And Drake wept, for there were no more worlds to conquer.
And because he had just gotten out of a really emotional one-night stand with a stripper.
Ever since Aubrey “Drake” Graham signed on to Young Money Entertainment back in 2008, he’s turned heads for a thousand different reasons: He spent his childhood shuttling between the rich parts of Toronto as a child actor and the poor parts of Memphis as the son of an alcoholic; his flitting between harder rap sounds and emotional R&B; and not least of all, amidst the strong Christian traditions of rap, his strong, self-assured presentation of his Jewish heritage. How many other rappers hold second bar mitzvahs for themselves? Various mix tapes, ceaseless guest spots on radio-friendly tracks, and two albums cemented Drake’s place in the rap universe. His third album, the just-released Nothing Was the Same, through hype, sales (the album debuted at No. 1 on Billboard 200), and sheer willpower, threatens to make him a gas nebula, one of those rare, giant stars that alter everything in their orbit simply by their continued existence.
As a music writer for Tablet, it’s long in my best self-interest to follow Drake’s career very closely. It hasn’t hurt that I’ve loved his music—on this very website, I called Take Care, his 2011 release, “a record so momentous it feels like it could transform an entire genre.” But to discuss this album properly, I knew I had to look outside myself. Instantly, I turned to my best friend from Jew School as a kid, Ivan Rott. Something must have been in the water at Maimonides Academy, because Ivan turned into one of the Internet’s best rap bloggers, producing the vital HipHopIsRead, where he’s perhaps best known for his reviews in .gif form and the uncanny ability to track down the original sources of rap samples. But I soon discovered that Ivan does not like Drake. Not at all, in fact—for reasons you will discover shortly. And Nothing Was the Same, the Drake-iest of Drake’s albums, had only exacerbated the divide. So, we did what diehard rap fans have done since the beginning of time, or at least the late ’80s: Listen to the album a thousand times and then disagree strenuously about it.
David Grossman: Are you familiar with the singer Daniel Johnston? He’s made 17 albums, and all of his love songs, the story goes, are about the same girl, the first one he ever kissed. I can’t compare the two on a personal level (Johnston has severe bipolar disorder and Narcissistic Personality Disorder), but I kept thinking of Johnston while listening to Drake’s Nothing Was the Same. The women keep changing, of course, but Drake finds himself singing the same song over and over.
This isn’t a happy album. The verbal gymnastics from his last album, Take Care, are gone. What’s still there is Drake’s desire to swing for the fences, which occasionally means he’ll say some dumb shit. (“Next time we fuck/ I wanna make love” is just godawful, as is that not-really-clever line about “pussy power.”)
This might make it sound like I dislike the album. But I don’t. In fact, I’ll even go further than your gif review did and say I actually like it, a lot. It might not reach the levels of diversity and genius that Take Care did, but Drake’s talent is overwhelming. His greatest strength is his ability to make it seem like he’s operating without a safety net. Like on one of my favorites from the album, “From Time.” He jukes, going from talking about his relationship problems with a girl to suddenly discussing his father, a figure well-noted in Drake lore for his coldness, his ability to con and scam Drake, while showing him the best music Memphis had to offer growing up. My eyes perked up, how could anyone have any idea where this was going?
Ivan Rott: Admittedly, I’m not too familiar with Daniel Johnston, apart from the “Hi, How Are You” T-shirt I noticed Kurt Cobain used to wear. But touching on the point you’ve raised about personality disorders, there must be something to be said about a child actor turned rapper who spends most of his time on records complaining about how hard his cushy life has been. Take for instance “Started From the Bottom,” which, sonically, is something I can totally appreciate. The bass-heavy beat is immersive, and Drake’s blasé, yet catchy, hook is genuinely enjoyable. But the premise of the track, suggesting that Drake survived some sort of harrowing, miserable existence prior to his present incarnation as a pop music juggernaut, is laughable. It reminds me of Eminem grumbling “radio won’t even play my jam” on The Marshall Mathers LP’s “The Way I Am.” Playing the wheelchair-bound Jimmy Brooks on Degrassi is the toughest “role” Aubrey Graham has had to tackle.
