Drake—the so-called Six God, and today’s bottom-starting king of the rap game—has spent the better part of the last two years proving himself to be placeless. There he was, on What A Time To Be Alive, a mixtape so infused with Atlanta rapper Future’s trademark codeine-cyborg purring and a particularly booming production style that Drake sounded more like a boisterous understudy; there he was on songs by West Coast rappers like Y.G. and The Game, sounding at home on the marauding basslines and taut snares that help define a certain kind of Los Angeles sound; there he is on a remix of “Ojuelegba,” a song by Nigerian rapper Wizkid, and there he is shrieking in gleeful patois on “Shutdown,” from grime icon Skepta, whose U.K. label Boy Better Know recently signed October’s Very Own. Heck, Drake even put out a straight-up bachata song, crooning in crisp Spanish alongside Romeo Santos, the king of the sweet Latino genre.
Simultaneously, he’s been setting the expectations sky-high for his fourth studio album, Views, the follow-up to his last true album, 2013’s Nothing Was The Same. It’s perhaps hard to remember now, but when Drake starting singing his hook on “R.I.C.O.”—a collaboration with Meek Mill that he didn’t believe Drake promoted enough, prompting the Philadelphia rapper to dig into ghostwriting allegations and spark a headline-grabbing beef—he riddled the beat with a monkish chant: “Views. Views. Views.” And he cast that conflict as a distraction from the real work at hand: “I took a break from Views,” he said, wrapping up his final exultant diss track “Back to Back” against Mill—”and now it’s back to that.”
So you’d be forgiven for thinking that Views was going to take a broader sonic approach, reflecting a more global ambition beyond Toronto. He has always been, after all, something of a regional polyglot; he was born in Toronto but grew up steeped in Memphis rap, and broke through while working with New Orleans superstar Lil’ Wayne out of Houston. And his peers, now, are the genre’s biggest stars; Kanye West, who lives up the street from him, has called him an inspiration, and he and fellow mega-star Jay Z both appeared on “Pop Style” (before their verses were removed, in one of Drake’s trademark sly power moves). The fact that Drake would excise From the Six from the end of the album’s title just two days before its release implied that this could have been his least Toronto album yet, even if its cover featured him perched atop of the CN Tower, the Internet’s unmissable meme last week. (Though, let it be said, putting the CN Tower on the cover may be just about as mawkish for Torontonians as a New Yorker wearing an “I Heart New York” shirt.)
And so it was something of a surprise to hear that after years of snacking on a wide range of rap sounds, at a time when regionality means less than ever in rap (see the Atlanta-imitating New York rapper at the top of the hip-hop charts), there’s no doubt as to where these Views were from. In a 2009 interview with Complex, he spoke about a powerful urge to become, for Toronto, “that guy…our hometown hero.” With Views, he’s certainly produced the most Drake album he’s made and, sonically, his most Toronto album, too.
Drake is firmly in his comfort zone, largely abandoning the tough-guy persona he’d embraced over his last two projects for silken singing and angular, word-stuffed rapping about well-trodden themes. He proves that there’s a distinct difference between a Drake mixtape and album, drawing a clear lineage between Views, and his very first project, So Far Gone.
But this is a triumph, primarily, of producer Noah “40” Shebib, the long-time architect of the sound Drake’s best known for, and has become regarded as the “Toronto sound”: muted high-ends and scalped samples and mind-blowing snatches of drowned-out underwater R&B. His work on Views is masterful, from his co-production on “Weston Road Flows” with its burbling Mary J. Blige sample, and the gorgeously smouldering “Fire and Desire.”
“The album is based around the change of the seasons in our city,” Drake told Apple Beats 1 radio host Zane Lowe in an interview. “Winter to summer and back to winter again. It’s just to show you the two extreme moods that we have. We love our summers but we also make our winters work.” You can certainly hear that at play—the steely chill of the album’s first third, the opening up into a hot sultry middle, and then the crunchy triumphal lap at the album’s end.
That sultry summer sound—which include standout tracks “Controlla,” and “One Dance,” likely to improbably be Drake’s first number-one hit—is also reflection of Toronto’s past. The city is, after all, the Screwface Capital to Toronto hip-hop heads—a place where up-and-comers have to run a true gauntlet to make it big, to face the ridicule and assault of screw faces, a Jamaican idiom for tough, critical glares. The city’s a diverse melting pot, and so a Caribbean sound has long been a big part of Toronto hip-hop, fuelled by Kardinal Offishall and Michie Mee, Jamaican-Canadians whose dancehall-soaked music made them foundational in the scene. With Views’ muggy middle, Drake is staking claim to both the past and present of Toronto’s hip-hop sonic palette. From how this album sounds, it’s a fine effort.
But still, something’s missing. Yes, this is very much a Drake album, and a totally Toronto sound—but it’s also never been clearer that it no longer reflects the entirety of the full Toronto sound. With 40 and Drake firing at all pistons, Views only pushes the creative limits of what Drake has already done, which means it’s not the definitive picture of the city that he hopes it to be. His has become a defining Toronto sound—still its principal one, sure, but not its only.
That goes beyond the disciples on his OVO Sound label, many crafted in his sonic image. There’s Jazz Cartier’s shadowy, majestic howls. There’s Sean Leon’s recent horrorcore approach to the mic. Daniel Caesar put out one of the best mixtapes of 2015, the Frank Ocean-channelling Pilgrim’s Paradise, which reworks a Kanye West song into an ode to lonely rides on the streetcar. Jimmy B’s boom-bap stylings are militant parades for the Toronto suburb Scarborough. Tory Lanez, a stony-voiced vanguard of this New Toronto, looks to be the city’s next big thing.
Certainly, their rise is at least partly the fruit of Drake’s labours. But there’s a breadth that makes the Toronto sound much more than what Drake has established—perhaps perfected—on Views. Drake remains a global superstar, but perhaps paradoxically, he’s no longer able to swallow his city whole.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing. It’s a testament to fertile Toronto rap that even as Drake tries to spend his enormous musical capital making an album that bleeds Toronto—and features him and his producer at their strength—he’s still not able to subsume the entirety of the city’s sound. Even as Drake proves how far he can push the sonic palette that he helped create, and the palette that came before him, he cannot claim all of Toronto. “All you boys in the new Toronto want to be me a little,” he rapped on abandoned pre-album track “Summer Sixteen.” That’s both true, and no longer true.
How far we’ve come. And still so far gone.