Drake has always been hip-hop’s premier jack-of-all-trades. Last time we checked into his heartbreak hotel, he was busy deciding whether he was “a descendent of either Marley or Hendrix.” Now, two years later, he makes a similar attempt to plot his trajectory – this time “somewhere between psychotic and iconic.” Business as usual then, for his rather ironically titled third album.
By now we’re used to his over-emotional, meme-inspired posturing, and tracks like the piano-led ‘From Time’ and ‘Too Much’ show that Drake’s still at his best when he has a tissue at the ready. His after-dark reflections are delivered with clarity and precision, often exposing individuals for better or worse. ‘From Time’s mention of “Courtney from Hooters on Peachtree” is particularly specific, but it belongs to the Kanye West school of lyricism. For both rappers, disclosure is used as an emotive catalyst rather than an exploitative name drop. Make no mistake, Yeezy taught him.
And like Kanye West’s recent album Yeezus, Nothing Was The Same spends much of its time reflecting an angrier, more abrasive image of its creator. Drake’s evolution began as early as 2012, when he delivered a guest verse on Rick Ross’ ‘Stay Schemin’’. Forced into a corner by a growing number of detractors, his response was biting, brutal, but most importantly unexpected. His physical appearance soon followed suit: press appearances revealed angular shoulders, defined biceps and a rougher attitude, while his Instagram became populated with workout shots. Before long he was drinking shots out of his Grammy award.
A handful of well-selected guest verses during 2013 cemented the fact that Drake was out to prove his legitimacy as a rapper as much as a singer, and Nothing Was The Same finds him flexing his flow. With its West Coast trap slouch, ‘Worst Behaviour’ manages to out-do Rick Ross at his own game, while the mammoth intro ‘Tuscan Leather’ is a 7-minute lesson in braggadocio. “I could go an hour on this beat” he boasts, like a man who’s got everything to prove.
Then there’s ‘Started From The Bottom’, the now-infamous coming-up story for the Facebook generation. Drake’s early beginnings as a Degrassi child star are hardly the drug dealing backstories that his peers possess, but there’s a knowingness in his bars that suggests he’s baiting the hip-hop community on purpose. And he makes a good point: disadvantage doesn’t make you ‘real’ by default – ‘the bottom’ is a completely subjective state.
Only through Noah ‘40’ Shebib’s production is he able to get away with such fluctuations in vocal delivery. The right-hand man keeps his palette largely monochromatic – the drums are unhurried, the reverb is thick, and any dramatic flourishes are kept to a minimum. So rigidly enforced is this aesthetic that at least four pre-released tracks are exempt from the track listing (the Destiny’s Child-influenced ‘Girls Love Beyoncé’ is most notably absent). The only crack in the airlock is the 80’s-inspired ‘Hold On, We’re Going Home’, but it remains an anomaly.
On numerous occasions, tracks will descend into abstraction. ‘Own It’ is particularly raw, an interpolation of the preceding track ‘Wu-Tang Forever’, which in turn borrows its hook its namesake (The Wu-Tang Clan’s ‘It’s Yourz’). The two-track suite makes for an intriguing change of pace, but the formless ‘305 To My City’ takes a step too far.
Surprisingly for a major label hip-hop album, Drake keeps guest spots to a premium. He makes a point of letting us know he’s “not even talking to Nicki [Minaj]”, and he’s “just as famous as my mentor [Lil’ Wayne]”, and both artists are noticeably absent from the record. Tension in Young Money/Cash Money Records aside, rising stars Sampha and Jhené Aiko are fine replacements, providing a much-needed soulful foil to his verses. True to recent form however, Jay Z offers an embarrassing set of bars on ‘Pound Cake’. One line is particularly lazy: “Look at my neck, I got a carrot cake” (carrot as in carat, geddit?).
It certainly makes a strong case for those championing Drake as a usurper to the throne – one he himself has fuelled with the album cover, which follows a grand tradition of baby faces in hip-hop. Illmatic this ain’t, but with Nothing Was The Same, the Grammy winner’s surely on his way.