The mantra “know yourself” has been popping up on recent Drake releases. It shows up at the end of Nothing Was the Same’s melancholic “From Time”. A year later, on “0 to 100”, it became a command: “Know yourself, know your worth, nigga!” It gets its own song on If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late. “Know Yourself” is the clearest thriller; after Drake mutters some backstory about Johnny Bling’s teachings and Kanye West’s influence, the track comes to a sudden halt and morphs into something that sounds like a broken astral transmitter, with the rubbery synth popping up for flourish. Drake, as if renewed from his internal dialogue in the dark, rises with his cocksureness intact: “I was. Running. Through The. Six. With My. WOES!” On one hand, it’s another moment of Drake’s self-actualization that we, the listeners, are invited to. On another, it’s a reminder he’s still at the center of the zeitgeist.
But still, what the hell does “know yourself” mean? Or, more specifically, what does Drake mean when he proclaims, “Know yourself”? It can’t be synonymous with Kendrick Lamar’s interpretation, especially since it plays a part in the 100 percent pro-black “The Blacker the Berry”, released days before If You’re Reading. Drake is more of an actor than a sociopolitical mind. That’s why he’s problematic for many: In a genre where keeping it 100 percent is a must, Drake can convincingly put on many faces. He’ll be the subliminal shooter and fuck up Courtney’s life with his Drake-ness on the same album. But Drake isn’t an anomaly; he’s the center of the zeitgeist. He’s a main attraction in an age where his core demographic can readily put on images thanks to today’s digital luxuries. We willingly do so because we’re all indulgent self-gratification seekers. So is Drake.
If You’re Reading finds him keeping it real in that regard. It isn’t a catalog standout just because of the surrounding oddness: Drake preluded it with Jungle — a short film that, in 10 years, will be referred to as The Accent in the tradition of Michael Jordan bookmarks — and surprised many with its sudden release and shit calligraphy on Thursday night. With the exception of maternal ode “You & the 6”, If You’re Reading arguably stands as his most indulgent, id-focused work. Drake’s trademark sympathy takes a few steps back. Instead, after toasting himself in the mixtape-opening “Legend”, you get Drake throwing vicious amounts of suppressive fire (“Energy”: “I hear fairy tales ‘bout how they gon’ run up on me/ Well run up when you see me then and we gon’ see”), direct snipes (I’m not going to bother quoting “6PM in New York”’s Tyga dis in full; it’s already infamous), and general bouts of pettiness (“10 Bands”: “My ex ask me, ‘Where you movin’?’ I said, ‘On to better things.’” Oof.). If You’re Reading concentrates the anger pocketed within NWTS’ moodiness. The result is more thrilling.
A reason is that while NWTS was bogged down by the constant melancholy, If You’re Reading is more action. Seventeen tracks is a daunting length, and Drake has never really traversed overlong playlists with aplomb; Take Care moved like a greatest hits compilation with some staleness. If You’re Reading does run into quagmires. “6 God” and “Used To” (the latter an improvement over the Sorry 4 the Wait 2 version thanks to a new Drake verse and another subliminal) are still average here. The stretch of songs that run through the latter half — “6 Man” though “Company” — feel too strung out. But it’s fine; what leaves an impression is just how weird of a project this is. The songs turn within themselves, and Drake rarely loses footing on top the shifty floor. This brings forth some of his best material. On “No Tellin’”, Drake is the fulcrum of Boi-1da’s zonked-out nocturne as he stretches yelping mantras to running through free-associative boasts. He bests himself later on “Star67”, malfunctioning on the vitriol aimed at Cash Money and female contacts (“Wouldn’t dap you with the left ho, shut the fuck up”) before moving on to nighttime confessionals — specifically, deciding to try scamming to support his mother. Drake doesn’t need to do all the heavy lifting either; an improved PARTYNEXTDOOR steals the show on “Preach” and “Wednesday Night Interlude”.
Beats switch from industrial percussions to the sparser after-dark effects that have sort of become Drake’s thing. They don’t exist simply to experiment under the reputation-saving protection of a mixtape. If You’re Reading manages to use these shifts for the transformative catharsis NWTS sought. With that sort of progression in mind, it may feel like a step back when typical Drake schmaltz shows up on the penultimate track “Jungle”. It’s Drake acting like Drake: “Fuck what they talkin’ about on your timeline/ That’s cuttin’ all into my time with you.” Still, “Jungle” is not a bad song. Also, it’s just as convincing as most of the tracks before it. Even if it’s an act, Drake resonates; he transfixes his multitudes. That skill is still an omnipresence in If You’re Reading. And about knowing thyself? Drake just released a $13 mixtape. He knows his own dramas, and the zeitgeist isn’t parting ways anytime soon.
Essential Tracks: “Know Yourself”, “Star67”, and “6PM in New York”