It is unclear exactly what kind of artist Aubrey Drake Graham wants to be. Groomed by Lil Wayne, taken out partying with big boys like Jay-Z and Diddy, the kid seems to view himself as a member of that company—a hard rapper. But he’s bucking what seem to be his truer colors as a slower, R&B-type singer in the style of Usher or Ne-Yo. On Thank Me Later, easily one of the most anticipated releases of the summer, the identity crisis is in full swing.
The former Canadian TV star has been called a “C-list rapper” by The Washington Post. That label was clearly wrong, but The New York Times, in a recent feature on Drake, goes too far in the other direction, calling him “the most important and innovative new figure in hip-hop”. That remains to be seen, because all in all, the album is a mixed bag. No track on Drake’s new album is as good as “Best I Ever Had”, the breakout mixtape single that brought him mega fame and two 2010 Grammy nominations (he didn’t win, but at the ceremony he tore the stage apart in a passionate live performance of “Forever” with Eminem and Wayne).
The album kicks off with “Fireworks”, which Drake begins with the unfortunate lines: “Money just changed everything. I wonder how life without it would go. From the concrete, who knew that a flower would grow.” The rhyme is weak; it sounds like poetry an eighth-grader would write in his composition book. The interlude, with Alicia Keys whining, “All I see is fireworks” doesn’t make good use of her gorgeous vocals, and isn’t pretty enough to save the rest of the song. But he’s definitely revealing personal issues—his parents’ divorce, success, and past relationships.
On “Karaoke”, Drake uses Auto-Tune and echoing effects to croon to some unseen woman, just as he does in most songs on the album. The background keyboard and cha-cha give this ‘80s-style song a feel lifted straight from Kanye’s 808s and Heartbreak. A number of songs do the same and sound the same: Drake singing softly to a girl or about a girl. “Shut It Down” and “Unforgettable” are two prime examples: slow, sexy, and boring. This album is for the ladies, those who dissed him and those who love him. “All the girls that played me, eat your motherfuckin’ heart out,” he raps. We start to see a narrow focus at this point. How “Over” became the album’s biggest hit is a mystery. We do get some smarter lyrics here (“I can teach you how to speak my language, Rosetta Stone”), but the song is angry and flat. “I know way too many people here right now, that I didn’t know last year, who the fuck are y’all…” he repeats. Drake’s voice on this track is low and unexciting, and there’s no real beat to love.
The album starts to improve with its fifth track, “Show Me a Good Time”. Drake is strong on this one, singing, “How did I end up right here with you, after all the things that I’ve been through,” and the song is pleasant and catchy despite an annoying squeaky yelling effect that opens and closes the track. “Up All Night” is another winner. Nicki Minaj is a terrific collaboration choice—she’s got a sexy attitude and biting flow reminiscent of Lil Kim (who apparently hates her) and, being the freshest new thing, she’s like a female equivalent of Drake. Her verse is hot and the song is, too. Still, Drake missteps when he brags, “Shout out to the fact that I’m the youngest nigga doin it.” To be fair, he’s not the youngest. Chris Brown is 21, and his first slew of hits came when he was 16. Of course, nobody likes Chris Breezy right now, but the fact remains.
“Fancy” is the album’s club banger, and it’s fine. Good beats here (with Swizz on it, what do you expect) and T.I. is a useful guest. It’s the first truly catchy song you’ll hear on the album. Kind of dumb lyrics on the refrain (“hair done, nails done, everything did”) but you know, in a good way. “Light Up” continues the slew of hits. Finally Drake is really rapping, putting it all out there, announcing his doubts and fears, pondering whether he’s a “target” for haters. By the time Jay comes in, it’s one of the highlights of the album. On “Miss Me”, Wayne is so clever and hilarious in his guest verse that he reminds us, by contrast, how unrefined Drake’s flow is for the time being. But the song is another one of the album’s better half, and Drake’s seductive request, “Miss me a little when I’m gone” is a pleasure.
Unfortunately the album ends with a fizzle, just as it started. “Cece’s Interlude” is another throwaway ballad, and “Find Your Love”, already a radio hit, has some nice vocals, but is killed by the constant “hey, hey, hey” which sounds like it comes from a child-friendly Disney song. If your expectations were sky-high for this one, you’re going to be disappointed. Drake gets an ‘A’ for ambition, at least. The album is good at parts, but never great. It’s unlikely he’s the next Jay, or Kanye, or even Jeezy. But you’ll definitely keep hearing his name. Drizzy’s just getting started.