opinion by DREW MALMUTH
A Jewish kid from an upper-middle class area of a North American city has an awkward phase and then becomes a child actor. The show has a cult following and the kid is relatively famous. After leaving the show the now young man starts a musical career, surrounds himself with talent, and becomes a success. Girls tattoo his name on their forehead. This wouldn’t be a particularly notable story if the subject was a milquetoast pop star that had a famous last name. But Aubrey Graham is, by and large, a rapper, and that makes it more than just another case of “dog bites man.” Rap’s history has been littered with acts that have went from underground notoriety to mainstream success. Yet there are scant few, if any, that did so with a background story as decidedly average as Drake’s. The raw stories of American slums that have anchored so many rap careers were nowhere to be found in Drake’s early work. His songs were boastful, to be sure, but they were also emotionally forthright, intimate, and self-deprecating. Not being confined by the need to flaunt his hood credentials is what made Drake unique and, with a strong push from Noah “40” Shebib and Young Money, it also helped make him one of the most popular rappers in the world.
The preoccupation with being accepted that was apparent on So Far Gone slowly started to dissipate as fame became more tangible. On songs like “Show Me a Good Time” Drake was understandably concerned that he would be deemed inauthentic, and recognizing that added a human element to his rhymes. With Nothing Was the Same Drake is no longer asking to be accepted; he is standing on a rooftop, far above the common folk, screaming “I’ve made it!” He is able to make that statement forcefully, and with near impeccable style, but as it’s recounted in various ways over the course of album it becomes increasingly dull. Nothing Was the Same does a lot of things as well as it could have: the production is constantly excellent, with another collection of snapping, gauzy beats mostly from Noah Shebib and Boi-1da; Drake tackles a variety of personal issues and generally raps and or sings about them without sounding asinine; the album doesn’t shy away from the basement sounds of Take Care, and even expands into some rougher areas. But it doesn’t have the dorkiness, or imperfections, or general characteristics of authenticity that made Drake’s success so notable. He has come into his own as a famous rapper. For better or for worse.
The album opens with a stunner. “Tuscan Leather” lets the two producers that have defined Drake’s sound showcase what makes them so reliable. 40 and Boi-1da have perfected the woozy synth washes and big drum sounds that are now turned to in lieu of the tight horn samples and funk drum kits that used to be the hip-hop tools of choice. It’s not always a welcome production style, but when handled this well – and in light of Drake’s strong R&B influences – it makes for an expansive, engrossing beat. “Tuscan Leather” is structured around a Whitney Houston sample, three ways, as the vocal is flipped differently over the course of an increasingly sinister intro. Drake peppers the beat with some very Drakey one-liners – “Degenerates, but even Ellen love our shit, rich enough that I don’t have to tell ‘em that I’m rich,” “Them strep throat flows, shit to stop all of the talkin,” etc. But he also raps with an intensity that marks a clean break from Take Care, an album that was once meant to be totally devoid of bars. Is No Longer the Same Drake‘s return to backpack rap? No. The rest of the album pits songs that allude to Raekwon up against hazy love ballads (the medium that Drake seems more interested in). Both have something to offer, but neither are particularly unique.
Nothing Was the Same is Drake’s most concerted attempt yet to both associate himself with and stylistically reject underground rap. On Thank Me Later‘s “Over” he cites Dead Prez, saying “One thing bout music when it hits you feel no pain, and I swear I got that shit to make the bitches go insane.” Re-appropriating notable lines is a part of Rap’s strong tradition of homage, but here Drake turns a line from a politically-charged underground rap group into a poppy, mediocre refrain. Similarly, tracks like “Wu Tang Forever” on Nothing Was the Same have their heart in the right place (Wu-Tang forever, indeed) but they embody a style of rap that is completely distinct from what the Staten Island crew represents. “Wu-Tang Forever” samples “It’s Yourz” and turns what was a grimey, celebratory cut into a track that is mainly about Drake permitting some girl to have sex with him. In a similar way, “Pound Cake” uses a chopped up allusion to “C.R.E.A.M.” to offset the dreamy female vocal and reinforce the ever-popular theme of making lots of money. These stabs at underground hip-hop authenticity aren’t off-putting because the songs themselves are bad (both beats are heavy and undulating, filled with plenty of sub-bass) but rather because it’s grating for Drake to try to have it both ways. He can have the warped, progressive rap of “Started From the Bottom.” That’s where he belongs (and thrives). Leave Wu-Tang out of it.
Where Drake sounds more at home is on the tracks that are focused on his emotional tribulations, a subject that he happily, and often interestingly, discusses at length. On “From Time” he takes advantage of the crisp piano line and stark R&B aesthetic, telling a well-crafted story about his relationship with his parents. The personal details and specific pieces of imagery are welcome in a album that can veer into the overly abstract. “Connect,” a Hudson Mohawke beat, has the overall feeling of a drunken, rainy night, one of those where you know where you want to be but you never seem to be able to get there. Drake’s gruff singing voice is a crucial part of the gloominess that pervades these tracks, but, near the end of the album, it’s nice to have his guests add some new sounds to the palate. On “Too Much,” in particular, Sampha’s voice pops like a piercing set of eyes, acting as an ideal framing for the bass heavy production and Drake’s take on his shifting family relationships. These slow-moving head-snappers have become Graham’s most successful template, and there is definitely more to explore within that sonic niche.
Nothing Was the Same ends with “All Me,” a supposed encapsulation of Drake and his philosophy of self-reliance. He first hands the mic to 2 Chainz, who notes that his “dick so hard it make the metal detector go off.” This line, as completely ridiculous as it is, is downright admirable in comparison to Drake repeating, over and over, “came up, that’s all me; stayed true, that’s all me; no help, that’s all me; that’s all me, for real.” Does Drake really think that he has become successful solely on his own merit? Maybe it’s part of the more macho persona he adopted for this album. In any case, it’s a far cry from the guy that at one point made insecurity and sincerity a centerpiece of his writing. Nothing Was the Same is filled with beats that are a joy to listen to and Drake often has worthwhile things to contribute. But, more and more, his confidence is getting the best of him. Sure, he sounds like a star. But I’d rather he sound a like a person. [B]