“As far as the Drake era, man, we in the golden ages,” Drake proclaimed, lying, on his last album, “Certified Lover Boy,” a behemoth that subsumed everything within its blast radius. A mere 287 days after its arrival, though, few are still actively stumping for it. Critics characterized the album as a creative nadir, indistinct and bloodless and never-ending. And despite its indisputable commercial dominance, assessments of the album’s lasting impact get murkier; even its biggest songs weren’t sticky enough to attain the wedding-reception-ubiquity Drake aspires to. “Lover Boy” still handily bulldozed its competition, which hardly suggests a mandate for change, particularly for a notoriously risk-averse artist. The most likely outcome was staying the course, trusting his formula until his popularity waned enough to justify a pivot.
For this reason, “Honestly, Nevermind,” Drake’s seventh studio album, registers as a corrective, an admission that his conservative creative tendencies were buckling under newfound strain. A mere nine months after “Lover Boy,” its very existence is surprising, and its disposition even more so. These are warm, kinetic dance songs, indebted to pulsing house music and electronica, a pronounced pivot from the traditional hip-hop structure characterizing the vast majority of Drake songs. “Nevermind’s” individual songs hardly represent uncharted territory (parallels to 2017’s “More Life,” particularly its breakout hit “Passionfruit,” will be widespread; the latter instantly became a trending topic the morning of “Nevermind’s” release). But their connective tissue lends the album a foundation unique within Drake’s oeuvre, one that makes the icy sprawl of “Lover Boy” and “Scorpion” feel even more dour in comparison.
The primary differentiation between “Honestly, Nevermind” and most other Drake projects is a sense of joy. “Nevermind” takes well-worn Drake hallmarks — blossoming or dissolving relationships, mostly — and recasts them through the prism of house music. Songs dip in and out of heartbreak and bitterness (“Your mama the sweetest lady, that apple fell far from the tree,” he spits on “Liability,” his words spilling out in a woozy, pitched warble), but catharsis is never too distant. These are structured as club songs, so even when the core sentiments are typical Drake melancholia, they come laced with buoyancy.
“Nevermind” was executive-produced by Noah “40” Shebib, Drake’s manager Oliver El-Khatib, his engineer Noel Cadastre, and South African DJ and producer Black Coffee. Drake and Black Coffee have collaborated before, their styles proving naturally compatible; here, they sharpen their partnership by further prospecting that rhythmic wavelength for new dimensions, such as the cozy synths of “Texts Go Green” and the winking, raunchy bounce of “Currents” (which samples Trillville’s “Some Cut”). Drake maneuvers them dexterously; he arrives as a tourist in these genres, but he glides through evolutions in tempo and tone without breaking a sweat, as when “Tie That Binds” devolves into Santana-flavored guitar work or when “Calling My Name” shape-shifts in its second half.
Lyrically, “Nevermind” isn’t that stark a departure. The expected parade of platitudes is here (“Although there’s distance between us, there’s no place I’d rather be,” he sings on “Flight’s Booked”; “You’re the missing piece I’ve been longing for,” he croons on “Currents”). But such tropes are better suited for dance music, where minor emotional swings are blown up to carry the highest of stakes, than, say, a melodramatic dirge like “Keep the Family Close.” What “Honestly, Nevermind” understands about Drake’s mopey millionaire persona is that it is most palatable with a sense of playfulness. Albums like “Views” often utilized cold, foreboding soundscapes with all the dynamism of a slow-drifting iceberg. Even small gestures at levity go a long way; when he muses about how his “funeral is going to be lit because of how I treated people” on “Massive,” the song’s mood casts it as a wry aside, rather than, well, sociopathic.
“Honestly, Nevermind,” divisive though it will be, fully commits to its mission as a dance record; for maybe the first time, Drake isn’t hedging even a little bit, avoiding cynical concessions that would undermine or disrupt the album’s overarching sound. That isn’t to say, though, that it’s perfectly calibrated. These songs blend together by design, cultivating an ecosystem as cohesive as any Drake release since “If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late,” but an additional measure of balance might have strengthened the album. And some songs, such as “A Keeper,” are ripe for a traditional Drake verse — a point reinforced when 21 Savage, “Nevermind’s” lone guest, swoops in to casually weigh in on Will Smith’s Oscar incident with trademark menace and end the album on a delirious high note.
Plenty of questions arise in the wake of “Honestly, Nevermind”: What is he trying to accomplish? Is this too much of a good thing? What portion is opportunism versus genuine creative growth? Is this a one-off or an indication of future sonic exploration? Never mind — as a standalone Drake album, it’s deeply refreshing, and a dose of vibrant pop likely to reverberate through the remainder of the summer.