Aubrey Graham was merely a talented rookie just four years ago in 2010. With a critically acclaimed mixtape in So Far Gone, several crossover hits, and a blend of palatable, R&B-infused rap delivered through a distinct voice, the man otherwise known as Drake had a bright future and a promising career ahead of him. It was a time of transition for the Canadian, filled with the shutters of cameras and the bright lights of sold out shows.
2010 also served as a transitional period for my own life, though far less glamorous than that of Drake’s. A move to a new home (“Hold On, We’re Going Home” would have been appreciated at that time) and the tumultuous duration of my first year in high school had me looking for some stability, which I found through music. No matter what I was doing that year, exempting classes, I would try and keep songs playing. Rhymes rarely didn’t flood my ears.
However, in the first year of a new decade my iPod contained rap music largely hailing from an earlier era, the “Golden Era”, which directly clashed with the aesthetics and subject matter of Graham. Consequently, I would typically look at his music through the lens of a ’90s-obsessed backpacker, applying common arguments against Drake that I now consider ignorant: he made music for girls, he was a complete sissy, and he sang (the horror!).
In June of that year, the debut album Thank Me Later released to strong sales and decent critical reception. I slowly adopted an increasingly positive stance on Drake’s music thanks to the persistent efforts of a good friend, who seemed to never stop in his attempts to convince me that “Drizzy” was worth the same respect that I gave Nas, Jay and Outkast. At the very least, he’d tell me, Drake would be worthy of similar praise soon enough.
It was in the summer of 2011, when the OVO team started rolling out their buildup for Drake’s sophomore album Take Care, that I began to accept my friend’s one-time ambitious statement as a prediction that might come true. Between the production and the lyrical insinuations, “Dreams Money Can Buy” filled me with anticipation. The guy sounded like he was gunning for Jay Z. At that moment, it was crazy, but not as preposterous as it might have seemed a year earlier. Promotional releases that followed, including “Club Paradise” and the street-turned-radio single “Marvin’s Room”, had me feeling incredulous: I absolutely loved nearly every song that the whining, singing artist had put out. My outlook morphed from calling Drake “the problem with hip-hop” to feverishly awaiting his next project, and that transformation occurred in the same time span that Drake’s potential to challenge Jay, Kanye, and others for the Throne truly became evident.
And when Take Care leaked late on a school night in November? Well, I stayed up just to listen to it. From the beginning moments of “Over My Dead Body”, with its dark, somber piano chords and atmospheric production that, thanks to Drake’s producing partner-in-crime 40, pervades the entire work, I knew that Drake and his team crafted a full record that I enjoyed and related to. With all of its romantic sentiments and romantic problems that occur or are recalled, Take Care rapidly became the sonic time capsule for a long relationship that had just begun to take shape in my life. The album was not just good, but rather important. It was special, and it still is almost two years later. It probably goes without saying that at this point in our history, we as a generation and as a country have an downright warped perception of and appreciation for time compared to those before us. Time itself is a strange concept; just hours after a memorable moment occurs, it feels like it happened months and seconds ago simultaneously. In any case, we sometimes feel removed from the passing of time, important events, and anything else, really. I’m 18 as I write this, and all I can do is consider what I observe and what I read in order to conjure this giant generalization [Disclaimer: I do believe this is widely true, but if you as a reader in the same age bracket feel differently, that’s fantastic. Don’t feel like I’m pigeonholing everybody].
In the world of music specifically, the overwhelming depth of albums, artists, and videos that exist now online makes it nearly impossible to hear everything you want. In economic terms, music is no longer scarce but rather overabundant. It is not uncommon for an album or free project to be labeled “classic” by listeners and critics alike, yet hardly garner listens in a month’s time. Of course there are exceptions, especially on an individual basis. But when a curated body of work by an artist is widely relevant and continues to be consumed by many, it is something more. Whether you like the album or not, Take Care reached this remarkable level, and Drake shared his hopes for repeated longevity with his long-awaited junior effort, Nothing Was The Same, in a recent interview with MTV.
