Beyond the 6: Drake’s global vision

How Drake rode Toronto boosterism, pop’s affection for tropical sounds, and a globalized music industry to the top with his new album, ’Views’
Renato Pagnani
Drake performs during OVO Fest at Molson Canadian Amphitheatre in Toronto, Aug. 3, 2015. (J. ADAM HUGGINS/New York Times/Redux)
The cover of Drake's new album The Views. (Caitlin Cronenberg)
The cover of Drake’s new album The Views. (Caitlin Cronenberg)

Views, Drake’s fourth album and his first since 2013’s Nothing Was the Same, carries a double distinction. Not only is it the first proper album from the Toronto native since he became the biggest rapper on the planet, it also marks the first post-coronation statement after a Canadian rapper has assumed the throne. That he happens to be a mixed-race Jewish-Canadian former child actor who sings as much as he raps only adds to the novelty.

Released after the longest gestation period of any of his albums yet—partly explained by the two projects he released last year, the retail mixtape If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late and What a Time to Be Alive, a collaborative mixtape with Atlanta rapper Future—Views has a lot riding on it. And the much-anticipated album finds Drake digging deeper into his hometown for inspiration.

Each project since Drake’s 2010 major label debut Thank Me Later has felt progressively more indebted to Toronto. The city and how it shaped him became more of a focal point in his lyrics (“My heart is cold, it’s probably ’cause I’m from the snow” he raps on 2015’s “6 Man”). Drawing from a number of hip-hop hotbeds, especially the sweltering haze of Houston rap, Drake’s sound grew into what is now known as the “Toronto sound,” an aqueous and reflective form that prioritizes wide-open spaces and sombre moods, the perfect backdrop for the Millennial angst that Drake has made his name peddling.

“Drake has been aggressive with his civic boosterism throughout his career,” says Jamieson Cox, a writer for The Verge and Pitchfork who has kept an eye on Drake since he first started making music after leaving his role as Jimmy Brooks on Degrassi: The Next Generation. “He’s really worked it into the fabric of his music in a lyrical sense, and now increasingly in a sonic sense too.”

Related: Adrian Lee on why Drake’s Views is both a triumph and a let-down

Views feels like the culmination of his life-long love affair with Toronto, as well as his first serious bid for global domination. Drake’s always had one foot in pop music—his songs that have charted highest, “Best I Ever Had” and “Hold On, We’re Going Home,” are among his catchiest—but now there’s an increased focus on expanding the parameters of his sound, which was beginning to feel stifling. Moving away from the dark, muted sounds he’s been most comfortable with up until now, Views presents some of the brightest music of Drake’s career, working with livelier tempos and more colourful production.

The album sales tell the story: In just one day, Views sold more copies than Beyoncé’s recent album Lemonade, released less than a week before, did in its entire first week. Views is on target to smash Drake’s previous first-week sales, and insiders have speculated it might even move one million units in its first week, an occurrence seen with dwindling frequency these days as music sales continue to shrink, and subscription numbers of streaming services like Spotify and Apple Music continue to increase.

These kind of first-week sales put Drake less in the company of other rappers like Kanye West or Kendrick Lamar—both superstars and eminent figures—than they do a more rarefied group of world-conquering artists such as Adele and Taylor Swift. Incidentally, Adele’s 2015 album 25 was the last album to sell one million copies in its first week.

Drake performs during OVO Fest at Molson Canadian Amphitheatre in Toronto, Aug. 3, 2015. (J. ADAM HUGGINS/New York Times/Redux)
Drake performs during OVO Fest at Molson Canadian Amphitheatre in Toronto, Aug. 3, 2015. (J. ADAM HUGGINS/New York Times/Redux)

In typical Drake fashion, his path toward a more internationally focused pop stardom is found through sounds that have been around him his whole life in Toronto.

Into the aesthetic that Drake and his team of Toronto-based producers have honed over the last half-decade, Views incorporates a palette of sounds with ties to the city’s sizable African diaspora. These sounds—like dancehall and grime, the latter an aggressive and icy style of rap that emerged in the early 2000s in the U.K. underground—weren’t created in Toronto but are nevertheless popular among its immigrant-heavy population; 49 per cent of Torontonians, according to the 2011 census, identifies as a visible minority.

