Arriving on Tuesday, Drake’s third album “Nothing Was the Same” represents the final entry in this summer’s trifecta of hugely hyped new releases from hip-hop’s biggest names, following Kanye West’s “Yeezus” and Jay Z’s “Magna Carta Holy Grail.” Drake’s alternately striking and frustrating contribution will likely fall somewhere between those two in terms of critical regard and commercial longevity — besting the former in terms of the latter and the latter in terms of the former — yet the fact that he’s now considered peer to such company is remarkable in itself.
It was a mere four years ago that Drake’s cameo appearance on Jay Z’s “The Blueprint 3” seemed like a wildly premature big-league call-up for a rapper still best known as Jimmy on “Degrassi: The Next Generation.” Now, when Gray Hova appears with a bafflingly half-assed guest verse on “NWTS” album closer “Pound Cake/Paris Morton Music 2,” it’s hardly even surprising to see Drake run lyrical rings around him.
Though that song contains the record’s only real lyrical battle, quite a bit of “NWTS” seems designed to convert some of hip-hop’s more traditionalist holdouts to Drake’s brand of moody, introverted emo-rap. Lead-off single “Started from the Bottom,” which boasts a sort of New Age rendition of Raekwon’s “Ice Cream” beat, sees Drake craft a rags-to-riches origin story with a lyrical cadence borrowed, then relaxed and smartened up, from his frequent trackmate Rick Ross. “Worst Behaviour” quotes the opening lines of Ma$e’s “Mo Money Mo Problems” verse almost word-for-word. And while the title “Wu-Tang Forever” might first appear to be a bit of rap-blogger trolling coming from a sweater-clad Canadian often derided for his softness, the song is actually a rather thoughtful rumination on growing up obsessed by gangsta braggadocio while living at a safe remove from the mean streets of Compton, Bed-Stuy or Shaolin.
Yet “NWTS” is still very much a Drake record, and it will likely still irritate his old detractors for all the old reasons. Largely produced by longtime collaborators Noah “40” Shebib and Boi-1da, the album is awash in the sort of downtempo musical meditations that Drake has made his signature. But even this crew’s older experiments like “Marvin’s Room” don’t hold a candle to the sonic depth on display here, with nearly every hook encased in a subaqueous sheen, an ocean’s-worth of barely perceptible melodies and samples lingering murkily beneath the record’s glossy surfaces.
The danger in this approach is that the album’s weaker songs can’t rely on sheer bombast to carry them through, and much of the record’s middle third meanders around sleepily. A rap track needn’t have a singalong hook or an easily digestible beat to be memorable – underground acts like Shabazz Palaces and Gonjasufi have pushed hip-hop far further into impressionistic abstraction without sacrificing their music’s immediacy – but without some sort of unifying theme or structure, however esoteric or skeletal, too many of these beats collapse in a waterlogged muddle, with Drake struggling to find a rhythmic foothold.
As for the album’s lyrics, Drake’s strengths and weaknesses have never been more starkly defined. “I make mistakes, I’ll be the second to admit it,” he raps on album opener “Tuscan Leather,” and the line sums up his approach: He’s consistently clever yet rarely funny, pathologically self-lacerating yet obsessed with getting in an accusatory last word.
Piano-driven ballad “From Time,” for example, spends an entire stanza narrating a bittersweet reconciliation between Drake and his estranged father, before moving onto a typically incisive dissection of a toxic relationship — “You don’t even know what you want from love anymore/I search for something I’m missing then disappear when I’m bored.” But by the second verse, he gets stuck dwelling over petty slights from old flames, particularly “Porsche from Treasures” who had the nerve to doubt his superstar potential: “Then we talked about something we disagreed on/She started telling me I’d never be as big as Trey Songz.” Cue the world’s smallest violin. Later in the song, Drake brags about picking up girls at Hooters and the Beverly Center Macy’s, yet sinks into depression when they fail to emotionally complete him. Drake may tackle more universal themes than many of rap’s earlier superstars, but on moments like these he’s about as relatable as Kool Keith.
Much like Taylor Swift, Drake endures a rather unfair amount of criticism due to his perceived unfitness as a real-life romantic partner, yet he similarly brings much of it on himself by so zealously attempting to conceal his solipsistic score-settling and millennial self-absorption in the cloak of diaristic sensitivity. Even when he digs deep, such as the splenetic family-business expose “Too Much,” Drake is brimming with emotion yet weirdly lacking in empathy, attuned to the pain his actions inflict on others, but only concerned with the effect that pain has on himself.
Drake unquestionably deserves credit for pushing mainstream hip-hop into corners it has long been uncomfortable exploring, yet he’s simply much more fun to listen to when he lightens up. Shrugging off the “808s & Heartbreak”-fixation that limited his past attempts at straightforward singing, “Hold On, We’re Going Home” is a giddily groovy synth-pop confection that could have easily soundtracked an episode of “Miami Vice.” “Furthest Thing” nails the sort of lazy Sunday cruising vibe that Kendrick Lamar perfected on last year’s “Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe.” And it’s hard to dislike any rapper who brags about his tennis skills and bar mitzvah money.
Yet even as he expands his music’s parameters in surprising, satisfying ways, Drake remains his own worst enemy. On the album’s last verse, he raps: “They should move more mirrors in here so I can stare at myself/These are usually just thoughts that I should share with myself.” As usual, he’s only half-right.