40/40

“Rap made more musical” is not a bad description of Shebib’s own aesthetic. Take a Drake song like the tired, wistful “Successful,” or the quietly menacing “I’m On One,” which 40 produced for DJ Khaled. The chords lead, not the rhythms, which is unusual for hip-hop. Shebib often favors closely voiced, four-chord loops, which create both a denseness and moodiness, more felt than heard. The synthesizer sounds he uses are built-in software pads that come with Pro Tools, but he manipulates them in peculiar ways: cutting out the higher frequencies so they sound muffled, like a churchly choir on “ooh.” Up until recently, you’d rarely hear a hi-hat sound on a Drake record—also unusual for the genre. Subtle moves like these let Drake’s voice sit almost literally atop the instrumental, but still sound connected to the music. “I let the center of attention be Drake,” Shebib says.

Another trick, which you can hear on Take Care’s “Dreams Money Can Buy,” is the way Shebib uses low-note synths to shake up an otherwise static hook. The song’s roomy vocal refrain, from Jai Paul’s “BTSTU,” is a naïve melody, something you’d see in a rudiments book. Shebib juices it with an ascending bass line, which gives the song its movement. When he incorporates beats from other people, like what happened with Boi-1da’s detuned horn fanfare for “Headlines,” Shebib performs EQ tricks to carve out space for Drake’s voice, beefs up the kick drum, does whatever it takes to make the beat more to Drake’s liking—or in this case to accentuate the indecision in Drake’s lyrics. In “Headlines,” the beat never fully drops.

Other times, Shebib just likes to break the rules. “Marvin’s Room,” in which Drake drunkenly lashes out on exes (and himself too), has massive dollops of sub-bass, which few home systems or iPod headphones can handle. An older Drake number like “Houstatlantavegas” has clashing harmonies all over the place, which Shebib left in “just for the sake of being an asshole.”

It’s uncommon for a producer who’s seen this kind of success to still track and mix every song. But Shebib thinks of himself primarily as an engineer, not a “producer.” There’s a potential arrogance to the term, and institutional confusion, since in hip-hop a producer is synonymous with “beatmaker.” Calling oneself an engineer denotes actual technical know-how, humility and professionalism.

Read more: Noah “40″ Shebib: Best He Ever Had