Drake’s interest and sheer enthusiasm for the sounds of other cultures is well documented. His videos on Instagram and Vine have been sprinkled with patois for years. “He’s a world traveller and a keen listener,” says music critic Craig Jenkins, who writes about rap for Billboard and Vice among others. “It was only a matter of time before tones and rhythms he picked up on vacation began to creep into his music.” Not only is this a natural extension of Drake’s curiosity, it’s also the work of a shrewd businessman. “If expanding his reach means incorporating sounds from new markets, he’ll go where he must.”

On his albums this influence has, until recently, largely been relegated to voicemails that bookended songs, serving as interstitial tissue more than sonic inspiration. With Views, these sounds have finally infiltrated his actual music. Last summer’s remix of “Ojuelegba,” a song by Nigerian artist WizKid, and “Hotline Bling,” Drake’s infectious salsa-tinged slice of pop, can be viewed as the stylistic forbears of Views songs like “One Dance,” which wraps a slowed-down sample of a U.K. funky classic around an Afrobeat throb, and “Controlla,” an effervescent dancehall slinker. On “Too Good,” a smouldering duet with former flame Rihanna that feels like a sequel to their recent collaboration (and No. 1 Billboard Hot 100 hit) “Work,” Drake absorbs a tropical lilt into his delivery before a sample of Jamaican artist Popcaan takes the track past the finish line.

Even the songs without explicit island vibes fold in references in other ways: the title and chorus of “Pop Style” is Jamaican slang for showing off in front of one’s haters, and Drake laments “mistakes made pon road” while questioning a paramour’s dedication on “U With Me?”

The venture into island music aligns with pop music’s renewed interest in tropical sounds. Also emerging over the last two years is what has been dubbed “tropical house,” a more relaxed and less aggressive version of big-room electronic dance music (and in the eyes of some, a whitewashed and culturally appropriative form of these tropical sounds), which can be heard on songs like “Where Are Ü Now,” the single by Diplo and Skrillex featuring Justin Bieber, as well as Bieber’s own singles “What Do You Mean?” and “Sorry,” two songs from his 2015 album Purpose.

Of course, some suspicion comes along with this embrace, “as should be the case when a pop star comes sniffing around your culture come album time,” argues Jenkins. “Why wait until 2016 to try your hand at a dancehall tune? Drake only jumps on a wave he sees cresting.”

Toronto Rapper Drake addresses media in a 'Hotline Bling' installation at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto on November 25, 2015, prior to a Toronto Raptors vs. Cleveland Cavaliers NBA game. (Cole Burston/Toronto Star via Getty Images)
Toronto Rapper Drake addresses media in a ‘Hotline Bling’ installation at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto on November 25, 2015, prior to a Toronto Raptors vs. Cleveland Cavaliers NBA game. (Cole Burston/Toronto Star via Getty Images)

This wouldn’t be the first time Drake has dipped into bubbling sounds and incorporated them into his music either. It has always been one of Drake’s greatest skills—his ability to take sounds just below the radar and present a more palatable version for the masses—sometimes allegedly at the expense of artists he borrows from. (Earlier this year, Toronto rapper Mo-G called out Drake in a series of Instagram videos, since deleted, claiming he was unfairly compensated for new flows and hooks he helped Drake with.)

According to Cox, Views is also the product of an increasingly globalized music industry, one in which artists from opposite sides of the world can now easily work together via email and instant messaging, collapsing the distance that used to define and limit collaboration. In other words, both cultural and technological factors “have combined to create a perfect storm in which Drake could reach the kind of success that he has,” Cox thinks. “We’re seeing the impact of this musical globalization within Drake’s own music,” he adds. “I think that’s something he’s very consciously trying to pursue.”

Opportunistic trend-jumping or not, initial results suggest the strategy seems to be working: a few weeks ago, “One Dance” gave Drake his first solo No. 1 in the U.K., and it’s already the fastest-rising single of his career in the U.S., where it’s currently sitting at No. 2, a position Drake has reached twice before.

Perhaps this is why at the 11th hour the album was retitled Views after being initially announced as Views From the 6 in the lead-up to the album’s release. (The 6 is a nickname for Toronto that Drake popularized, referencing the city’s two downtown area codes, 416 and 647, and the historical fact that it was six boroughs that amalgamated in 1998.) The views are still unmistakably of the 6 and the sounds found there, but Drake’s new home will be, he hopes, the wider world.