I’m not a hater though, and Nothing Was the Same definitely has its moments. We can both agree that the ‘80s drum machine thump of “Hold On, We’re Going Home” is intoxicatingly dope. And “Worst Behaviour,” in all its braggadocious, Ma$e-lyric-swiping glory, is incredibly catchy. I’m not too sure how long the few singular gems on the album will stay in my rotation, though. Unlike Take Care, which featured stellar contributions from Kendrick Lamar, Nicki Minaj, Rick Ross, Andre 3000, and more, Nothing Was the Same finds Drake flying solo for the most part. Regrettably, the few guest rapper features all sound phoned-in and are probably the lowest points of the album. 2 Chainz’s verse on “All Me” has got to be the laziest in his catalog—and that’s saying something. And hearing Jay-Z say “cake” approximately fifty-’leven times on “Pound Cake” has got to be one of the most head-scratching experiences for me, a (former?) Hov fan.
DG: Nothing Was the Same a downgrade from Take Care? Absolutely. But Take Care’s a real special album. It’s filled with soaring highs—the bar mitzvah celebration of “HYFR”—and crushing, headshaking lows, like a paranoid Drake rifling through women’s phones for proof of disloyalty, paparazzi, misplaced trust—anything he can think of. The Drake of Take Care is ecstatic, depressed, judgmental of the system that raised him, thrilled to be here, paranoid of those around him, and really, really would like to have sex, right now. In short, it reminded me of what I was going through at the time: being 24 in 2011.
Nothing Was the Same shows that being 26 in 2013 isn’t all that different, and it certainly falls short in comparison. Instead of Rihanna promising “I’ll take care of you,” we get Jhené Aiko saying, “I love me, I love me enough for the both of us.” And instead of “Hell yeah, hell yeah, fucking right, aw right” we get “started/ started from the bottom.” I think your Eminem comparison is dead-on. I’ll even go a step further and say the very topic Drake is trying to handle on “Started From the Bottom,” authenticity, is a relic best left in the Golden Days of the ’90s, when Ice Cube dissed Eazy-E for moving out of Compton to Riverside. Backgrounds are a huge, integral part of rap, but the days of one being more conducive to the genre are over, I think. He’s been referencing Degrassi for a while now, I wish he’d just let it settle.
Another thing you’re right on: the placement and quality of “All Me.” If nothing else, Nothing Was the Same is a tightly woven album, and to suddenly break into the obligatory 2 Chainz guest feature track at the end is bizarre and jarring. Part of me thinks it’s like how “Compton” ends Kendrick Lamar’s Good Kid, M.A.A.D City, and that makes me think that Drake thinks that Nothing Was the Same is in some way equal to GKMC’s wild heights and ambitions, and that just makes me sad.
But it’s not supposed to be a Kendrick album, I know that. It’s supposed to be a Drake album, and there are a few reasons why I think people are going to keep coming back to Nothing Was the Same for a while.
“Tuscan Leather,” for one. I know that an opening track isn’t really a reason for people to listen to the whole album, but “Tuscan” is just the first example of Prime Drake: Drake plugging away at the stereotypes we have of him (TMI, honest and confused to a fault, self-conscious) and making them work. Over Whitney Houston and Curtis Mayfield samples, lines like “Paperwork takin’ too long, maybe they don’t understand me/ I’ll compromise if I have to, I gotta stay with the family/ Not even talkin’ to Nicki, communication is breakin’/ I dropped the ball on some personal shit, I need to embrace it/.” I don’t think you even have to know that he’s addressing the rumors that he’d be leaving the label he came up with, Young Money/Cash Money Baby, or that he’s talking about not being as good a friend to Nicki Minaj as he should be. I didn’t need to sleep with models or enjoy going to clubs to relate to Take Care’s problems. Drake’s outsized issues make for a mixture of fantasy and camaraderie for me, it’s a place that’s worth visiting when things get stressed. Plus, he actually made a good song with the title “Tuscan Leather.”
