Album Review: Drake, ‘Nothing Was the Same’

drake_album

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.

Album Review: Drake, 'Nothing Was the Same'

Production

(Republic, Cash Money, OVO Sound) Producers: Noah “40” Shebib, Boi-1da, Majid Jordan, Jake One, Mike Zombie, Chilly Gonzales, DJ Dahl, Hudson Mohawke, Nineteen85, Sampha, Allen Ritter. Featuring: Drake, Majid Jordan, Jay Z, Jhene Aiko, Detail, Sampha. Release date: September 24, 2013.

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    1. SiXX40 says:

      It is quite interesting to hear thoughts and comments from Andrew and the readers. One of the biggest issues I have is not with Drake I think in some way shape or form most can agree that he is a talented artist…Some people, myself included aren’t the biggest fans of the singing and synth voice overs that have become half of the last two albums it seems (This is just my opinion). The other issue is comparing apples to oranges, we live in a time where everyone is infatuated with comparing some one like a drake to a Jay Z or a Kanye and in most cases its inaccurate, in my opinion. Aside from record sales there is no comparison. Andrew said “Drake rapped circles around Jay Z.” Really Andrew? “I made more millionaires than the lotto did, Dame made Millions, Bigg made millions, Ye made millions, Just made millions, Lyor made millions, Cam made millions, Beans will tell you if he wasnt in his feelings.” That’s factual, its not a relative statement. We have to start asking ourselves if we understand the difference between popularity and talent. Drake was thrown into super stardom by being linked to Lil Wayne at a time when most were saying he (Lil Wayne) was the best rapper alive and was a peer to Jay Z and Kanye and NAS for that matter. I will repeat myself I think Drake is a phenomenal artist but lets not let popularity and sales numbers skew the view. I’d be interested to hear the views of HONEST fans on what project they thought was best out of Born Sinner, Good Kid Bad City and NWTS and WHY. Regardless of sales numbers from a lyrical standpoint those are Drakes peers, not Jay Z, not NAS and not Kanye. To compare Drake to Kanye from a lyrical and creative standpoint is just inaccurate in my opinion. Drakes content consist of his inner family issues, bottle popping, models, old jump off relationships with women he caught feelings for. This is not a negative assessment but mere facts, and this isn’t to say that Drake isn’t lyrical or witty as he can punchline with the best of them; but so can Fab, Lil Wayne, JadaKiss and a grocery bag full of artist. Kanye’s subject matter ranges from some of the same things mentioned about Drake but he also touches social change, he speaks on subjects that most in his position don’t want to touch with a broom stick (i.e. Black skinheads, Prime Time (verse), Everything I am). I won’t even touch the Jay Z side of the discussion as that would just be a waste of time, there’s no way that right now we can compare Drake and Jay Z aside from sales numbers. Our society thrives on speaking before we really get our thoughts together…some new artist will surface as they do every year and at the first sign of talent and prominence we (music society) will hail that person “The Best OUT” or “Better than Drake” etc and i think its foolish. I think this NWTS was cool, is this album transcending music; I don’t think so. The one thing we all know is that Drake makes hit records, but so does Trey Songz but are we comparing him to R&B greats like R. Kelly and Teddy Riley…and if so why?

      • Zilli says:

        Thank you SiXX40 for being rational and succinctly stating your point without letting the argument fall into hot-headed opinion or extravagant hyperbole. I agree with you on most of your opinions, only I do enjoy some of Drake’s singing and synth-voice from his previous efforts (Take Care, So Fare Gone) like in the track “Sooner or Later” for example. I wholeheartedly agree with you about the societal tendency to compare artists who often aren’t in the same league in terms of impact or talent. Kanye West can be whoever he so desires in the public eye, but his work in hip-hop and in music in general speak volumes about his legacy and he is my sure-bet to outlast all the others in the argument as far as longevity goes. Jay Z, on the other hand, has broken some truly stratospheric ground in terms of music and commerce in general. So let us group Drake with those who are truly his peers, as you stated, Kendrick Lamar and J. Cole.

        Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City is a better Hip-Hop album than Nothing Was The Same. To me, there is literally only one area in which NWTS is superior to GKMC, and that would be “Pop/Commercial Appeal”. The narrative in GKMC is fascinating, and the production is more straightforward, not falling into the sleepy but often enjoyable throes of NWTS. I think Take Care was much more balanced, well-produced, and well-planned. The guest features on Take Care only added to the grandeur of the album, whereas on NWTS I truly got annoyed at Drake several times with certain lines, a feeling previously unheard of from me in listening to his entire catalog of music, which has been very good.

        Born Sinner is, in my own opinion, the class of the conversation. The album is not as “dark” and “self-absorbed” as GKMC and NWTS respectively, but has a tracklist that satisfies hip-hop and urban pop ubiquitously. “Crooked Smile” is the best commercial radio feel-good song of them all, perhaps trailing the less giving “Hold On, We’re Going Home”. Then we have “Power Trip”, the single best collaboration out of all three of these albums, although personally that Jay Z Remix to “Bitch Don’t Kill My Vibe” is a big-time favorite. If Take Care was in this conversation, to me, it would top Born Sinner.

    2. @Gio – anyone that dismisses an album as “garbage” automatically gets written off as having an invalid opinion. Drake has pushed hiphop to the same places that JCole did, that 2pac did, that a million other excellent rappers have. The fact that you failed to gel with it is more indicative of your own closed-mindedness rather than any failing of Drake’s

    3. Gio says:

      Very legitimate article, Drakes music is an acquired taste in which I will never acquire. This isn’t transcendent, as a lot of the “Drake” followers will lead someone to believe. If anything it’s translucent and lacks everything a good rap album should be (ie G.K.M.C., Born Sinner). Nonetheless it’s Drake whining to synth-pop sounds. Sure Drake is “pushing” hip-hop to corners it’s been unwilling to explore or what have you, and there’s is a reason why they haven’t been explored because it simply produces garbage like this.

    4. Alex Telow says:

      You started off normal, then slowly got more pedantic.. by the end of this article, it was complete garbage. Maybe he made you think about your ex girlfriend too much or something, but either way you look ignorant

    5. Y'all trip says:

      ” Kendrick Lamar bitch don’t kill my vibe is piss poor compared to furthest thing chat s**t mate ” this album is new sound waves

    6. Uncle Morty says:

      1/2 Tribe but…

      Is Drake Good for the Tribe?

    7. D'Drankequan says:

      Dis ‘peers 2 b ManDrake besh album su 4ar….
      B’ut Nutta Waz da Same… when U don’t play dat “the game”… end quote period.

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