Drake’s ‘If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late’: When Contractual Obligation Albums Go Right

Drake releases have long been treated as events, but since the December 2013 SoundCloud premiere of “Trophies,” we’ve experienced escalation. Further drops followed with little to no warning and impressive frequency, often showcasing a sound and flow noticeably tougher and less overtly commercial than 2013’s Nothing Was the Same or 2011’s Take Care. “Draft Day” had Drake on a boom-bap tip, while ballads like “Days in the East” and “Heat of the Moment” explored space in ways radio songs simply aren’t permitted to. “0 To 100” and the aforementioned “Trophies” packed in so much cocksureness and braggadocio that the beats barely had room to breathe. And while his civic pride for Toronto on these tracks felt a touch excessive, it became increasingly more difficult to judge Drake solely by the sensitive sad-boy standards and tropes his critics — professional and otherwise — had come to rely on.

Released suddenly last night when most of the East Coast would be getting into bed, If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late capitalizes on all of these qualities in one fell swoop. Any debate over whether it’s a mixtape or an album is didactically semantic, trivial and ultimately moot. With a 17-track, 69-minute run time and not a DJ drop in sight, this is what it is, no matter what label you affix to it. The culmination of his post-Nothing Was the Same output, If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late runs the aesthetic gamut of what we’ve come to expect from Drake since “Trophies.” From the shuffling soul of “No Tellin” to the block-rocking “Energy,” Drake builds giant tracks over oft-nuanced productions. Those enamored with his rapper-turned-singer shifts have new favorites in “Jungle” and “Legend.” On “You & the 6,” he presents his contribution to the “Dear Mama” song pool with casual honesty and sincerity. This is Drake In Full, an artist near the peak of his talents delivering his most complete vision.

If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late also serves as a low-key showcase of the October’s Very Own talent pool Drake has taken such pains to assemble, especially in the last 14 months as the Warner Bros. subsidiary has amped up its releases. While longtime studio partners Boi-1da and Noah “40” Shebib are credited on seven and four cuts, respectively, PartyNextDoor produces or features on no fewer than three tracks, including the coveted opening slot, “Legend.” Homegrown beatmaker Wondagurl represents with the de facto single “Used To,” while Austinite Eric Dingus makes a compelling appearance behind the boards for “Now & Forever.” Nothing feels out of place here, Drake’s selectiveness with his producers amounting to curation. He’s built a production roster that encompasses his artistic tastes and that best suit his current songwriting aims.

As much as this release encompasses his creative aims, it also foreshadows the next phase of his professional career. As rap geniuses have already rushed to annotate and speculate bar-by-bar, Drake’s issues with Cash Money Records emerge as the album’s most prevalent theme. Rumors abound that If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late is a formal poetic kiss-off to Birdman (not unlike mentor Lil Wayne), its very release meant to quickly satisfy contractual obligations and terminate their business relationship. And while some bleary-eyed Drake stans barely seem to comprehend that the Cash Money Inc. copyright on their iTunes download — as well as the very existence of an iTunes download — represents the label head’s consent, there are enough references and conspiratorial clues to support this theory. (The Lil Wayne interview snippet at the start of “Star67” seems particularly suspect.) Of course, even if this is the case, If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late might as well be a present to Birdman, gift-wrapped with a pretty bow.

Making very few assumptions, it’s clear that Birdman stands to make some of the easiest money of his entire career here. The surprise digital drop translates to a negligible pre-promotion budget compared to any traditional major label release cycle. Unless a physical version is in the works, the manufacturing costs are also nonexistent. As we saw with the Pavlovian response to Beyoncé’s self-titled overnighter in late 2013, fan excitement translates to numbers and cuts down on the abundance of illegal download options. People will pay just to be part of it, to participate publicly, and above all be FIRST. So Drake can spit as many pointed bars at the boss on “Star67” as he wants; Birdman’s profit share remains the same.

If this marks the end of Drake’s tenure with Cash Money, it’s an extraordinary departure. Record contracts are often designed conservatively, to give labels an out should the artist fall off or get washed. Drake leaving at the height of his popularity with a release as consistent as If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late yields the best possible outcome for all parties. Birdman has the back catalog for however long the contract permits. Drake can seek more favorable terms elsewhere, be that entirely independently or through some desirable partnership. Even if some egos got bruised in the process, everyone essentially gets to save face.

Today, none of that should matter more than the music. If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late has red meat for his rap fans while staying palatable for his pop fans, a balancing act very few ever achieve and even less so at this level. Drake is out here shifting both paradigms and units while most rappers are still struggling with the latter. And they don’t have no awards for that.

Oh wait, they do. They’re called Grammys.