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Drake Beats Drake: How Rap's Sensitive Giant Smashed Records With 'More Life'

Drake in 2016, just before he released Views, which would go on to be the year's most successful album. NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images hide caption

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NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images

Drake in 2016, just before he released Views, which would go on to be the year's most successful album.

NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images

On March 18, Drake released More Life, 22 songs packaged as what he's calling a playlist and what everyone else (including the streaming svengalis at Apple Music and Spotify) have categorized as an album. Whatever you call it, on Monday, Billboard announced that More Life had arrived at the top of the Billboard 200, which tracks the performance of the world's most popular albums, mostly through fans streaming it on Spotify and Apple Music. And today, the Toronto-born rapper broke his own record for most simultaneous songs on Billboard's Hot 100 singles chart — all 22 songs on More Life plus appearances on two hits by other artists, "Both" by Gucci Mane and "No Frauds" by Nicki Minaj, for a total of 24.

Drake cast a wide net with More Life, both artistically and in his business decisions around it. Between wider distribution, an expanded palette of global sounds and a digital world of instant availability, the weather conditions were perfect... by design.

More Life Wasn't An Exclusive Release

Drake's last album, Views — a "proper" album released in late April — was 2016's most successful album by a very wide margin, as reported at the end of the year by both Nielsen Music, which powers the Billboard charts, and BuzzAngle, an upstart competitor to Nielsen Music. Released as an Apple Music and iTunes Store exclusive (his deal was reportedly not cheap) with Spotify initially only receiving its wide-release singles. Despite this significant limitation on its availability, Views' various songs were streamed 245.1 million times within its first week of release.

More Life, by comparison, was made available widely following its debut on OVO Sound, the radio show hosted biweekly by Drake's manager, Oliver El-Khatib, on Apple's Beats 1 station. Songs from the record were streamed 384.8 million times over the "tracking week," as Billboard refers to it — a 63 percent increase.

Zooming in, within its first day songs from the More Life were streamed, globally, 89.9 million times on Apple Music, a new record. (Also consider that Apple Music has just 20 million subscribers.) More Life also set a record over on Spotify, where songs from the album/playlist generated 61.3 million streams its first day. That is a lot.

(Note: That Spotify, which has far more listeners than Apple Music, claimed nearly 30 million fewer streams than Apple is something NPR has been unable to reconcile. Apple told NPR that Beats 1 streams were not included in its aggregate number, but demurred when pressed for a more detailed explanation. Spotify, asked to clarify whether its 61.3 million streams were U.S.-only, which could explain the discrepancy, also refused to comment. If these numbers are accurate, we're forced to guess that central placement within Apple Music contributed to the disparity in streams.)

Streaming at the Center

More Life's is also a sign of music streaming's maturation.

Around the time Views was released last April, Spotify had 30 million subscribers (and many more free listeners) while Apple Music claimed 13 million subscribers (and zero free listeners). Spotify now has 50 million subscribers and Apple Music 20 million.

That's a 62.5 percent increase in paying subscribers across both services — just about exactly the increase in streams that More Life received over Views. (As well, last year song consumption increased by 27.2 percent, according to BuzzAngle. Overall music consumption increased by 4.9 percent.)

To further illustrate the point: Universal Music Group, Drake's corporate home and the largest record label in the world, made most of its recorded music earnings through streaming last year. Streaming is how the world listens now.

In Search of Widened Appeal

More Life has an almost comically diverse range of influences across its vast 22-song tracklist. The record, contoured smoothly, transitions from house music (via Detroit legend Moodymann and South Africa's Black Coffee) to grime (with two guest spots from Giggs) and Atlanta (Young Thug and Future both make appearances). Drake is in — and practically defines — the one-percent of musical artists worldwide; that kind of visibility leaves few places to draw new fans. Bringing in big names and attendant styles from subcultures he hasn't penetrated is one way to go about it. The tactic drew, along with memes about his Maddona-esque linguistic and stylistic appropriation, accusations of sonic dilettantism, but for every detractor there is almost certainly a genre representative happy to see some shine.

Apple's Imprimatur

Drake's deal with Apple buys the tech giant a few favors, such as an appearance in a self-deprecating ad for Apple Music — an ad that has the double effect of getting Drake's name next to Taylor Swift's in headlines and humanizing one of the world's best-known artists.

As well, it gets you top billing in articles like this from The Verge, wherein your success is the story being told by some of the most powerful people in music. (Unfortunately, that article is rife with confusing assertions, such as crediting Beats 1 with Drake's streaming record despite Beats1 plays not counting towards streams, saying that it replaced SoundCloud for the rapper despite the two properties' vast fundamental differences and letting Apple executive Larry Jackson claim Beats 1 is the largest radio station in the world without providing the numbers to back it up.)

Oh also — a pretty dad-cool jacket.

All Together Now

Taken together, the continuing and growing success of Drake is both anomalous and relatively easy to understand. That he's been so ahead of the curve both artistically (something for everyone) and strategically (getting Apple executives to promote a record available everywhere is a trick you're not likely to see repeated anytime soon) is both an illustration of Aubrey Drake Graham's business savvy and an expression of a new world. Some people can do some of what he accomplishes, but only he can do all of it. When she released 25, Adele saw that keeping her music off streaming would net her one of the most lucrative records in recent memory. Drake and his team recognized the same, just in the inverse.