Last year, Drake broke his clearly stated “no new friends” policy by buddying up with iLoveMakonnen. When he remixed and featured on the Atlanta rapper’s loopy weeknight party anthem “Tuesday,” he slingshot the song from beloved Internet oddity to marginal mainstream hit. Gracing a DIY producer with a touch of his regal scepter isn’t unusual for the rap superstar; in fact it’s one of the things Drake’s made his reputation on. But where another protege like The Weeknd shares his oversexed yet depressed vibes and Toronto zip code, Makonnen Sheran is a stranger choice. A psychedelic crooner, possibly on mushrooms, is not the most natural night-club wingman? Bringing an exponentially increased number of ears to something as weird as “Tuesday” without altering its basic form might be the most benevolent thing Drake’s done in his mega-famous imperial phase. But it’s easy to see why it might flatter his ego to pal around with Makonnen, the singer is a reflection of a bunch of things Drake continually assures us he is: a hustler, an outsider, an underdog who clawed his way to fame.
Though he may not have become a guy who could sell out subsequent nights at big NYC rooms without Drake’s endorsement (he’ll headline both Bowery Ballroom and Music Hall of Williamsburg later this month), there’s reason to believe Makonnen might have broken out on his own eventually. He’s got tons of material spread throughout the Internet: Bandcamp sketches and YouTube videos, blog posts, weird collaborations, and assorted false starts. When taken in aggregate, it makes him seem more odd and formless a pop figure than he is at his best. Any attempt to turn Makonnen into an outsider artist, some sort of Internet-era Wesley Willis, feels wrongheaded. He may sound loose or unguarded, and often more than a little blurred by whatever pills may be on hand, but he never goes all the way to unhinged. His self-titled, self-released EP from last year is successful because it imposed succinct focus without losing that distinct, spacey tone. Lack of a filter can be thrilling, but lack of an editor is usually tiresome.
Drink More Water 5 is Sheran’s latest mixtape, and the first that could be called “post-fame.” As a return to the rough edges of his pre-Drake stuff, it’s understandably less satisfying. As a rapper, Makonnen’s flow can plod, or become repetitive. The wild spontaneity of his freestyling can either delight, or just make his lyrics feel clunky. You can actually hear the sound of a brain reaching out for any old rhyme two seconds before a mouth must release it. But then, a truly infectious song like “Whip It (Remix)” pops up, and any suspicions that he might be a pure novelty can easily be put aside. With more conventional Atlanta rappers Migos and Rich tha Kid keeping the energy level crisp, Makonnen is left to that giddy, trilling hook. He’s got a deep warble of a singing voice that’s naturally compelling even when delivering near-nonsense. Though his stylistic interests seem too varied for him to settle into any one niche, Makonnen would easily justify his next decade in the rap world just popping up to sing hooks on singles that would be more predictable for his absence. Tender weirdos should always be welcome.