Drake's Surprise Album Raises His Game Further Still

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Last Thursday night was Drake night. Again.

A year after the Toronto rapper not only stamped his name as hip-hop's current king with a tour of his Nothing Was the Same album and a virtual parade in his honor in Houston last June, the rapper decided the time was right to release a surprise mix-album upon fans.

The record is entitled If You're Reading This It's Too Late It's cryptic, almost the most Drake-ish title since his "Would You Like a Tour?" set of shows two years ago. It's also not free, like any traditional mixtape, whereas about six years ago Drake had the most significant changing-of-the-guard free release with So Far Gone. He's about maximization in the age of the millennial, always to be seen, heard and thought of. If he knows he can drop a random tape on iTunes and it'll go gold in a matter of four days, he'll do so. He's that confident these days.

The word about IYRTITL is that it's the last of Drake's purported four-album deal with Cash Money Records, the longest-standing dominant rap label in the history of the genre. It also virtually means the end of Cash Money considering its longest-tenured golden goose, Lil Wayne, is embroiled in a lawsuit with his surrogate father, Bryan "Birdman" Williams for creative freedom and unpaid royalties.

Publicly, Drake has kept silent about the civil war now engulfing the label, but on IYRTITL he makes his allegiance to Wayne clear on "Star67." "Now And Forever" may sound like an ordinary breakup song here, but it feels like more than that, as if Drake is stepping away from the label and wants proper understanding for his impending departure.

Drake is at his best when he has a gripe, when he's brooding, moody, defiant and wants to confront people's perceptions. Drake, the melodic individual who believes that the only infinite in his life will be a chase for his perfect woman in states below the Mason-Dixon, is officially fed up.

Beef has never been Drake's strongest suit; he has people who normally handle those things. But there's an edge to IYRTITL that he started slowly fleshing out on his last two efforts, 2011's Take Care and 2013's Nothing Was the Same. Then Drake was offering warning shots; this time he's far more impersonal and direct.

"I got rap niggas that I gotta act like I like, but my acting days are off/ Fuck them niggas for life," he raps on the braggadocious "Energy." Everybody from Kanye West to Kendrick Lamar to Diddy gets little Mayweather-esque shoulder-roll shots here. Tyga, his Cash Money labelmate, gets it the worst, though. Drake's subliminal shots are easiest to decode on "6 p.m. In New York," slicing not only the tattooed California rapper but also his 17-year-old girlfriend or playmate Kylie Jenner.

Six years ago you would have never predicted Drake to be ending rappers the same way he knocks down exes for missing out on his current success, but this is now. He swoops in denying the ability to trust girls who ask for WiFi passwords as opposed to spending time with him, and chides his exes with slick wit and panache.

And no Drake tape will go by without a Houston reference or boost. It's a fluid extension of the Toronto born rapper who makes mention of not only his favorite strip club twice (V-Live), but specifically gives a co-sign to the pasta and awaits girls who get off work late to find him either at the St. Regis or Hotel Derek. These are a lot more specific, almost as if Drake literally roams around the Galleria area looking for inspiration at times.

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Even when you call the St. Regis for an Aubrey Graham just for evidence that Drake's been there, you're passing a chain of command that ends with a manager who can't confirm nor deny it. On "Company," one of the lurid, space-eating slow burners tacked to the end of the project (along with "Jungle"), Drake is still looking for love, may she be from Kentucky or any of the other states bonded together by the Southeastern Conference.

What one feared the most about IYRTITL is that Drake would keep running in the flow he's been utilizing on loosie tracks during the latter part of 2014. Instead he has never sounded sharper in the booth than now. Toronto itself hasn't felt like a secondary backdrop on a Drake tape until now, with the Jamaican patois washing around a mix with Drake's friends laughing and ready to go to war for him.

His mom, long considered the lone woman in existence for whom he'd drop his guard, gets a letter (that doubles as one for his 416 home) on "You And The 6." Drake turning down a date with a girl from his mom's gym is the most sweetheart Jewish-boy thing ever. When he's trying to tell her his dad has changed since the divorce, he sounds like a 15-year-old wanting love to find its way back to the two people he wants it for the most.

For four years now, Drake and his Ginuwine-influenced glide through hints of '90s R&B, Swing Mob atmospherics and contemplative idioms have been compelling. "Madonna" briefly references how influential "sauced" has become in rap's current lexicon; that "Legited" remix with Sauce Walka is still forthcoming. "6 Man," near the end, may be the worst thing on the album, yet it features Drake charmingly waddling through Erykah Badu's chorus from the Roots' "You Got Me."

Even if it feels a bit bloated, IYRTITL picks at emotions and carries them to different avenues. Drake's life is absolutely spectacular. It's also a quiet search for the insular while signing off on so many major deals that even he can't remember the exact amounts. The high from the opening quartet of "Legend/Energy/10 Bands/Mo Tellin" inserts itself into small pockets for the rest of the ride. There's a sick majesty within a Drake tape, and we're left watching the story progress with every new song.

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