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Was Drake's surprise album a contractual obligation?

Drake at the  2014 ESPYS - Show
Drake at the 2014 ESPYS - Show
Kevin Winter

Drake released a 17-song album without any warning at midnight on Friday. Weirdly, however, the flurry of excitement that normally follows every bass line of a Drake song, seems to be missing.

Put simply, this isn't the Drake album fans have been waiting for.

If You're Reading This It's Too Late isn't the "new Drake album," and yet here it is, uploaded to Spotify with a song featuring Lil Wayne and plenty of mopey Drake lines, such as, "Ex-girl, she the female version of me," from "Energy."

If You're Reading This It's Too Late sounds like a private concert Drake might give to trusted friends, one featuring some songs he's testing out. Everything about it is minimalist, from the sparse production quality to the paucity of featured artists. Historically, Drake's albums have been tightly mixed and full of catchy, brilliant rhythms. This ... sounds nothing like that.

In fact, it sounds like just what it most likely is — a contractual obligation.

Why did Drake make and release this album?

Drake fans were expecting an album titled View from the 6, supposedly in reference to the six boroughs of Drake's hometown, Toronto. Instead, If You're Reading This It's Too Late seems more like a mixtape than a fully produced and mixed album. Drake fans were expecting this project to be released as a free mixtape, meant to tide them over until View from the 6 was finished.

Instead, this project was released on iTunes for $12.99. One major possibility here is that Drake needs to fulfill his contractual obligations with Cash Money Records, with whom he has had much drama in the past.

Artists sign to record labels to help produce, market, and distribute their music. In the pre-internet era, it was virtually impossible to get work to fans without a record label. Someone needed to physically print your music and ship it across the country, and labels were best equipped to do that. Today, the role of labels is a little muddier. They still do some physical distribution, but a lot of their work is online, and they certainly aren't needed in the same way they were in the past.

Drake's label, Young Money, is an inset of the larger Cash Money records, which has been flooded with drama for the past few months. Lil Wayne, Drake's mentor and fellow Cash Money artist, had a very public argument with the label with resulted in a $51 million lawsuit. It was followed quickly by a tweet storm:

Lil Wayne said that he planned to take Drake (and possibly Nicki Minaj) with him when he left Cash Money. With the release of If You're Reading This It's Too Late, Drake may be the first one free from his contract.

If You're Reading This, then, is not only stellar publicity for View from the 6 (whenever that arrives), but also may allow him to switch labels.

On the other hand, Drake has dropped mixtapes before the last two of his big albums. They've just been free. Thus, by charging for this album, he might get the added benefit of fulfilling his contract. If he doesn't want to leave Cash Money, it could allow him to negotiate for a larger, better contract before his next set drops.

drake 2

( Ian Gavan)

Why do artists release albums to finish a contract?

Albums under contractual obligation are incredibly common and can be everything from a terrible, quickly-made album to one of the best albums of an artist's career. Hundreds of artists have released albums under contractual obligation.

One of the most common forms of contractual obligation albums is a "greatest hits" set. That's why artists like Selena Gomez release greatest hits albums after only four albums. Immediately after Gomez dropped For You, her greatest hits compilation, in November 2014, she signed to a new record label.

One famous contractual obligation album is Prince's Chaos and Disorder. He released it back in 1996, when his name was a symbol and he wanted to finish out his contract with Warner Music. The hasty, slapped-together origins show. It's a messy, incoherent album that has none of the spirit or ability Prince is known for.

To be fair, not all contractual obligation albums are bad. REM's album New Adventures in Hi-Fi, also released in 1996 and also released under Warner Music, was thrown together while the band was on the road on tour. The album finished out the contract with Warners, and it was written, created, and sent out into the world very quickly. It didn't matter, though. New Adventures in Hi-Fi ended up being one of the band's best late-period albums and received critical acclaim.

David Bowie's Scary Monsters and Super Creeps was also a contractually obligated album. He was roped into it after trying to count a live album toward his agreement, something his label, RCA, disputed. Bowie ended up creating the seamless Scary Monsters and Super Creeps, which contains one of his all-time best singles, "Ashes to Ashes."

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(David Becker/Getty)

Is If You're Reading This You're Too Late any good?

If You're Reading This You're Too Late is 17 songs long, and not an incredibly well-mixed album. Compared with Drake's most recent single, "0 to 100 (The Catch UP)," this set is sparse. There aren't very many sounds on the album, outside of Drake's voice. And while that might not be what Drake fans are looking for, it allows his rhymes to stand out.

"All I know/ if I die/ I'm a motherfucking legend," Drake sings on the first song of the project. In some ways, the story around this album only burnishes that growing legend. But by becoming consumed with this album's role in his overall career (and in his potential contract woes), it's easy to miss how impressive an artist Drake really is.

There's a full hour of transcendent, dynamic tracks on If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late and they certainly shouldn't be relegated to a lower status just because the album they're on may or may not have been released to meet contractual obligations.

In fact, the sparse production allows the quality of Drake's vocals to stand out. Drake uses his range to his advantage for the first time on this album. There are variations in his pitch, tone, and patterns, as opposed to his first two mixtapes, which showed that he was an excellent at rapping, but needed to develop vocally.

The standout tracks arrive deep in the album. In fact, the final three songs might be the very best here. "You & The 6," a sweet song about Drake's mother, Sandi Graham, who he says in the track gets her news about him through "Google alerts," is wrenching, smart, and vulnerable. Penultimate track "Jungle" is a buttery, melting, seductive track, featuring Drake's swooning voice to its utmost.

We should probably expect another album from Drake this year. Views from the 6 is a title Drake announced months ago, and he probably wouldn't just abandon it at random. If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late had none of the fanfare and gloss we expect out of a Drake album, but that doesn't mean it isn't good — because it most certainly is.

The project is available on Spotify, SoundCloud, and on iTunes for $12.99.You can listen to the whole album here