The album shines sonically as well. Gone are the explosive Just Blaze tracks, instead there are these Noah “40” Shebib and Chilly Gonzalez beats that work beautifully together. Like the transition between “Own It” and “Worst Behaviour”: “Own it, it’s yours” Drake coos at the listener on repeat, floating on a bed of electro “Oooohs” nearly sounding like the R&B Radio Killa himself, The-Dream. A few seconds of silence, a motorcycle revs but nice and quiet, and then suddenly, 16 seconds in: “Worst! Mu’fuckas never loved us!” There are at least five or six transitions on Nothing Was the Same that are equally good, many of them taking place within one song.
Imperfections, though, are what will keep people coming back to Nothing Was the Same. Even when Drake isn’t making horrible puns, though, his whole confusion with the world really bothers people. “Drake has mensch envy” notes Jewish humorist Disco Vietnam on Twitter. “He wants to be a mensch but it’s hard. Here’s how you be a mensch. Be a mensch.”
But I posit to you that it is hard. It’s really hard to be a good person, especially when you’ve made a lot of money and are young and ambitious. I’m not saying I’d live with a hundred more albums like this, but two albums in a row about being confused and arrogant, tremendous and pathetic, rich with talent and poor with listening to significant others, work for me.
IR: Tell me how you really feel! The more we delve into Nothing Was the Same and Drake’s music career in general, the more I find myself getting frustrated, trying to find some truly redeemable qualities in his hodge-podge of delicate histrionics. Being 24 in 2011 and 26 in 2013 really aren’t too different, but let’s go back to 2009, when Drake dropped So Far Gone, most peoples’ introduction to him. I feel like each of his projects since then, including Nothing Was the Same, have hardly displayed any artistic development.
Drake consistently makes mountains out of molehills. But I’ll take it one notch further: The Drake schtick is more than just “outsized,” it’s out. Outdated. He’s outdated himself. Show me some growth. “Gone are the explosive Just Blaze tracks,” you write. Why!? The Just Blaze-produced “Lord Knows” off Take Care was one of the album’s highlights, and certainly a departure from Drake’s comfort zone. In fact, that particular track gave some hip-hop heads a reason—an incentive—to give the album a listen. Hearing Drake stay in his element with 40, T-Minus and Boi-1da is fine, but after a while it feels lackluster.
Corny as it may sound, tell me you wouldn’t rather hear Drake’s “Wu-Tang Forever” produced by, hmm, I don’t know… RZA! That’d make sense, right? At the very least it’d pique my interest. That’s not even a knock on 40, even though I do feel like he took Kanye West’s style from 808s & Heartbreak and fashioned it as his own. Hate him or love him—and these days, I don’t love him as much as I used to—Kanye is always eager to push the envelope. He’s constantly shape-shifting and changing his sound. His evolution is not necessarily progress in terms of improvement. (Maybe it’s just nostalgia speaking, but The College Dropout and Late Registration are still my favorite entries in his catalog.) But you don’t have to like Yeezus to acknowledge the fact that throwing tantrums over overdue pastries and debuting new music on buildings across Brooklyn is cutting-edge.
Drake is the antithesis of the proto/stereotypical ’90s rapper whose career is circumscribed by nothing but boom bap beats and consistently keeping it “hardcore.” Conversely, Drake consistently keeps it “soft” with his OVO sound. Drake makes the thin line between consistency and monotony ever so clear. Let’s hear him get a little more comfortable over a Clams Casino beat. How about Harry Fraud? THC? Mike Will Made It? AraabMuzik? There’s an entire crop of new producers that Drake, theoretically, could comfortably mesh with … but he doesn’t. I feel like new collaborative partners would not only help Drake establish a new sound for himself, but it’d even have the upshot of helping him open up lyrically, too. Because at the core of his flurry of melodrama, Drake’s lyrical content is remarkably shallow. Sure, he’ll drop a line here and there about his parents, but it’s still really all about him.
