“I’m hot now, hot now / Lot of rap and R&B n—-s popped off my sound…”
You almost have to admire Tory Lanez’ commitment to the delusion. When the kid delivers the above line not five full minutes into his latest effort, Memories Don’t Die, it’s with a near-Rick Ross level of suspension of disbelief (bless up). The arrogance of Tory, who knows in his heart of hearts that this is unequivocally and objective untrue, says it with such earnest sincerity that you almost — almost — buy it.
Then the ridiculosity of such a statement comes crashing in, and all that credibility is washed away in the tide of one simple fact: Tory sounds — has always sounded — like a slightly watered-down, not-quite-off-brand version of Drake. Diet Drake, if you will. But that’s not a bad thing!
Don’t get me wrong, a more creative, original, distinctive Tory Lanez could only be a good thing, but if he insists on making a Great Value version of someone else’s product, maybe the best thing he could do is make it taste so similar, it’s almost preferable.
With that said, Memories Don’t Die earns a dubious distinction: Despite itself, it’s actually the Drake album we’ve all almost wanted.
One of the primary complaints about Drake — at least since the 2010 release of his debut full-length album Thank Me Later — is that he won’t just rap. On his early, self-released mixtapes, Room For Improvement and Comeback Season, he flashed promise. On So Far Gone he finally delivered on it, finding a balance between smug satisfaction, heartfelt sincerity, and cold insecurity that made him a household name, the most relatable rap star, the guy who would save rap from itself.
Of course, things panned out differently when his fame skyrocketed behind a wealth of teen-girl-friendly, deceptively catchy R&B hooks and outright ballads. Hardcore hip-hop heads were livid at the perceived bait-and-switch, and only ever appeased whenever Drake would release one of his hook-free, straight-spitting-style “time in location” loose tracks. At the receipt of straightforward bangers like “Draft Day” or “Weston Road Flows,” the old refrain comes back around, “If only Drake would make a whole album like this.”
Memories Don’t Die isn’t exactly like this. If anything, Tory follows Drake’s formula almost too well, right down to the mining of cultural genres like dancehall and the ratio of straight rapping songs to reflective R&B tracks (which actually leans way more rap than many of the above-mentioned heads give credit for, but no one ever said reputations were ever all that close to reality).
Tory traces Drake’s flow like an animator carefully redrawing the lines he or she has already laid down, with just enough variation to create the illusion of movement. He sounds like the world’s greatest impressionist, right down to mirroring his Toronto big brother’s various cadences; “Old Friends” is just close enough to “Free Smoke” that it almost feels like Tory listened to More Life and determined that he could do the exact same album — if not better, than just as well.
Likewise, “Hate To Say” sounds just like “Pound Cake,” “Skrt Skrt” sounds like “Madiba Riddim” and “Shooters” sounds like “We Made It.” You get the idea. Everything here builds on Drake’s formula or takes reference from Drake, which is why Tory’s early boast about being duplicated sounds so foolish on second listen (or first). It’s exactly the sort of thing Drake would say (in fact, he has said it, several times), which makes Tory feel a lot like the Kylo Ren to Drake’s Darth Vader. It’s telling that he seems to know exactly what he’s doing, saying in “Happiness X Tell Me”:
Tell me that I bit the style of artists that done been around me
Ain’t influence every artist that done been around me
Tell me that I’m sounding like Drake or Weeknd or Party or any artists from the city ’round me
I don’t know if it’s better or worse that Tory is aware of the Drake comparisons because it means every time he says super Drake-ish things like the steal-your-girl boasts on “Real Thing” with Future (which could be a What A Time throwaway) he’s perfectly cognizant of what it says about himself, and still chooses to walk in longer footsteps than he can comfortably manage. It’s admirable and brave, but it also kind of reminds me of Scrappy Doo.
Of course, Tory is a little grimier and slightly less genteel than the more sophisticated, urbane Drake, so the tough-guy, roadman posturing comes across… not really more believable, but more realistic. When he reminisces about trapping, there’s no contradictory teen soap star past to contradict what he says. His voice is a little more careworn, he sounds a tiny bit more aggressive. They are tiny differences, but they are important in distinguishing Tory from his blueprint; he may hit on all the same story beats, but he does lean into them with his own perspective and attitude.
The execution is a little tighter too. When he raps, he raps flexing at 1,000 bars a minute in one place, gruffly barking off tightly-wound interior rhymes that Drake has little interest in since his earliest material. Tory’s beat selection is more consistent, causing Memories to sound more sonically cohesive than any Drake project other than If You’re Reading This, It’s Too Late. And Tory does away completely with at least one Drake quirk; on the dancehall-dabbling “Skrt Skrt,” Tory shows no trace of Drake’s tendency to adopt a faux-Islander accent, opting for a straight reading that removes at least some of the corniness of Drake’s delivery on tracks like “Blem.”
It really is a shame that Tory doesn’t at least try to do a bit more to differentiate himself though. When he personalizes his material, as he does on “Don’t Die,” where he pulls another Drake trick in dedicating a song to his mom, he peppers enough details about his real life as Daystar Peterson to prove that there is a person and not just a pale imitation of another rapper’s schtick. I’d love to see more of that rapper; sincere, introspective.
If that sounds familiar, maybe it’s because that too is a Drake trait — however, it’s the only one really worth duplicating. While swacking his sound and his flow may result in an of-the-moment sound that can produce hits, if more rappers — including Tory Lanez — aped that aspect of his music, there might be far fewer Drake clones and more unique individuals with varied sounds who stand on their own without having to watch his throne.
In the meantime, Memories Don’t Die provides a great consolation for all those fans who wish Drake would rap more or sound more believable when he tries to rap “hard.” It really does sound like something he’d make; it’s very nearly the album we’ve always wanted from him, just with Tory Lanez’ voice and outlook. I guess whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing all depends on how you feel about Drake.