“It’s all good if you don’t get it yet. It’s all good. That’s what we do. We wait for you to catch up.” Drake’s response to his dance album Honestly, Nevermind’s mixed reception could be written off as another Drake-ism – the superstar slighted by negative Twitter reviews, the great experimenter defending his segue into dance music. Or, the artist unwittingly capturing the moment the genre finds itself in.
Drizzy only gave us a few hours before he released his seventh studio LP. Nine months after the legacy-attempting Certified Loverboy where he flexed his rap and R&B muscles, no one expected this. Honestly, Nevermind is categorized under “dance” on Apple Music, and throughout, Drake commits to crooning over lush, clubby beats, leaning fully into the chill-dance-pop-music he briefly slipped into with his 2017 hit “Passionfruit.” From Afrobeats to grime, in the last few years, Drake has managed to consistently affiliate with rising genres that have crossed over globally. For the Canadian superstar to dedicate a whole album to dance music holds weight. Sure, Drake’s version of house is a little too grounded in R&B and pop melodies and his at times lackluster vocals might distract from what he’s actually attempting. Because it’s this easy familiarity that offers audiences who aren’t privy to dance music a way in.
If Honestly, Nevermind was a conversation starter, Beyoncé dropping a surprise house-inspired track four days later, verified what we were already suspecting (and hoping for): house music is on the brink of a pop revival. Where Drake flirts with Afrohouse and late-2000s, early-2010s dance music, Bey’s “Break My Soul” is an unrestrained homage to ’90s house; an attempt legitimized by a feature from New Orleans bounce legend Big Freedia and a sample of “Show Me Love” by Robin S. – the hit song that defined the sound of house music in the early ‘90s. Each in their own way, Drake and Beyoncé seemed to be summoning audiences to get up and leave their worries on the floor of the discotheque. But are the people ready? A brief look at Twitter in the aftermath of the Drake album suggests: Not really.
When Drake and Beyoncé sent fans into a frenzy last week with their house endeavors, my first reactions was, Honestly, what’s the big deal? Dance music has been bubbling up recently – purists will say it never went away, and depending on where you go, that’s also true. This type of experimentation has always been there, hip-hop especially has been teasing a dance music comeback for a while. Producers like KAYTRANADA and Channel Tres have anchored this gradual shift, meanwhile the list of rap artists trying their hands on house-inflected beats has also been growing longer. Santigold, Doechii, M.I.A., GoldLink, Solange, Azealia Banks, IDK, are just a few names that come to mind – IDK’s 2022 album Simple., in my opinion, set the standard on how to make a house project as a rapper. In the UK, many rappers have lent their flows to the country’s dance-tinged garage subgenre – which would have seemed like the more obvious route for Drake to take. Then in Africa, the popularity of South Africa’s Amapiano sound, which borrows heavily from the local house scene, is also signaling a cultural shift towards dance music. Globally, audiences seem primed for a revival, but internet debates by Drake fans – and as the world’s most streamed artist, that means “almost everybody” – bewildered by his latest offering show house music still hasn’t registered in mass consciousness.
A lot of rap fans shared bad reviews and memes on social media in response to Honestly, Nevermind, displeased with what they regarded as a competitive rapper dropping the ball. Many people interpreted this new direction as a move towards the electronic “oontz, oontz” and EDM-affected pop music of the early 2010s – you know, when David Guetta reigned supreme. But that’s not house, that’s not the kind of dance music Drake and Beyoncé are trying to put you onto. House is playful, it’s soulful. Originating in Chicago in the ‘80s with DJ Frankie Knuckles’ experimental sets at the Black gay club The Warehouse, house became a positive and defining soundtrack for Black and queer communities. Hip-hop and house are by no means sonic siblings, but they’re rooted in a similar struggle to speak for their people. While hip-hop’s early rapstars swiftly took the genre into the mainstream, house largely eschewed the charts, choosing instead to thrive on the dancefloors of its chosen communities. In a sense, maybe it’s because house never made the shift from the collective to the individual superstar that it missed out on a major commercial crossover.
Drake attempts to take on this monstrous task before anyone else can, coming out ahead of Beyoncé who’s about to release her own full-length dance album, the fittingly titled Renaissance. Even through the confused and lukewarm responses, Drake struck gold again. Days after its release, Honestly, Nevermind became the biggest dance album in Apple Music history. The numbers by no means speak to its quality; Honestly, Nevermind is absolutely a commercialized, watered-down take on house music. In all this, the question of ownership and culture comes into play. Drake isn’t a stranger to accusations of cultural appropriation for his fleeting musical obsessions. In his 2019 Rap Radar interview, he addressed these saying, “Any time I embark on one of those journeys, I ensure that I am not only paying all due respects verbally. I make a point to give opportunity to people that I respect.”
It’s true, time and time again Drake steps out of his comfort zone, sustaining his experimentations by recruiting genre heavyweights into his orbit. On this album, that’s once again the theme. Iconic South African deep house DJ and producer Black Coffee contributes to three songs. And Baltimore club music icon Carnage (under his house alias Gordo) produced five. The song “Currents” samples a squeaking noise that Jersey Club producers have been using for years. With these major cultural assists, Drake’s banal pop ballads turn into the perfect echo chambers to ease skeptics into house music. Drake’s adaptability and ability to give pop appeal to “new” sounds is perhaps his greatest asset. And when we look back at dance music’s crossover into the charts one day, I’m pretty sure this record will be considered a landmark moment.
When “Passionfruit” dropped on the rapper’s 2017 mixtape More Life – which also brilliantly features production from Black Coffee – it quickly became one of my favorite Drake songs. I’ve combed through every project since searching for that one house-ish vibe, and when those couldn’t be found, I’d scour SoundCloud for dancey remixes. The rapper wasn’t ready to make the jump five years ago, and now he’s decorated a whole album with this sound. So what’s changed?
Thing is, Drake and Beyoncé’s “house music revival” isn’t concerned solely with house as a sound. In a British Vogue interview with Queen B, editor-in-chief Edward Enninful describes Bey’s unreleased album’s “soaring vocals and fierce beats” that transported him “back to the clubs of his youth” in the late ’80s and ’90s. There seems to be a sense of escapism at the heart of this musical shift, a need to go back. House, perhaps more than any other genre, represents the impulse to get up and dance your worries away. Beyoncé’s no-holds-barred call to “Release ya anger, release ya mind / Release ya job, release the time / Release ya trade, release the stress / Release the love, forget the rest,” is the type of danceable defiance that has long coursed through house music. It’s what made it a refuge for Black, queer, and working-class people in the first place. Two years into a global pandemic that almost squashed club culture, took lives, jobs and security, more than ever, house music feels like a fitting anthem.
For the listeners who are new to this sound, “It’s all good,” welcome. It’s okay to admit that Drake or Beyoncé put you onto dance music. It’s okay to enjoy when things go mainstream. And for the house enthusiasts wrinkling their noses at this assimilation into the mainstream, that’s the beauty of music, it adapts, evolves and grows. House music is originally Black and queer, as as long as that is always put first, there is a strong future for the genre ahead.