In 2015, the distinction between albums and mixtapes has never been blurrier, but that didn’t stop the Internet from trying to parse which category Drake’s surprise If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late fits into. In his liner notes, the rapper referred to this unexpected release as a mixtape, and though its quickie, MS Paint-caliber cover art supported that claim, its $12.99 price tag on iTunes sure seemed to signal a commercial release. Soon the Internet settled on a juicy theory: Drake intended this 17-song project to be a mixtape but instead filed it as an album to complete his obligation to Cash Money Records, the label currently locked in legal battle with his pal Lil Wayne over an alleged fortune in unpaid royalties.
True or not, that believable-enough theory doesn’t reflect well on It’s Too Late, a release that, for all its charms, falls decidedly below the rap star’s usual standards. It’s not like Drake to loosen his grip on quality control like this. Last fall after he shared three stray tracks on SoundCloud and bloggers began writing about them as if they were a formal EP, he corrected them on Twitter. “That wasn’t an EP,” he wrote, “Just three songs that I knew some hackers had.” He’s clearly protective of his discography, yet even more than the odds and ends he periodically shares online, It’s Too Late feels like a fire sale on stray material that he happened to have laying around.
Continuing where the back half of 2013’s talky, mostly guest-free Nothing Was The Same left off, It’s Too Late plays like a Drake audiobook, with the rapper sharing unfiltered musings on accomplishment and self-expectations over drooping beats that have been explicitly instructed not to upstage him. “The Language,” Nothing Was The Same’s prickliest run-on thought, serves as It’s Too Late’s primary model; at least four or five tracks offer variations on the same touchy tone and tempo. The sheer sameness of it all suggests these songs weren’t meant to be lumped all together like this, but perhaps the best evidence that It’s Too Late is something less than a full effort is the absence of even one slam-dunk single. Given the ease with which Drake has churned out monster hits over the last five years, it’s not unreasonable to assume he’s sitting on some knockout material for his next album.
So It’s Too Late is a stopgap release. But even if it skimps on the big moments that decorated Drake’s last two full-lengths—the buttery choruses, once-in-a-generation anthems, and inventive forays into house music—it has plenty of worthwhile small ones. The springy, minimalist beat of “No Tellin’” sends Drake’s voice bouncing around at all kinds of wild angles, while “Jungle” melts into a smooth-thump, ’90s R&B throwback. And as always, it’s fascinating hearing this guy try to make some sense out of his unusual life. “I got bitches asking me about the code for the Wi-Fi / So they can talk about they timeline / To show me pictures of they friends / Just to tell me they ain’t really friends,” he vents on “Energy.” Just marvel at the sheer layers of contempt in those bars, not just for superficiality, but for technology, disloyalty, empty sex, and his implied underlying failure to avoid repeating the same disappointing scenario again and again. His raps are as information-rich as ever, and that’s what makes It’s Too Late feel necessary, even when the material is second-rate. Drake may not have an hour’s worth of great songs here, but he does have an hour’s worth of thoughts he needs to get off his chest.