By Eric Renner Brown
October 24, 2016 at 07:47 PM EDT
Credit: John Salangsang/Invision/AP

Drake has had a seismic year. His fourth studio album, Views, spent 13 nonconsecutive weeks atop the Billboard 200 albums chart. He hit No. 1 on the Hot 100 as a guest on Rihanna’s “Work,” before achieving his long-coveted first solo No. 1 with “One Dance.” And he traversed North America with Future for the blockbuster Summer Sixteen Tour.

Yet, it appears the perennial Drake question remains intact: Why is the monolithic Canadian rapper, who turned 30 Monday, still sad?

“I’ve been down so long it look like up to me,” Drizzy croons on the hook of “Fake Love,” one of the three new tracks he dropped on Apple’s Beats 1 Sunday night as a preview of his upcoming “playlist” project, More Life, due in December. Produced by regular associates Vinylz (2015’s “Know Yourself”) and Frank Dukes (this year’s “Pop Style” and “4PM in Calabasas”), “Fake Love” is a subdued variant of the dancehall aesthetic Drake has gravitated toward recently, from “One Dance” to “Controlla” to “Too Good.” The understated, inviting cut stands toe-to-toe with the best Views material.

Where “Fake Love” wallows in wistful heartbreak, Drake’s other new cuts, “Sneakin'” and “Two Birds One Stone,” are directly combative, in the flavor of his 2015 mixtape If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late. Drake dips into Atlanta’s trendy hip-hop scene on “Sneakin’,” tapping Gucci Mane acolyte 21 Savage for a verse and buzzy producer London on Da Track (Young Thug’s “Digits”) for a lurching ode to — who else? — his haters. There’s plenty of cringeworthy material here — “She texting purple hearts cause she know we at war” is quintessential corny Drake — but the track also features the vivid, open-book lyricism that has long endeared Drake to fans. “Chain smoking in the house, it’s hard to breathe,” he raps on its second verse. “I used to have to hit my T’s with Febreeze.”

“Two Birds One Stone” has sound mechanics: A distant chipmunk-soul sample, cinematic synths, and a Drizzy megaverse packed with memorable lines. “Spotted everywhere, like Dalmatian,” he quips, and he later remarks that he “used to carry a lot of dead weight, like a pallbearer.” But Drake’s coded attacks on Pusha T and Kid Cudi mar the track. After Pusha T impugned Drake’s authenticity on this month’s “H.G.T.V. Freestyle,” Drake assails Pusha’s established street cred: “You ain’t lining the trunk with kilos / You bagging weed watching Pacino.” His shots at Cudi, who recently checked into rehab for severe depression, are harsher. “You were the man on the moon,” Drake sneers, referencing the Cleveland MC’s revered debut album. “[I’ve] still never been on hiatus / You stay xanned and perked up / So when reality set in, you don’t gotta face it.” Given Cudi’s public struggles with mental health, Drake’s barbs feel unnecessary.

More than any contemporary MC besides West, Drake’s honesty can both thrill and appall. His latest three singles — a woozy swirl of angst, sadness, and bravado when taken as a whole — capture the contrary nature of his work. But with music of this quality, it’s hard to fault Drake for lyrical missteps. After all, the dude just turned 30.

“Fake Love”: A-

“Sneakin'”: B+

“Two Birds One Stone”: B+


Check out “Fake Love” and “Sneakin'” below, and hear “Two Birds One Stone” beginning at 1:35:49 in Sunday night’s episode of OVO Sound Radio.