningful music at rap’s forefront. All while dropping not-so-subliminal insults at Drake the whole time: On his recent untitled unamstered album he spends a whole song mimicking Drake’s rap style.
Other rappers are taking notice, too, putting out their best work and challenging Drake to drop an album that will solidify his standing as the modern-day Jay Z. We all know that Drake can top charts. He recorded two projects—If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late and What A Time To Be Alive (with Future)—in a total of two weeks last year, and they were both full of hits. Drake can make hits in his sleep, and that in itself is a major gift. But Drake has yet to create the classic album that fans have been waiting for.
In the world of rap music, the idea of a classic album holds more weight than it does in any other genre. Maybe it all started with The Source magazine—the bible of rap music, where “five mics” means the album in question is one for the ages. If an established rapper hasn’t produced something near-flawless, genre-defining and bar-setting, he or she is eventually treated like Charles Barkley: great, but ringless. It generally takes time to process if an album is a classic or not. But it doesn’t take long to know if an album has no chance of reaching that pinnacle.
Drake’s latest album, Views (known as Views From the 6 until the very last minute), is not the classic album we’ve been waiting for.
That’s not to say Views is a bad album. Yes, it’s heavy on trite ballads and throwaway pop hits that’ll probably be stuck in our heads for years. As we’ve come to expect, it’s heavy on quotable catchphrases, elite production and bars that are better than most. But it’s far from the album that lets us know Drake took the challenges to his throne to heart.
What makes Views so frustrating is that I don’t get the impression he was actually aiming for anything beyond a rinse-and-repeat Drake album. When he lets loose and shows he can rap, he reminds us that he’s arguably the best out there. “Views,” “Grammys” and especially “Weston Road Flows” are peak Drake the MC. When he puts the rap, singing and emotion together we get a top-tier Drake song in “U With Me?” Unfortunately, he too often goes for the safe play. The 20-track album is mostly Drake singing about relationships and the women he’s loved and lost. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing: Rapper/singer hybrids like CeeLo, Andre 3000 and Lauryn Hill have given us classic albums that were more singing than rapping. It’s just that Drake talks about relationships with a vapidity that makes it seem like he hasn’t had a meaningful relationship in five years. It’s hard to feel emotional about fights in Cheesecake Factory, taking girls shopping and lines like, “We saw you for what you could have been ever since you met me / like when Chrysler made the one car that looked just like the Bentley.”
If Drake has no intention of being the best rapper or in the league with the greats, it’s absolutely his prerogative. There are plenty memorable MCs—Ludacris and Nelly come to mind—who are respected despite a failure to deliver home-run albums. But with Drake it’s frustrating because we know he’s far more capable of greatness than those guys. If he’s content not aiming for the legendary album, he should stop responding with passive aggressive angst whenever Kendrick Lamar drops his name in songs. He should stop comparing himself to Jay Z like he did on “Summer Sixteen” and sending barbs at up-and-comers who dare try to be the next big star. (“If I left this shit to chance I would’ve picked a name like Chance the Rapper” he rapped on 2014’s “Draft Day")
In other words, Drake can’t have it both ways: He can’t lay claims to be the best without showing that it’s something he’s really going to work for. For most rappers, classic albums either come from an elite-level focus on uplifting his already-stellar craft to new heights (Jay Z’s laser-focus on The Blueprint and Nas’ gold-standard rhyming on Illmatic) or a willingness to step outside of the comfort zone and aim at something that elevates the rapper artistically (Outkast’s P-funk perfection of Aquemini or Kendrick Lamar’s jazz-fusion live instrumentation on To Pimp A Butterfly). Even outside of rap, Beyonce just last week ditched her formula of radio hits to deliver an emotional statement on marriage and infidelity interspersed with Black Lives Matter homages—all of it united by her desire to take her musicianship to new heights. Views doesn’t do any of that.
Drake can captivate every Instagram post for months, but what we don’t know is if Drake cares about being the best as much as he says he does. And until he focuses on giving us that Holy Grail of a classic, career-defining album, we’ll still be waiting. Until it’s time to move on.