The Extremely Nerdy Music Science Behind Why You Love Drake's "Passionfruit"
The 'More Life' standout says more with its chord progression than its groove or its lyrics.
Though its sprawl of sounds and moods makes More Life unlike anything else in Drake's discography, it starts with two well-produced but linear rap workouts. Both "Free Smoke" and "No Long Talk" are hard, but rote. We've heard them before in some form. But the roadman posturing is undone in one of the album's most memorable moments as the bubbliness of "Passionfruit" takes over three tracks in. The song heralds several changes in More Life–from rap to pop, from tough to soft, from old Drake to new Drake–but it feels so sharply divided from what came before not only because it's one of the Boy's most open-hearted pop jams but because its chord progressions make the song unsettled in its very composition. It's that emotional tension through chords that allows it to be the next step from previous instant Drake R&B classics like "Marvins Room" and "Hold On, We're Going Home."
Not that "'Passionfruit' is a hit" is a very controversial opinion. In fact, the greatness of the song is practically consensus if Twitter has anything to say about it. Even "Passionfruit" itself knows it's great; recontextualizing a stray adlib from one of Chicago techno legend Moodymann's sets to give the impression that DJs are already winding this song back in parties. But an infectious groove and Drake's reliable sentimentality aren't all that's happening here to make it so instantly appealing. As always, the chords speak for the song's true emotional core.
"Passionfruit" is in the key of B major, but that chord (the "tonic" or home chord) never shows up. Instead, producer Nana Rogues' chord progression dances around it, creating suspension and never hitting the ground. That constant motion means we don't know what the mood is from the chords alone, but that ambiguity says a lot. It's warm, sensual, and euphoric without veering into treacliness, like any good pop-house track should be. Each of those chords aren't regular major or minor chords either. They feature seventh extensions, common in soul (see: Marvin Gaye's "What's Going On") and less obviously "happy" or "sad" than natural major or minor chords. Namely, the chord progression for "Passionfruit" begins and ends with an E major seventh (the fourth, in the key of B major). Chords of this type feel ultra-relaxed, and are responsible for that summery, poolside cocktail vibe that everyone cites in the specific case of "Passionfruit." This isn't a special move; for one, dance music likes to use these jazz chords for their sense of cool, and two, the use of fourth chords is so common in pop as to be a cliche.
The fourth (a.k.a. the subdominant) is a powerful chord because it's a launching point to any emotional direction. From here, the chord can descend to the song's major tonic or ascend to its minor, and that can communicate a myriad of feelings, more so than beginning on those chords. Think about tracks like "Call Me Maybe," or the immortal example of Katy Perry's "Teenage Dream." They start on the subdominant and, objectively, these songs aren't grounded, they're full of possibilities and places to go for their respective runtimes because they never resolve to their tonic or do so very briefly. That's what makes them a different breed of pop, capable of appealing to many different states of mind at once.
Drake has done this before, too. "Marvins Room" begins on the subdominant of F major, arrives at the dominant of G major to urge for a resolution, then lands on a sad A minor before resolving, blissfully inebriated, on the tonic of C major. It's the perfect drunk-texting saga because those chords tell a story by themselves, from the initial hesitation, to anticipating the reply, to the crush of Drake realizing his lover's really moved on before he ultimately crashes in a bed somewhere. "Hold On We're Going Home" one-ups both these songs by beginning on a second chord or "supertonic" (in this case, B-minor in the song's key of A major), which is an uncommon move in modern pop but a universal trope in the funk and quiet storm R&B of the 70s and 80s. These genres borrowed the use of this chord from jazz and its crucial "2-5-1" progression, which some of the songs from the era end up using. Songs like Barry White's "I'm Gonna Love You Just a Little Bit More Baby" and Evelyn "Champagne" King's "Love Come Down" ride supertonics for at-times extended lengths, creating a more simmering sense of rest that feels more erotically charged than just using a subdominant. The message is clear: these songs are for sex.
"Passionfruit" sounds nothing like "Marvins Room" and only shares a four-on-the-floor beat with "Hold On." But it carries a legacy from those songs in its use of chords to create a fully-formed emotional environment that can be carefree to one listener, wistful to another, and romantic to yet someone else. These chords create tension by not resolving, but that tension is inviting rather than teeth-clenching and off-putting. The rhythm does a lot to pick up the mood, yes, but try isolating those chords if you can and the complex heart of the track is revealed.
"Passionfruit" is an easy highlight from More Life and in Drake's catalogue of experiments and proof that the man's pop senses are solid. He could make an album of 12 "Passionfruit" clones from here and abandon rap entirely if he so wanted to (which he might). Few of us would complain because the chords would do just as much talking about his emotions as he would, maybe more.
Photo by Jake Kivanç.
Phil prefers grapefruit. He's on Twitter.