There's something about iLoveMakonnen's tone and inflection that turns his wobbly singing and hazy, uncomplicated rapping into reliable ways to deliver hooks. He might not have perfect pitch, but his pop instincts are awfully close.
As a rapper who had already built some indie cred before he bowled over Lil Wayne, Drake might see a little bit of himself in iLoveMakonnen. Last year, the rap star caught wind of the Makonnen track "Club Goin' Up On A Tuesday", which had the Internet buzzing thanks to some Miley Cyrus Instagram love. He wasted no time putting out a remix, which provided the perfect context for his inimitably relaxed style. The new "Tuesday" was a legit hit, and iLoveMakonnen signed to Drake's OVO Sound imprint in the fall.
On Makonnen's new mixtape, Drink More Water 5, the connections to his new boss go beyond career arcs. Despite a wobbly relationship to the notes, the Atlanta MC insists on singing at least half of the time over these 11 tracks, as free of AutoTune as he is trepidation. And there's something about that confidence that transcends pitch problems, that reminds me of the way Drake sounds so goddamn relaxed as he lights up a track these days. In fact, Makonnen would have been better off cutting the opening "Drink More Water 5 Freestyle" – where he sounds only vaguely interested in being clever – and singing even more.
"Slow It Down" gives him a circular, synth-marimba yoga-studio loop, and he treats it like an Isley Brothers slow jam, even jumping up an octave for the last verse. The result is not soothing, but it is full of a goofy, manic energy that's far more interesting. "All your friends don't like what I do / But all your friends sell cocaine too," Makonnen squawks, spiking his tale of drug game hypocrisy with an oddly reassuring sense of humor.
After a few listens, choruses like that one kept popping up in my head, and they were welcome. Because there's something about this artist's tone and inflection that turns his suspect singing and hazy, uncomplicated rapping into reliable ways to deliver hooks. He might not have perfect pitch, but his pop instincts are awfully close.
Take the back-half banger "Dodging 12", for instance. "'Cause when we're in the streets / You know we're dodging 12 / Cause me and my friends don't go to jail", goes the refrain. A fairly standard hip hop conceit on paper. But in Makonnen's hands, it's a cracked, triumphant singalong. When he leans into that last word, "jayyyy-iiii-yayyllll", I detect a hint of Ol' Dirty Bastard – as sure a sign of fearless talent as any.
With its numerical lingo and mid-song tonal shift, "Dodging 12" is a distant cousin to Drake's "Know Yourself", a song that commands you to sing "Running through the 6 with my WOES" and feel great about it, despite not knowing what the hell it means (and after Googling it, still being pretty sure it doesn't mean anything). "Know Yourself" is a masterpiece of flow. Drake sings it like he knows it's gonna move you. iLoveMakonnen sounds almost as comfortable on Drink More Water 5, but his goals are more juvenile. He wants to have fun, to sing his balls off, to rap with Migos (who drop pure napalm on a remix of "Whip It"), to use the plunking piano of "Leave U 4 Myself" as an excuse to go full Biz Markie.
So if his fifth tape isn't flawless – why start with that dreadful freestyle, and then follow it up with a song that features the disturbing refrain "I make a bitch go down"? – it certainly leaves us expecting his first proper album to be an end-to-end party. Expectations that I imagine won't rattle him one bit.