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Drake and 21 Savage are sore winners on 'Her Loss'

Despite the churlishness, or maybe because of it, Drake sounds, for the first time in a long time, like he's actually enjoying rapping.
Courtesy of the artist
Despite the churlishness, or maybe because of it, Drake sounds, for the first time in a long time, like he's actually enjoying rapping.

In 1966, writer Stan Lee and artist Jack Kirby, the creative team at the center of the golden era of Marvel Comics, created Galactus, a massive alien god who travels the universe in a hulking purple helmet, consuming entire planets in order to keep himself alive. Drake has become rap's own Galactus, subsuming bits of his collaborators' traits — a flow here, a vocal intonation there, maybe an accent or an entire worldview — into his persona. Each Drake collaboration is creative sustenance.

This feasting is an artistic method that casts him as a perpetual student of hip-hop in admiration of rap's trendsetters and legends, even as they become his peers. On 2015's What a Time to be Alive, a joint album with the tormented Atlanta rapper Future, the pair plumbed the depths of loneliness from the inside of opulent strip clubs. Every single time Drake and Miami's faux kingpin Rick Ross link up, they create lush, sumptuous music that sounds like diving into a Scrooge McDuck-style pool of gold coins during a sunset so impossibly beautiful that your eyes can't even register it without Cartier shades.

Up until now, it's been clear that Drake enjoys working with the straight-faced Atlanta rapper 21 Savage — who found success through a meat-and-potatoes combination of canny beat selection and a menacing and thin voice that rarely rises above a flat murmur — just as much as those other guys, but their creative give-and-take has been a bit murkier. Most recently, 21 Savage out-rapped Drake on "Jimmy Cooks," the only straightforward rap track closing out Drake's dance music-focused album, Honestly, Nevermind. It would not be unreasonable to assume that that moment is what prompted Drake to enlist 21's support as he transitions back into his usual realm more antagonistic than ever.

The pair's collaborative album, Her Loss, announced toward the end of the "Jimmy Cooks" video, is a recognizable Drake album that gains some emotional heft from 21's inclusion. It is a fascinating example of what happens when two ideologically similar rappers with very different approaches try to meet each other in the middle. 21 made a name for himself threatening his enemies in an extremely calm voice over impeccable production, while Drake is, by nature, not violently menacing. He is far too maudlin to ever believably threaten anyone. His terror is more emotional: Where 21 Savage practices tried-and-true gun talk for the bulk of the album's runtime, Drake discards virtually all the sensitivity and empathy he's ever displayed for a steady stream of insults and glimpses of his naked interiority. It's ugly, but it mostly works because it's a more targeted, focused version of his whole deal.

After more than a decade of cashing in on his supposed vulnerability, Drake knows he can't be the lovelorn underdog confined to the studio anymore; his rise to megawatt stardom is not just a well-worn story, it's one he's exhausted. Instead, he takes a cue from 21 Savage and becomes everyone's arch nemesis, taking too big to fail to its logical conclusion. The pair trade threats and out-of-pocket disses of virtually everyone they've ever encountered — other celebrities, groupies, friends, enemies, industry losers, total randos — over some of the best beats Drake's rapped on since 2015's If You're Reading This It's Too Late. That production, from OVO stalwarts like Noah "40" Shebib and Boi-1da, along with Tay Keith, Metro Boomin, rapper-turned-beatmaker Lil Yachty and many more, is sumptuous and intricate, full of tiny flourishes and details, hinging on recognizable mid-song beat switches and a pervasive sense of melancholy. It's not really a surprise that Drake feels at home in this sonic landscape, but it is nice to hear 21 Savage both encourage and temper Drake's more base emotional tendencies, acting as a counterpoint and a realist weight to his neurosis.

Their chemistry is apparent on "On BS," when the duo bounce lines off each other: 21 Savage is penitent, calm, and menacing, where Drake is angry, high on pills, and paranoid. But Drake, whose personality tends to dominate on every song he's on, sets the tone, and it's on "P**** and Millions" that he drops his most unintentionally telling lyric: "They say, 'mo money, mo problems; bring on the problems." He is, of course, saying that his problems are worth all the money, but hear it another way: Drake's problems are his money. Chronicling his grievances, no matter how toxic, defines his music. Without his obsessive airing of slights and snubs, Drake wouldn't be Drake.

