Drake – “Forever” (f. Kanye West, Lil’ Wayne & Eminem)

Forever” was released in August 2009. Combining this much independent firepower on a track tends to result in a feel less like a posse cut than corporate product: the talents are here for their brand and their stature, not because of any organic reason to do a track together. Even adjusting expectations, however, it’s dwarfed by something like “Swagga Like Us,” which has a stronger hook, harder production, and T.I. delivering a verse far better than anything here.

There’s nothing about this track that ages well, and there’s no reason to revisit in on its own merits. Yet in 2011, these happen to be the four rappers who have taken over the radio dial completely. That makes a unique artifact, all the more because you’d never have known when this track dropped how significantly — and in most cases, successfully – the four have altered their approaches since. It’s the rare mediocre track where everyone reached their own dead ends simultaneously, and it has most of the clues you need to make sense of their next two years.

Leading off the track is Drake, who also handles the hook. Drake hadn’t even released a full album when this came out, and as a “Degrassi” alum with an awkward approach, he had his share of credibility problems. Normally, facing the need to prove himself, the upstart takes the approach of showing that they have the skill and charisma to hold their own among the greats. Drake completely opts out of that, instead acting like it’s a given that he’s a peer with the others, and entitled to adopt their smug assurance. At the time it sounded completely unearned, and delivered in an abrasive, half-shouted tone surrounded by an abrasive, insistent beat, the verse is a complete failure, making Drake sound like a poseur cutting to the head of the line.

With some modifications, this same theme — the early onset of weariness about a meteoric rise — would be all over his 2010 debut album, Thank Me Later. Yet it works much better there, as the strained, clipped quality to his delivery settles more comfortably into a lower gear. (Look no further than Drake’s much-mocked hashtag raps, horribly deployed here at 1:00, which he hadn’t yet worked into their more proper role as punchlines in both content and rhythm.) Drake clearly had to remove the visible effort, find production that would let him relax, and carve out his own space, where tracks could meet him on his own terms. Pitchfork’s review spells out best the real success of these adjustments. As a result, improbably circa 2009, today you can pretty much say what a Drake song sounds like, and it’s as far away from “Forever” as you could imagine.

Kanye, by contrast, is a rapper who legitimately had found a way to make his raps work outside of tailored production, yet like Drake the themes and approaches here aren’t far removed from what you see at his later heights. It’s not like much has evolved in Kanye’s approach or content here –  Kanye’s ego, “super-bad chicks” and the heavy crown are at least half the subject matter of 2010’s My Twisted Dark Fantasy. But this lethargic, woe-is-me fame and generally sullen approach never helps the guy sound like someone you want to hear. If Kanye is going to be an asshole, which he is, he needs either the vulnerability of 808s and Heartbreak (fall 2008) or the gleeful misanthropy of his verse on “Kinda Like a Big Deal” (spring 2009).That combination of approaches on My Twisted Dark Fantasy provided just one of the leaps and bounds he made on that album, especially on the tracks where he managed an actual synthesis (“Runaway,” “Blame Game”). “Forever,” in contrast, is a nadir for his approach, a joyless regression that doesn’t at all fit with Kanye’s unique strengths. What you hear here is the Kanye who would rush Taylor Swift on-stage a month after the track released — dickishness unleashed without enjoyment or self-awareness, indefensibly misanthropic.

Far more laid-back than the first two, Wayne lays claim to the most consistent and therefore least interesting verse on the track — a piece of witty, one-off cleverness that’s indistinguishable from what he delivered before then and has brought so far this year. What’s remarkable about that, however, is what has transpired since —  two 2010 albums with mixed-to-poor critical reception, delays to his “real” album, the arriving-sometime Tha Carter 4.0, and, most importantly, eight months spent in jail.Yet the Wayne on this track is also the one back on the radio in 2011. Whether he needed the detours or not, his tinkering and side-projects have left his core appeal mostly intact. His lack of investment in the track, having no need for the song to be an event, makes him sound the most secure on the throne. Which is an odd place for a jester to be, but hey, Wayne’s an odd guy, and it’s nice to know that,whether on this song or in his career, the core appeal can weather any of the crap around him.

All the hunger and investment lacking in Drake’s verse shows up unexpectedly on Eminem’s closer, which when “Forever” dropped was by far the most noteworthy contribution. Coming off of the critical failure and even mild commercial disappointment (by Eminem’s standards) of Relapse, this was the first time he’d been heard on a high-profile track without his preferred collaborators in quite some time. The verse, for all its welcome energy and technical skill on a draining, draining track, was mostly a hybrid between two approaches: his well-established, sociopathic Shady persona, who’d run wild over the first half of Relapse to intrigiuing but diminishing returns, and the Eminem of “Lose Yourself,” all positive affirmation through rapping-about-performing. The Shady parts are fine enough, but come off as obligatory — there’s no actual menace to anything he says here, which really misses the point. But the “Lose Yourself” lines — “Wondering if he should spit this slow / Fuck no, go for broke” — tend to work, at least when sped out by his amped-up delivery. But however functional they are, he’s never going to top “Lose Yourself,” which sounds like such a triumph to this day because of a hunger and vulnerability he’s never going to get back. You get the sense even in 2009 that Eminem understood this, and the verse  pointed a new way forward: his “adult” phase: the self-help rap of Recovery. And given how thoroughly underwhelming that album is for those more invested in the earlier phases of his career, notwithstanding the mainstream audience he recaptured with it, that makes the best verse on the song by far the most dispiriting to listen to today. The energy is still clear, the talent on display is undeniable, but it’s nowhere near as good as it needs to be to make his ensuing, willful decision to become less interesting any less hard to take.

Archeological value aside, this isn’t a good song, but something was in the water when these four came together. Cementing its claim to being a genuine historical curiosity, though, is its inclusion on the soundtrack for the LeBron James documentary More Than A Game. As hard as it is to imagine the four teaming up today for anything sounding as dead and trapped as this, anyone teaming up to salute King James these days is even harder to picture. The NBA playoffs are just starting as I write, but even if LeBron pulls a vulnerable Heat team to the Finals, he’s irrevocably different than he was then. And like the rappers involved, it’s not the talent and charisma that are different, just his approach and his surroundings.

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