As early as 2010, Drake publicly fantasized about releasing an R&B mixtape titled It’s Never Enough. The first song that materialized was “I Get Lonely Too,” his weepy remake of TLC’s FanMail intro. The original is hardly a showcase of vocal acrobatics. Still, Drake’s version is terribly clumsy, like a drunken karaoke session recorded in a moment of weakness. He told MTV at the time that he aimed to release his mixtape around Christmas. He had some ideas, too. “I’m really excited about It’s Never Enough. I might pick a beautiful woman and shoot a video,” he said then.
The tape has since been shelved (though, of course, there’s a fake version) and Drake’s gotten much better at singing. He’s made albums full of R&B, but not a full R&B album. He’s instead claimed his spot as the leader of melodic crossover raps. Even as his R&B tendencies have simmered to make way for an edgier Drake, he’s inevitably drawn to the sentiment and serenades of R&B.
The fact that he’s laughably crowned himself the “light-skinned Keith Sweat” (the ‘90s king of feeble throat singing) is only the surface. Drake is a faithful R&B head who consistently throws nods to his influences: Aaliyah, Jodeci, Lauryn Hill, Sade, Usher and even lesser known incredible talents like Case and Joe—artists relatable to Drake because their love stories mirror his marginally tragic millennial woes.
Late at night on February 12, Drake shared If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late, an album that he’s calling a mixtape. Its convincing thesis is that Drake is still the man. Mostly, it’s him restating his dominance and shooting pellets of rage at frenemies. It features a sample of Ginuwine’s “So Anxious,” on the opening track, “Legend,” and only a few other songs where he’s singing straight through, including “Now & Forever” and “Jungle,” part of a bundle of downcast tracks toward the end that summon an eerier Drake from the So Far Gone era.
“Jungle” is a song that cries, so personable that it almost hurts to listen. It’s a perfect example of the type of magnetic R&B that Drake has mastered, songs full of instantly textable lines that capture breakups, hookups and failed things:
She says you’re my everything
I love you through everything
I done did everything to her
She forgave me for everything
This a forever thing
Hate that I treat it like it’s a whatever thing
Trust me girl, this shit is everything to me
This album is regrettably light on R&B Drake, his better half. But Drake is excellent at the angry posturing anthems, too. The more aggressive his content has become, the less he’s blatantly leaned on R&B, though its influence is still distinguishable in the haze of his dulcet threats, the best of which appear on “Know Yourself” and “6 God”: “You was poppin’ back when Usher bought a U-chaiiinnnnnn/ Goddamn, you changed.”
Drake’s deep relationship with R&B is more discretely, and admirably, alluded to on “You & The 6,” a song for his mom, where he applauds his dad (who had dreams of being a singer) for helping him connect with the emotions of a great soul record, rapping: “He made me listen to his music/ Old music, soul music/ Shit that can only be created if you go through it.”
That line implies that great rap can be faked but true soul embodies truth. This warm zone seems to be where the real and most compelling Drake exists, behind all the cold, menacing, records that are the equivalent of a reality star fixing to pop off before predictably being held back by security.
As an artist who synthesizes hip-hop and R&B better than most, Drake clearly should rap, but his biggest and most effecting songs are the R&B-infused ones. In order of their peak appearance on the Billboard Hot 100 chart: “Best I Ever Had” (No. 2), “Hold On, We’re Going Home” (No. 4), “Find Your Love” (No. 5) and “Take Care” (No. 7).
Drake again referenced his phantom R&B album during a September 2013 interview at NYU, where he admitted to preferring R&B to rap, before adding a caveat:
“I’ll be honest, there’s times I feel like I like R&B music better than I like rap music. It’s just sometimes I like listening to it whether it be classic, whether it be new. When I find myself having free time, I like melody. I wanna blur lines, and I want to blend it, because, like I said, I embrace it at this point. If you think I sing too much now, just wait ‘til I’m 33 and I do this straight.”
All signs point to Drake making a full-on R&B album. He says he wants his version of Kanye West’s 808s & Heartbreak, which ironically was a floodgate-opener for harmonized emotions in rap (a thing already pioneered by artists like DMX, Ghostface and Scarface way earlier) after its 2008 release. The next year, Drake dropped So Far Gone, the formal debut project that made it clear he had a lighter touch than his peers and that his half-sung, half-croaked songs, like R&B, targets women, a point that’s succinctly summed up in one line from “Best I Ever Had”: “When my album drop, bitches’ll buy it for the picture/ And niggas’ll buy it, too, and claim they got it for they sister.”
Before then, on his earlier mixtape Comeback Season, Drake rapped over Goapele’s “Closer” (his version features singer Andreena Mill). He constantly borrows from obscure soul records. Even if he never talked about his love of R&B, the influence is obvious in the beats, which is handled primarily by his producer/engineer Noah “40" Shebib, who grew up on artists like Silk, SWV and Playa and who’s skillfully mined those influences in Drake’s music, along with pop (So Far Gone’s “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off” and “Little Bit” to name a couple), electronic and other genres.
R&B is the main bed of it, a natural inclination since Shebib is just as obsessed with it as Drake, notably the futuristic, syncopated rhythms of the Missy, Timbaland and Aaliyah era. It makes sense that he’s cited R&B as the foundation of his friendship with Drake. In the tradition of R&B, So Far Gone introduces a jilted Drake who reflects on women he’s loved, those who’ve dumped him, left him or won’t text him, always with a rap-effected mix of ego and sorrow.
It’s hard to describe “Houstonlantavegas” without using the word “ooze”; Omarion is featured on “Bria’s Interlude” and Trey Songz on the hit “Successful,” which Shebib has referred to as “the most significant turning point” in his and Drake’s sonic direction.