Look at Kanye. He’s arguably more “emo” than Drake, and yet he’s able to exert that cathartic release while simultaneously sounding fresh and shaping the culture.
DG: In your frustration you’ve hit upon what I think is one of Nothing Was the Same’s most fascinating elements: the fact that there is very little else out there currently that sounds like it. In an era of constant upswing, constant smiles, and constant celebration of rise, Drake has chosen to stand still and pout. Drake’s fans are feeling the similarity between this album and his last one, Take Care. Take Care sold around 635,000 in its first-week, and despite leaking two weeks prior to its release date, Nothing Was the Same is projected to pull similar if not higher numbers.
I’ve been reading The Book of Changes, a series of interviews from L.A. journalist Kristine McKenna from the ’70s and ’80s. One of my favorite sound-creators of all-time, Brian Eno, tells her, “It’s a red herring, the originality thing. People are original all the time, and some people choose to regard it as important, while others dismiss it as an aberration. … In reggae, for instance, you hear the same riffs year after year in a shifting context. The idea there is to use a thing for as long as it still means something.” It’s a quote that helps explain Nothing Was the Same for me a lot, anyway. I don’t think any of the tracks on that first EP, like “Houstatlantavegas,” could fit in here. I think they’re prototypes, sure, but everything on Nothing Was the Same is so much more complex. Back on “Best I Ever Had,” the original Drake hit, Drake is telling a girl to call him when her roommate isn’t there. It’s a common enough refrain. On “305 to My City,” he describes an up-and-coming sex worker who has to put her new car under her roommate’s name, because she has terrible credit. The spectrum of stories that Drake likes to tell hasn’t changed that much, true, but his details have become more complex.
Nothing Was the Same has its fair share of eye-rollers, I won’t deny that. Drake’s not perfect, and Nothing Was the Same is definitely not a perfect album. But we’ve seen Aubrey Graham grow up twice now: first in his double-bar mitzvah video for “H.Y.F.R,” and again in the middle-class come-up video for “Started From the Bottom” (over 80 million YouTube views and counting). Three albums can be a lot of time to wait for a guy to grow up, but I think Nothing Was the Same’s cover art says it all: He’s looking at his childish actions and their consequences. And that’s the first part of growing up.
IR: Don’t mind me, I’m half-way through this new Danny Brown album. What were we discussing? Oh, right. Drake. You bring up some good points. “There is very little else out there currently that sounds like [Nothing Was the Same].” That’s true. Drake didn’t need a Future or French Montana feature on this album because he’s crafted a cohesive project that’s personal and speaks for himself. Maybe he has grown up after all. Still, the record is nothing to write home about. (Though we’ve written quite a bit, admittedly …)
In 2009, Drake’s mission was simple: “I just wanna be successful.” Kudos to him, he’s got that. Four years later, what more does he want? I’ll grant you that Drake’s “stories” may have developed some added “details” and complexities, but they still rest in that same category of one-dimensionality, characterized by shallowness and self-aggrandizement vis-à-vis self-pity and melodramatic angst. Do Drake fans truly relate to his “problems,” or are they merely participating in “materialistic escapism” (as writer Michael Serazio put it over a decade ago)? Either way, I’m not down for the ride.
Drake seems like a nice guy, but that’s not enough of a reason for me to call myself a fan. He’s got to branch out and step out of this comfortable chamber he’s built for himself. He’s outgrown it. Maybe that means working with some new folks. (I know, “no new friends, no, no, new …”, but maybe he can bend that rule a bit, huh?) Or maybe it means finding new subjects that interest him. Maybe/hopefully it’ll be both. Otherwise we’ll be hearing the same ol’ same when he drops a new album in 2015, and 2017, and … I’m not looking forward to that.
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