21 Savage doesn't need Drake to succeed. His discography is already accomplished enough to stand on its own: he is flourishing, creatively and commercially, despite not releasing a solo album since 2018, and it's a safe bet that the average Drake fan is familiar with his work. (All four of their previous collaborations, "Mr. Right Now," "Sneakin," "Knife Talk" and the aforementioned "Jimmy Cooks," are certified platinum Top 10 rap singles.) For him, this seems to be about finding new contours and angles — to use Drake as a subtle foil to push his style into new territories. He sings a bit more, he plays hype man, he plays security. To put it frankly, 21 Savage can make his own hit songs (and has, for himself and others), but making the type of emotionally tortured hit songs that Drake makes on a regular basis without betraying the aesthetic qualities that made him popular in the first place requires the man himself.

Drake has clearly taken this idea to heart. 21 Savage's mere presence is his ticket to unabashedly play the supervillain at every turn. (21, for his part, claims he encouraged Drake to be more unfiltered in his lyrics.) "Broke Boyz" is possibly the most menacing moment on the whole record: a hulking beat lurches and screeches like an air raid siren dying out, while Drake is loose and confident. On "Rich Flex," a song that has already become a meme, Drake is egging 21 Savage on, harnessing malice for his benefit: "21, can you do somethin' for me? / Drop some bars to my p**** ex for me? / Then 21, can you do somethin' for me? / Can you talk to the opps' necks for me?" You can picture Drake standing behind 21, whispering in his ear, lightly shoving him toward an imaginary opponent. Drake, meanwhile, is the bad guy everywhere he goes. He's a bad guy on a private jet. He's a bad guy when he doesn't get what he wants. He has trust issues ... still. He hates clout chasers and feels suspicious of groupies ... still. He revels in each heel turn because why wouldn't he? The more toxically he portrays himself, the more popular he gets — taking cues from destructive collaborative friends like Future and the Weeknd — even when he misreads the room and takes his evil pantomime too far.

Cut to "Circo Loco," a track interpolating Daft Punk's "One More Time" as it hiccups into a stuttering wall of filtered synths — all build and no release. It's a fun albeit trivial song that would have gone relatively undiscussed but for the moment when Drake decided to cast doubt on whether Tory Lanez actually shot Megan Thee Stallion during a 2020 altercation. It's one of those "just asking questions'' moves, played under the guise of wordplay, that tips what is normally performed apathy into harmful trolling. Why even go down this road if not for ugly misogyny? What's the point? Would Drake doubt the veracity of the claim if the roles were reversed? His songs suggest otherwise. The bachelorhood of previous records has escalated to unbridled chauvinism. It is, of course, calculated, because everything Drake does is calculated. On "Hours in Silence" he sings, "It's my fault, for once I take accountability." It reads as honest, but not believable (saying that you take accountability doesn't actually mean you take accountability), which is Drake's entire recipe for success. Self-delusion, even when practiced, is relatable: we've all fooled ourselves about ourselves in order to survive. The fake press run the duo manufactured feels representative of the album's narrative spin.

Despite the churlishness, or maybe because of it, Drake sounds, for the first time in a long time, like he's actually enjoying rapping. You can hear it on standout "Major Distribution," where Drake and 21 trade verses over a tense piano loop and a smattering of ASMR-ready "Hms" from Lil Yachty that punctuate every line. Briefly free from the burden of being Drake, the rapper shuffles through animatedly as he talks about his success in the music industry like he's been dealing a lot of drugs. But for all Drake's enthusiasm and looseness, it's 21 Savage who steals the show: "Ever seen somebody get shot? Lot of shit I've seen before the top / I ain't trying to wrestle like the Rock / F*** the trish, I'd rather sip the Wock / Lot of things I'd do to stay alive / Everything except for call a cop." In detailing his actual struggle, the trauma he's experienced, the lack of trust he has for corrupt authority figures, the fundamental loneliness of having nowhere to turn, he's lending some pathos to his braggadocio. His concerns are often real and serious, not imagined or shallow. As a result, 21 Savage's confidence feels earned. Drake, meanwhile, has flipped back toward the twisted contradiction at his core — this is a guy who will never, ever be happy, no matter his achievements. Here, he's buying Benzes "out of spite," watching people lie to him over the course of exhausting three-hour dinners and feeling the burden his own incredulity.

That sort of emotional dichotomy is why the album ultimately overcomes the resentment emanating from its title — beneath the petty desire to rile up those who've jilted you is an underlying bitterness; an unfillable hole at the center of your being that Drake knows all too well — but it's also why this album feels more like a Drake project that uses 21 Savage as a prop than a true collaborative work. Honesty comes naturally to 21 Savage, but it is something that Drake is still searching for. Even on "Treacherous Twins," a song about friendship and loyalty that sounds like it was recorded driving a convertible across a purple highway made out of cough syrup and nostalgia, 21 is inhabiting Drake's world, and Drake is consuming his, as Galactus always does.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Sam Hockley-Smith
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