In a November 2011 interview with GQ, Shebib spoke about his and Drake’s initial studio chemistry, which leads to moments like Tank being mentioned on “Best I Ever Had”:
“We’re always surrounding ourselves with music like that. Even on Take Care you’ll see a lot of ‘90s R&B samples, you know? A lot of different artists from the R&B world of the ‘90s—we’re trying to keep that prominent, like the last album with the Aaliyah stuff.”
Drake’s follow-up 2010 album Thank Me Later similarly opens with a clear-cut R&B track, “Fireworks,” featuring Alicia Keys. That year, Drake co-wrote “Un-thinkable (I’m Ready)“ for Keys, a song that gracefully captures the urgency of new love: “I’m suspended in the air/ Won’t you come be in the sky with me?” It made me wonder why Drake didn’t pen more R&B songs.
Jamie Foxx’s dismally tempered “Fall For Your Type” (co-produced by Shebib, Rico Love and Drake) likewise has Drake’s sleepy stamp. It’s too depressing for me to ever listen straight through. Drake admits that R&B comes much easier to him, so much so that he can write those types of records off the top of his head. He told Complex in a January 2010 cover story:
“With R&B, I know my sound. I know I make records to fuck to. The way Jay and Wayne write rap, I write R&B. I don’t write lyrics down on paper. The other day, I was in the studio with Alicia Keys, and I wrote two songs just speaking to her. I wish I could write that way for rap. With my rap songs, there’s so much of me I have to give that I don’t know if I could ever just flow.”
Later that year, Drake cited “Nice and Slow,” Usher’s best sex song (and a sex playlist staple), as a major influence on his career. It’s fitting that he’d draw from its libidinous melodies and sample it in his verse on Chris Brown’s “Deuces” remix. By the time Thank Me Later rolled around, he’d assumed his position as rap’s sensitive man. The lead single, “Find Your Love” is an R&B song start to finish, while the album cut “Unforgettable,” samples Aaliyah’s “At Your Best” sample of an Isley Brothers sample, and hinted at Drake’s odd infatuation with Aaliyah. But this album, in retrospect, feels like a lot of fumbling trying to authentically merge his two halves.
This was also around the time that Drake was professing his love for Sade, the goddess of mood music. You can tell in his music that he and Shebib have tried to capture the soothing minimalist jazz that’s so effortless in her classics like “Your Love Is King” and “Smooth Operator.”
This interview uploaded to YouTube in 2010 shows him fawning over Sade and the idea of a potential collaboration. “I’m very influenced by her,” he says.” She does something that I do, which is she doesn’t do too much with harmonies and she keeps her vocals very clean and it’s sort of haunting melodies.” That approach has led to some of his most brooding work.
Every time a new Drake project drops, at least one friend tells me: “I wish he would rap more.” With Take Care in 2011, he wanted to use R&B less as a crutch and yet it’s not completely absent. Stevie Wonder contributes a magical harmonica solo on “Doing It Wrong,” and there’s a healthy amount of sharply spun R&B/soul samples: Playa’s “If U Scared, Say U Scared” for “Look What You’ve Done”; SWV’s “Anything” for “Shot For Me”; Gil Scott-Heron’s “I’ll Take Care of You” on “Take Care” (with Rihanna).
My favorite is the reimagining of Jon B’s slow-rolling 2001 record “Calling on You” for “Cameras.” The vocals on Drake’s version are sped up a notch and newly accessorized with verses about a woman putting up fronts. Rhythmically and mood wise, Take Care is the Drake album I connect with most—”Over My Dead Body,” “Underground Kings,” “Marvin’s Room”; it feels comforting, like a final exhale before the bitterness of 2013's Nothing Was the Same.
New York Times critic Jon Caramanica cites the exact dawn of the “Tough Drake Era” as January 6, 2012, when Drake appeared in the “Stay Schemin’” video.
Tough as it is, Nothing Was the Same houses one of Drake’s starkest sentimental songs, “Too Much,” with gorgeous vocals delivered not by Drake, but by Sampha. (Sidebar: I also can’t say enough about Drake’s booty call anthem, “Come Thru,” a song for which you can text the YouTube link to a special person and see what unfolds.)
The R&B influence on NWTS is sparing—Curtis Mayfield and Whitney Houston are sampled on the opener “Tuscan Leather.” Drake quickly fixed that by releasing “How Bout Now,” which flips Jodeci’s “My Heart Belongs to U.” For another loosie, “Draft Day,” Drake added a thump and motivational verses around a loop of Lauryn Hill’s “Doo Wop (That Thing)“ chorus and jokes, “That boy’s singing on every song when he know he can spit.”
These non album gems are some of his best, rawest moments, and all acknowledgements that his R&B taste is vast. Note how he revives part of Destiny’s Child’s “Say My Name” on “Girls Love Beyoncé” and that he has a duet with J. Cole that’s just titled “Jodeci.”
The most controversial chapter of Drake’s R&B history is the one involving Aaliyah, leading up to the release of If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late. Shebib went into depth about the failures of that ill-conceived Aaliyah project during an interview with VIBE in January 2014. The only thing important to acknowledge is what came out of it: the bland “Enough Said,” a union of Drake verses and posthumous Aaliyah vocals that sounds like a throwaway of a throwaway from a So Far Gone session.
Shebib produced less than a handful of tracks on If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late, the majority of which features production from Boi-1da and others, the type of beats that drop and ignore the purpose of headphones. It’s great, but it’s allegedly a mixtape, so it doesn’t wholly represent Drake’s trajectory. It’s merely a fill-in until he hits us with more comprehensive work, where he’ll surely retreat to a more soulful safe place.
Image via Getty