Saturday 24 March 2018

Music: Drake, master of box-ticking pop

Naval-gazing: Drake's mishmash album sounds like it was made to appeal to as many people as possible
Naval-gazing: Drake's mishmash album sounds like it was made to appeal to as many people as possible
John Meagher

John Meagher

The 'below-the-line' comments on newspaper articles can be places where the sensitive might fear to tread, but there's frequently great wisdom among the pithy posts. And, last week, one such line caught my eye beneath a Guardian article on Drake's stupendously popular single 'One Dance': "It's just a banal mush of nothingness." And you know what? The unnamed respondent was absolutely spot-on.

In terms of its residency at the top of the UK chart - some 14 consecutive weeks, and counting - 'One Dance' is among the most successful singles of all time. It might not pull in the sort of revenue that huge-selling singles used to do, but there's no doubt that it's connected with an awful lot of people. Popularity and artistic greatness haven't always gone hand-in-hand, of course, and that truism is particularly apt when it comes to Toronto-native Aubrey Drake Graham, and his record-breaking song.

The "banal mush of nothingness" line might read like a glib rejoinder, but when you zero in on the song, it's hard to find anything to celebrate, save for its smart, highly polished production. Like so many songs clogging up the charts today, 'One Dance' is the work of committee - a long roll-call of songwriters, engineers and producers.

The liner notes lists 10 writers, including Drake himself, and such a disparate bunch as Paul Jeffreys - aka Nineteen85 - who is a long-term collaborator, English grime DJ Logan Sama, and pop-reggae specialist Errol Reid, who used to be one-half of China Black.

There are four producers credited: Jeffreys again; South African afro-pop maven DJ Maphorisa; in-demand producer Noah '40' Shebib; and Nigerian wunderkind Wizkid, who shares vocals with Drake on 'One Dance'. (The female vocals are from English singer Kyla and sampled from her 2008 hit, 'Do You Mind').

By any reckoning, that's a lot of people with an axe to grind on a three-minute pop tune, and it's surely the primary reason why 'One Dance' sounds wildly incohesive and messy: it's as though every conceivable demographic has been tapped. It's an exercise in box-ticking that yields nothing more than a little bit of this, and that, and the other.

One could almost imagine a boardroom, with Drake at the top of the table, instructing his charges to "add some dance-pop here, a smidgen of hip-hop in this place, and a dollop of old-school R&B elsewhere". Who knows, he may even have exposed early cuts of the song to a focus group. It certainly sounds as though no stone was left unturned in his desire for the track to appeal to as many people as possible.

And, while it's a hollow artistic mishmash, it has managed to appeal to fans on both sides of the Atlantic - Drake has also been virtually unshakeable from the top of the charts in the US.

His cause has certainly been helped by the fact he has been pushed heavily by all of the streaming services. Like those other big-hitters who made their name - and fortune - through the conventional record-company model, songs from Drake's latest album, Views, have been on the 'new', 'featured' and 'recommended' play lists for much of the year.

Streams don't count as much as downloads when it comes to compiling the charts, but when the numbers are in the tens of millions, it all adds up.

With such exposure, he has been virtually impossible to ignore this year, although 'One Dance' probably hasn't connected with 'oldies' in the way those other marathon number ones did: I'm looking at you, Bryan Adams and Wet Wet Wet, and while you'd also be struggling to pinpoint the artistic merits of, respectively, '(Everything I Do) I Do It For You' and 'Love is All Around', at least both were relentlessly catchy, eminently hummable tunes.

In fairness to Drake, his box-ticking pop has yielded catchy fare in the past with his big-selling single from earlier in the year, 'Hotline Bling', likely to have ear-wormed its way into the brains of even avowed haters. But, much like 'One Dance', its got precious little to say for itself and Drake is unlikely to be crowned Canada's poet laureate any time soon.

Pitchfork's review of Views nailed its naval-gazing succinctly when describing the album as "a suffocating echo chamber of self" - a sentiment shared by many of those who persisted with the over-long collection and found both its popularity baffling and Drake's maniacal ego rather difficult to stomach.

Not that the 29-year-old gazillionaire is likely to care what his critics think. To paraphrase James Blunt, who brilliantly put-down a snarky commentator on Twitter recently, Drake can show us - "dollar by dollar" - why the album, and its most popular single, works.

n Drake felt a long way away from proceedings at Longitude's third and final day last Sunday. The Marlay Park, Dublin, festival - now firmly established on the summer music calendar - was bathed in the sort of weather that every Irish festival-goer must dream of in the spring months when the line-ups are first announced.

Christine and the Queens was the pick of the weekend for many and she was in glorious form on the Heineken stage, an all-singing, all-dancing superstar in the making. There was a lovely moment when the Frenchwoman brought Perfume Genius on stage for an exquisite version of 'Jonathan', her album's most delicate track.

Later, on the comparatively intimate Whelan's stage, Perfume Genius himself (plain old Mike Hadreas to the IRS) delivered a beguiling set that demonstrated why he is one of the finest, most underrated US songwriters of his generation.

And, on the main stage, Father John Misty, Jamie xx and the National (with a little help from Lisa Hannigan) helped seal a special day.

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