It’s Drake’s world, and we just live in it. At least as far as music buyers under age 30 are concerned, the Canadian rapper has conquered the market in a way that puts him on a par with performers like Adele and Beyoncé, who create pop music for the masses. “More Life,” his new album, is presented as a “playlist” and not as an official album. For now it is available for listening only via streaming, not in hard copies. But that doesn’t matter much. Released just a few weeks ago, it is racking up a huge number of listens online, and a huge amount of radio play. And it’s easy to see why. No other artist has nailed the current pop sensibility so perfectly. With “More Life,” Drake takes another carefully calculated move toward the mainstream, while loosening his ties with hip-hop. And with the format of this album, Drake places himself less in the center than is the norm. It features a long and impressive list of guest artists; he uses them in part to promote less popular styles of music that excite him, like British grime, South African pop and Jamaican dance hall.
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Like the rapper Future, Drake understands the need to regularly provide new material for an audience eager to hear more from him, and he has been putting out albums and collections at a breakneck pace. The latest album seemed to come out of nowhere, announced just one day before it debuted. One of its high points is a collaboration with another (slightly battered) superstar – Kanye West. In “Glow,” the pair have come out with an instant radio hit, based on a well-chosen sample from Earth, Wind & Fire.
Another artist working out of the mainstream while constantly shifting the boundaries is Frank Ocean. Last year he put out a successful album after a relatively long silence. This month, after a short break, he’s back with a new single, “Chanel.” The most interesting thing about it are the lyrics, in particular the opening line: “My guy pretty like a girl.”
Several years ago, Ocean, who like others of his generation regularly blurs the distinctions between R&B and rap, was the first artist of this genre to come out as gay. But until now his songs contained very few references, and vague ones at that, to his sexuality. The relatively straightforward statement this time – sounding like the perfect complement to the surprising success of the Oscar-winning film “Moonlight,” which deals with similar themes – is still a commercial risk, especially for music directed at a black audience.
Intriguingly, Ocean chooses to paraphrase two all-time Motown classics: “My Guy” by Mary Wells and “My Girl” by The Temptations. Both were written by Smokey Robinson in the early 1960s and both are still considered iconic songs of straight romance. Ocean’s move here, carried off with the usual casualness with which he conveys a still somewhat controversial message, is just as bold as certain groundbreaking Motown songs of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, like “Love Child” by The Supremes (about out-of-wedlock pregnancy) and “Papa Was a Rolling Stone” by The Temptations (about the breakdown of black families).