2016 has been a big year for Toronto. Singer/rapper Drake’s grip on modern pop, R&B, and rap has been downright oppressive, with several artists associated with his OVO Sound collective having dropped or announced LPs throughout this first half of the year. First, there was the late night swerve of duo Majid Jordan’s self-titled debut, and then came the sensual, mystery-shrouded Sept. 5th album from dvsn. Drizzy himself got into the action by releasing his long-awaited, though meekly received VIEWS, and we’ve also got a split project between OVO/OMO crooner Partynextdoor and Chicago’s Jeremih on the way. On a surface level, the just-released Wake at Dawn from Brampton, ON-bred Roy Woods seems to be the smallest project of the bunch. What’s surprising, though, is that the 10-song debut album may well be the most concise and well-crafted collection to come out of the OVO Sound stable in ages.
Wake at Dawn is the second Drake co-signed project from Woods, following last year’s Exis EP. The rising singer/rapper works well with the extra room, with opener “Sonic Boom” being an open field of synth ambiance and digital drum taps. Like a back-in-the-day Weeknd, Woods spends the early part of the track contemplating the pros and cons of getting faded for the night instead of facing some relationship drama. His clarity comes around 1:45 a.m.
with a compromise: he won’t get fully pilled out, but rather mildly buzzed off a beer, preferably one about as chilled as the heart of the one he’s after (“She ain’t outdoors and her heart just cold as is”). Girl problems abound for the artist throughout the record, whether fast-rapping about “here today, gone tomorrow” scenarios on “You Love It,” or trying to figure out how to lock down with the perfect blunt roller on “Down Girl.”
While last year’s Exis featured a big-time guest spot on “Drama” from benefactor Drake, Wake at Dawn is a fully confident follow-up that finds Woods handling the mic completely solo. That’s not to say that the markings of the OVO sound aren’t all over the release. First single “Gwan Big Up Yourself” is full of the kinds of creek-ripple synth tones and dancehall rhythms that bleed into Drake’s VIEWS hit “One Dance”, or recent Rihanna team-up “Work.” Woods also pleases like his headmaster on the pop front with the shy but sly, will-they-or-won’t-they narrative of “She Knows About Me.”
Tracks like “How I Feel,” meanwhile, arguably gets into dvsn territory with their juxtaposition of melted-melodies and glacially-paced beats, though Woods tends to deliver more compact and digestible pieces than that outfit’s esoteric, eight minute sex jams. Outside of Toronto, the biggest inspiration to Woods seems to be Michael Jackson, this being exemplified in the terse and aggressive, Bad-type vocal tics popped into tracks like “Switch.”
While still quite noticeably within the OVO wheelhouse, Woods has managed to supersede his contemporaries this year with the slimmed-down, streamlined approach of Wake at Dawn. In light of the overblown pomp of Drake’s VIEWS, it’s much easier to see people opting to hit the underdog again and again until the the morning comes.
– review by Gregory Adams