Sometime in April, amid intense expectations and hype and hope, rap's reigning throne-sitter, Drake, will release his fourth studio album, Views From the 6.
We know little about it — one can only speculate as to whether recently released songs "Summer Sixteen" and "Hotline Bling" will be on the track list — except that by any standard, this is one of the most anticipated musical events of the year.
When Views finally drops — Drake's last studio album, Nothing Was the Same, was released two-and-a-half years ago and Views was first announced in the summer of 2014 — it will follow a string of major wins for the hip-hop artist.
This year, Drake has held court as the unofficial host of the NBA's All-Star Weekend, received a key to the city from Toronto Mayor John Tory and climbed the charts with Rihanna on their song "Work," a collaboration that spawned two eye-popping music videos, one shot inside Toronto institution The Real Jerk, the Gerrard Street purveyor of Caribbean food.
So far, 2016 is Drake's year. Then again, so were the last six.
What does it mean for an "album" to come out in an industry where, we're told over and over again, albums don't matter anymore? In a time when one-off singles can catch fire without being attached to a project (Drake's "0 to 100/The Catch Up" and "Back to Back")? An era in which an artist can release a mixtape on iTunes a year before his album drops — 2015's If You're Reading This It's Too Late — and few people can define the difference between the two art forms?
To Drake, it means a lot. And if Drake, the biggest hip-hop star in the world — the person whom Kanye West concedes is the most popular man in the genre — thinks it matters, then it matters.
Drake has said that IYRTITL felt unfinished, that he cut corners. It was a between-albums project meant to keep his fans and himself satisfied. But that didn't stop it from being nominated for two Grammys (Best Rap Song, Best Rap Album); shortlisted for the Polaris Music Prize; or nominated for Rap Recording of the Year at the Junos. It also wasn't any less ubiquitous or influential — "running through the 6," from standout track "Know Yourself," has become standard slang for having any kind of fun at all in Ontario's capital.
Still, we get what Drake meant when he said "unfinished." Missing from IYRTITL was the cinematic arc — the beginning, middle and end that was present on NWTS — as well as obvious singles and some creative risk-taking, such as inserting a full-on pop song like "Hold On, We're Going Home" into the mix.
But if anyone thought that IYRTITL was a harbinger of Drake's "new direction," they thought again when he unleashed "Hotline Bling" last summer.
Though fame has allowed Drake to play further and further outside of traditional hip-hop boundaries — and the cha-cha vacation vibes of "Hotline Bling" are pretty darn far — the tune itself is in line with the Drake who released his first mixtapes on Valentine's Day; the Drake whose first commercial project was dotted with fluttering red hearts; the Drake who isn't afraid of being called "corny"; the Drake who actually, sort of, runs with that characterization.
In fact, the "Hotline Bling" lyrics are classic Drake: simultaneously maturely self-aware yet lackadaisically regressive. Drake is at once jealous of a former girlfriend, while his sense of his effect on her life is comically overblown.
Certainly "Hotline Bling"'s anxious, possessive, judgy Drake doesn't jibe with the fierce powerhouses he's been romantically linked to in real life: imagine Drake scolding Rihanna for "wearing less and going out more," or Serena Williams for not being a "good girl" anymore, or thinking he "taught" either of them anything.
So was "Hotline Bling" something to get out of Drake's system before the real deal? Or is this what Four Pins' Ernest Baker meant when, in an April 2015 article, he said Drake was going to get "weird" on his next album?
Baker, having spent time with Drake at his Los Angeles home, alluded that the 6 God's days of delivering insta-hits were over.
But back in February of this year, Drake's musical right hand, producer Noah '40' Shebib, told The New York Times that Views would be "what everybody expects and wants from Drake and from us."
So which one is it?
What we expect from Drake is highly emotional yet unattached, outwardly self-assured and inwardly insecure. We expect heartfelt sing-alongs alongside savage verses that remind us — if we ever forget — that Drake is a talented rapper, if an unconventional one.
We expect a slew of catchphrases to add to our already-crowded Drake-abulary. Because although Drake wasn't the first rapper to rep Toronto, or even the first one to popularize a cool nickname for our city (that was Scarborough's Kardinal Offishall mainstreaming "T-Dot" back in 2000), he's certainly the first international superstar to do so. And one of Drake's biggest impacts — one that transcends rap music and popular music and music altogether — is his unprecedented effect on the way we communicate. Drake-isms like "started from the bottom," "no new friends," "thank me later," "0-100," "I'm on one," "HYFR," "runnin' through the 6," and "worst behaviour" have seeped into our vernacular so insidiously that sometimes we don't even know we're quoting something from the radio.
We expect collaborations with small names and big stars: Drake's consistently featured local talent as writers and producers on his albums — Toronto duo Majid Jordan, Brampton producer Wondagurl and Mississauga R&B singer PartyNextDoor — alongside superstars like Rihanna and Beyoncé (the latter's rumoured to have a song on Views).
With Views — the first album named for his city — we expect more Toronto love from Drake, who's been a loud and proud champion from the jump, hyping his city and putting it on the hip-hop map in a very legitimate way. Drake is Torontonian first, Canadian second. And though he's known for living for a time in Forest Hill, he identifies with his friends from the massive, multicultural suburbs — peppering his songs with references to these neighbourhoods that insiders understand and the rest of us figure out in music reviews and on Rap Genius.
But it's not that Drake made the GTA cool. It's that he came along when a young, diverse city, whose creative classes are increasingly men and women from Brampton, Mississauga and Scarborough, were ready to cast aside traditional ideas of what being a Canadian musician means and embrace a new kind of civic pride.
Drake might be an outsider of sorts: he's talked about struggling to fit in with various Toronto communities, and Drake's specific path to success (Degrassi to Cash Money) might be anomalous. But Drake is a product of this city, nevertheless. Like his previous efforts, we expect Views From the 6 to say what the GTA has known for years, but hasn't had Drake's massive platform to say: that Toronto is cool, cutting-edge and culturally relevant.
Drake didn't make that happen. He is the proof of it.