On Monday night, Kanye West joined Drake onstage at OVO Fest and broke the news that they’re working on an album together. If it comes to fruition, it will be Kanye’s second joint album.
Watch the Throne, the collaboration between Kanye West and Jay Z that was released almost five years ago to the day, is about the social costs of fantastic wealth and success for that pair of black American men, and about the demands of social responsibility too. Drake has wrestled openly with the personal costs of success before, and he’s done it incredibly well at times, especially when he makes room for his family, like on “Look What You’ve Done” and “Too Much.” Could working with Kanye force Drake out of his insular comfort zone and make him reflect frankly on new subjects, instead of turning over the same old relationships and dynamics he mined so well on Take Care and Nothing Was the Same?
On The Life of Pablo, Kanye West raps from the embattled place of privacy that is his nuclear family on “Wolves,” and about those with ties to his kin, like Ray J, elsewhere on the album. He can imbue personal moments with more broad-reaching social significance: “I’ma bust the coach’s head open on some Diddy shit/If he ever talk to my son like an idiot.” There are lot of real things happening in those two bars. But he doesn’t need to the personal to get political, as evidence by songs like “Murder to Excellence,” “New Slaves,” “Crack Music,” or even “Hell of a Life.”
Admittedly, Kanye isn’t rapping at a very high level of technical ability on Pablo (his best rapping on a recent album length project can be found on WTT). Perhaps the inherent competition of a collaborative rap album will push him to care about language again. (Right? It seems like, since Yeezus, Kanye has been far more interested in the voice’s sonic potential as opposed to its capacity for meaning and artful turns of phrase.)
What sort of chemistry will Drake, who teeters on the verge of 30, and Kanye, a 39-year-old father of two and partner in one of America’s most influential families, have on a full-length project of their own? WTT is exemplary in many ways but it’s not a chronicle of a fulfilling friendship. The sort of camaraderie you find between Pimp C and Bun B on a UGK record—that’s not what powers the colossal reckoning, introspection, and hope you hear on WTT. But listen to songs featuring both Drake and Lil Wayne, or just songs where Drake raps about Wayne, and you can hear that Drake excels at genuine descriptions of that relationship. Drake seems to value Lil Wayne’s friendship; it’s quietly one of the most moving recurring themes of Drake’s musical career. If Drake and Kanye can find a little bro-big bro dynamic on their album, in which Kanye can light the path for Drake to rap about the world outside of OVO, it could be the fire Drake needs to emerge from whatever chilly, dulling cave fostered VIEWS.
Kanye West, as music journalist Craig Jenkins so perfectly observed, goes plenty of places in his music Drake has yet to explore. Since the beginning of his career, Kanye has made music about his faith, his family, his sex life, his suffering at the hands of narrow-minded racists and racist institutions of power, and his achievements and compromises in the face of those dire obstacles. He’s created characters in his songs to help unpack ideas about crass capitalism and the limits of certain sexual arrangements. He doesn’t always do this in the most thoughtful, lucid manner; he contradicts himself, revises his opinions, flagellates and crowns himself with the same hands. He’s unflinchingly honest and he’s always willing to charge into discomfort. He’s dragged us with him time after time, on wax and on national TV and everywhere in between.
On Sunday night, at OVO Fest, Drake took a little step toward a more expansive worldview by commenting obliquely on senseless political violence across the globe and police brutality in America. The previous dates of the "Summer Sixteen" tour had been in America and he took a moment to say that he’s proud of the people in Toronto, and Canada at large, for loving and looking after one another. He said he wants to see everyone back next year, and he didn’t mean that some might miss out because of Ticketmaster issues. He communicated entirely in subtext. It’s not “In the past if you picture events like a black tie/What the last thing you expect to see? Black guys/What’s the life expectancy for black guys?/The system’s working effectively, that’s why” but it’s something.
If Kanye activates Drake’s capacity for guidance and pushes him to think harder about the bigger, more chaotic picture, it doesn’t mean that it will produce the best music of Drake’s career, nor does it mean that Drake will suddenly become a coherent advocate for social change. And there’s always the possibility that Kanye could let Drake set the tone, possibly resulting in an endless, claustrophobic love life autopsy, like 30 Hours: The Album. But at least “30 Hours” is pitiless in all directions. If Drake were to adopt the outlook of “I just be like, it was my idea to have an open relationship, now a nigga mad, now I'm 'bout to drive 90 miles like Matt Barnes,” that would be new and uncomfortable territory. Which is the best you can hope for with art.