Flashback once more to 2010. A Sprite commercial starring a rapidly burgeoning hip-hop star known for his emotional openness and commercial appeal airs on silver screens across America. The star, Toronto-raised Drake, is depicted as a robotic creature: upon downing the bottle of soda, his entire body dismembers in an orchestral movement paced by the beat of “Forever”, the single featuring members of rap’s echelon in Lil’ Wayne, Kanye, and Eminem. The liquid courses through his insides, which are blatantly inhuman and mechanical. Audio cords and suppressed keyboards replace blood vessels and muscles until, moments later, the often mysterious artist is enclosed once more.
Fast forward to 2013, and this clip still ironically serves as the most literal glimpse we have into the inner workings of a man many perceive as soft and warm, pulsing with distinctly human, interpersonally focused elements. These qualities shine bright and clear on Take Care, but Nothing Was The Same holds true to its title in that the tenderness of the former record is
scattered in small doses, rather than assuming an omnipresent role throughout the project’s entirety. The automated, machine-driven aura of Drake’s newest release can be accredited to the precision and cold, calculated aspects seen in many of the individual tracks on this record. The standard edition’s 59-minute running time spreads across 13 songs, resulting in a far more brisk, focused listen in comparison to that of Take Care, which well surpassed the hour benchmark and included four more tracks.
Traces of such mechanized elements do not overpower, but rather lace the record enough to create the presence of a subtle, underlying theme: whether attesting to the machine-like ability of Drake and 40 to create all-encompassing, timeless pieces and radio smashes or hinting at another, tougher side of the artist, these inclusions are deliberate. The alien-like, electronic drowning of Jimmy Smith’s sampled voice in the introductory moments of the album’s closing track, “Pound Cake/Paris Morton Music 2”, the whizzing, rising transition between “Own It” and “Worst Behaviour”, and the interspersed beeps found in “Connect” all exemplify this slight trend. Vocally, the sharply delivered, straight-to-the-point lyrics of “Started from the
Bottom” (whose haunting, calculated piano notes contribute greatly to the icy vibe of Same) and the sparse expletives that fill much of “Worst Behaviour” highlight a conscious effort made by Drake to insert more meaning through fewer words, even if that meaning is largely inferred by the listener.
Aside from a small (and fantastic) handful of exceptions, including the Jhene Aiko-assisted “From Time”, the atmospheric ballads of Take Care are gone. However, this does not mean the introspective side of Drake is a thing of the past. Quite the contrary, as his ever-heightened focus on lyrics and delivery serve up many more magnified observations of relationship-oriented themes that many of us think of, but do not necessarily orate as dead on as he does. In fact, “Too Much” might just be one of the most personal, powerful songs Drake has ever released, detailing his inability to stay in touch with those who matter most in his life. In the midst of this talk about Drake’s tougher overall sound, his emotional soul still remains very much in tact. The Kanye-esque chipmunk samplings layered by 40 provide a whole soul of their own to the album: the triple-flip of Whitney Houston in “Tuscan Leather”, the momentous, silky sampling implemented in “Pound Cake”, and the optimistic, joyful ending of “Furthest Thing” are as sonically pleasing as they are important to the message of the work.
Drake’s raps are brimmed with braggadocio and confidence, but the crooning that popularized the crossover star for many outside and inside the parameters of hip-hop is utilized wisely: “Hold On, We’re Going Home” is a timeless record, for instance, and equally as timeless is the moment in which a calm Drake sandwiches two Jay-Z verses between his own, representing Drake’s circling of the top position. When the younger star outshines the man who played the part of mentor on 2010’s “Light Up”, Jay is usurped, and a new cycle begins as the “boy from Toronto” is crowned king.
Some aspects of this project are different from the music of Drake’s past, while others remain unchanged. It is the balance struck between these two that makes Nothing Was The Same the best album of his career, and an Album of the Year contender. Even more importantly, it will represent the conclusion to a long chapter that saw Drake honor, circle, and then finally sit atop the throne of contemporary rap music.
4 out of 5*
You can buy Nothing Was The Same on Amazon.
*If we did quarter points, this would have been a 4.25.