We unraveled the magic behind Drake’s “Nice for What”

Sonically and lyrically, Drake's newest contender for "Song of the Year" is something truly special. We deconstruct why.

April 11, 2018

There can be great poetry in song titles; they are easy to ignore but bear the potential for multitudes. “Nice For What,” Drake’s new retro-spiked hit about the beauty of female empowerment, is an expression of this idea. The title of the song can be read as a concise expression of futility; but look again, and it’s a question with a liberating answer. Accompanied by a star-packed video of powerful women, and featuring a sample of none other than Lauryn Hill, “Nice For What” takes a clear stance. It’s a potent music moment, and a fascinating song.   

Drake is no stranger to sampling the styles of 90s R&B; previous recalls to the era include “Weston Road Flows” (“Mary’s Joint” by Mary J. Blige ), “Unforgettable” (“At Your Best (You Are Love)” by Aaliyah), and “Madonna” (“So Anxious” by Ginuwine). And of course, Drake is not the only mainstream pop artist broadly evoking this era; Bruno Mars just won a boatload of Grammys for it. The choice, stylistically, is an obvious one; the tones and textures of 90s R&B offer an effective juxtaposition to Drake’s sonic aesthetic. Drake songs are sparse, stark, and understated; overcoat choices notwithstanding, he is a minimalist. Several of his biggest mainstream hits (“Hotline Bling,” “Started From the Bottom,” “One Dance”) are exercises in restraint.

Golden-era 90s R&B, on the other hand, is lush and expansive, full-bodied and organic; an abundance of rich vocal harmony floating over a diverse array of instrumentation and rhythm. Arrangements range from smooth and sensual “My Lovin’ (Never Gonna Get It)” to massive and unrestrained (“Free Your Mind”). Drake likes to sample these songs because his songs have room for them; they operate in counterpoint, both sonic and tonal.

It is also important to note exactly who he is sampling; “Nice For What” features a sample from “Ex-Factor” by Lauryn Hill, one of several seminal hits from Hill’s all-timer of a solo album, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. As mentioned in a previous piece about Beyoncé, the choice of sample can be a commentary unto itself. And in sampling Lauryn Hill, Drake is making a statement. Hill has always been fearless and steadfast in her point of view; she is, in many ways, an embodiment of the empowering notion presented in “Nice For What.” Her inclusion in this song is an intentional choice.  

There is, of course, a prominently declared breakdown in “Nice For What”; I like to think that Letitia Wright invokes it all by herself with nothing but a look but that’s just me. The breakdown is worth noting, however, for its messiness; for a fleeting moment, Drake foregoes restraint and lets loose. The track’s earlier New Orleans nods, in the form of Big Freedia’s intro and the Big Tymers’ “Get Your Roll On” reference in Drake’s opening bars, expand into a full-on bounce tribute. Drake’s voice returns alongside a vocal sample of bounce mainstay 5th Ward Weebie and they run into each other with frenetic pace, dizzying and random, speeding along on the souped-up go-kart track featured in the video.

As The Show Boys’ “Drag Rap”, better known as the “Triggaman Beat” in bounce circles, sample revs in, synthesizers swell in stereo as its bright percussive elements are folded into the mix. It’s undeniably messy, and a startling sonic twist, juxtaposed to Hill’s love-fuelled rallying call; it’s also the best part of the song. Drake briefly sandwiches himself between the richness of 90s R&B and the rawness of bounce, a symbol of a woman’s duality parallelled to his own; despite being the most Spotify-ed artist in the world, he remains open to new soundscapes and structures.

The result is a song that is infectious and eminently repeatable; it’ll work just as well as a pick-me-up on your morning commute as it will long after midnight in bars and clubs. It also works as an anthem for women in an industry that demands it. Paired with its pointed message, and punctuated by a stunning, star-studded music video (Issa Rae, Tracee Ellis Ross and Tiffany Haddish) “Nice For What” has the potential to be a phenomenon. Like the movement it honours, it’s here to stay.

The Nerdy Stuff

Implied Key Signature: F Minor/A flat Major. These two keys are considered to be ‘relative’ key signatures; though they have differing primary chords (F minor, A flat major), the two key signatures share the same exact notes, and thus are easily interchangeable.

Drake Style Section: Though he frequently (and creatively) switches between rapping and singing, Drake’s delivery in undeniably tonal; in “Nice For What,” he clearly centers himself around the A flat major scale. In fact, whenever he sings ‘nice for what,’ he is singing first three notes that scale, in order.

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