[24 September 2013]
Rap and hip-hop are full of coronations, from perceived kings to classic albums to legendary beefs. Even lesser achievements tend to arrive with grand language. Diddy, always attuned to opportunities to make “history”, recently introduced his new “fitness and wellness water” brand with the gem of a sentence, “I am looking forward to making history in the process.” Far less common is the acknowledgement that making history is not necessarily a good thing. History also remembers tragedies, commercial and critical failures, and squandered fortunes. But Diddy’s rhetorical version of “history” is one that predicts success, using present language to frame future results as predestined achievements. As such, “looking forward” (future) “to making history” (past) “in the process” (present) is the perfect way to articulate his Donald Trump-like approach to business and entertainment.
Aubrey Graham, who releases music under his middle name Drake, projects a similar attitude. Naming new album Nothing was the Same could be perceived as yet another way of framing his own career as a game-changer. An actor who started releasing mixtapes as Drake in 2006, he began his music career already preoccupied with fame. Following the release of debut studio album Thank Me Later (2010), he saw his outlook increasingly validated by good reviews, blockbuster sales, and industry awards. Those fruits, like the opening line of 2011 album Take Care, “I think I killed everybody in the game last year…” were testaments to the success of his ongoing project in self-mythology.
But claiming the crown is different from earning it or fighting for it. In rap, those who don’t seem hungry enough for the title (and/or those who lack the skills to back it up) risk being exposed as pretenders to the throne. And each new challenger or claimant that emerges could produce an inflection point, after which nothing would be the same.
Drake has weathered several of these challenges. In 2012, DMX appeared on Power 105 on more than one occasion to criticize Drake for everything from his presumptuous involvement with a posthumous Aaliyah album to “his voice … his face … the way he walks … [and] his haircut”. Also last year, Common released a remix of Rick Ross/Drake track “Stay Schemin’, ” in which he perpetuated an ongoing beef with Drake. What had initially begun as a perceived slight against Drake for being “sweet”, escalated to Common’s takedown of his rival’s unconvincing machismo from “Headlines” and his seemingly conflicted racial identity. This year, Kendrick Lamar used his outstanding verse on Big Sean’s “Control” to crown himself the “king of New York”(!) and to state his purpose clearly: “What is competition? I’m trying to raise the bar high.” Drake is among the rappers he has “love for” but also targets for lyrical assassination.
Anticipating the release of Nothing Was the Same, David Drake of Complex asked, “Is Drake Really the Voice of the Millennial Generation?”—an analysis of Drake’s current dominance in the contexts of social media and narcissism. One of the most interesting observations in the article is the comparison of Drake’s brand to “the creation of identity through curation, a new self that leaves less-pleasant realities behind.” With that point, the writer offers a possible rebuttal to a common criticism of Graham’s choice to play this character called Drake. If the Millennial Generation acknowledges and values the creation of identity through social media, then Graham’s former life as a professional actor could make him particularly qualified to shape-shift. Besides, long before social media, authenticity was not all that important in popular music. Tupac was a former child actor. Most of the Beach Boys didn’t surf. But the problem with Drake, and a major flaw of Nothing Was the Same, is Graham’s continued failure to be convincing in his chosen role.
Previous release Take Care was a messy album, but memorable for its production by Noah “40” Shebib, Jamie xx, and Just Blaze as well as guest contributions by Chantal Kreviazuk and Rihanna. These highlights of Take Care occurred not because of Drake, but in spite of him. On “Headlines”, his attempts to position himself as a veteran (“I had someone tell me I fell off”) or a man of violence (“You gonna make someone around me catch a body like that”) rang false. Yet in the hook of that very song, he doubled down by insisting that “the real is on the rise”, unintentionally projecting more insecurity. On “Lord Knows”, he complained of the “recreation / To pull all your skeletons out the closet like Halloween decorations” in the midst of an album wherein he over-shared for most of the running time. Later, he claimed “I’m a descendent of either Marley or Hendrix / I haven’t figured it out cause my story is far from finished.”
Contrast those lines with “The King”, Tree’s single from this year’s Sunday School II: When Church Lets Out: “How you doing, they call me Tree / They doing the most, I’m just doing me” and “I know who I am, I ain’t trying to find me”. Both artists are claiming to be the king, but Drake’s contradictory, melodramatic king-making seems silly when compared to a rapper whose supremacy flows from his effortless articulation of what it is to know oneself and be truthful.
As a writer of lyrics, Drake spends so much time on characterization that he rarely ever achieves genuine introspection. “Tuscan Leather”, the sumptuously produced introductory track of Nothing Was the Same, contains a rare self-aware utterance that positions Drake next to a movie character: “Lately I’ve been feeling like Guy Pearce on Memento.” Assuming he means he relates to Leonard Shelby, the character Pearce played in the movie, the comparison aligns Drake with someone who cannot erase the gaps between the man he once was, the man presently is, and the man he wants to be. Shelby is a character with memory problems. Drake is a character with an identity crisis.
While there’s little use arguing over what’s real in popular music, ideally the persona one chooses should be a believable fit and bolstered by considerable skills. Much of the Complex article mentioned above concerns the narcissism of pop music and social media. Drake’s lyrics reveal an inordinate amount of time spent gazing into the mirror. However, with each successive album, the image staring back at Drake (and reported lyrically to the listener) is both more distorted and unsuccessfully embodied. For instance, look at the dual album covers that adorn Nothing Was the Same. Drake, his present self, stares at a past self, restyled as Baby Biggie Smalls. Graham works so hard to insert the character Drake into a regal rap lineage that the result is all seams and no garment.
As Drake furiously attempts to assert his quite unbelievable character, fatigue sets in. His relentless delivery ensures that words spill out in defiance of the breath required to sustain them. But rate does not guarantee quality, and on Nothing Was the Same, his lyrics are worse than ever. This is a shame, as the efforts of Noah “40” Shebib and other producers are especially admirable this time out. With a production style and song structures that consistently defy expectations, Nothing Was the Same is a great-sounding album. Often quite spare, the beats drop out and then return, having flipped to introduce new sections/directions. In the background, backmasking abounds, vocal pitches change constantly and melodies are elusive but effective in their melancholy. On some tracks, an aural fog hangs in the air, so thick it might be touched. Shebib and the other producers are growing into a distinctive house style that has more in common with releases by artists like Zomby or labels like Hyperdub than it does with contemporary major-label hip-hop.
A few spins in, listening to Nothing Was the Same is akin to putting up with Big Sean in order to get to Kendrick: Drake is just tolerable, and it’s tempting to skip through him to get to the good parts, which are instrumental passages and guest spots. The first half of the album features conspicuously bad lyrics. On “Furthest Thing”, Drake repeats a litany of thing’s he’s been up to “on the low” and revisits/regrets past events with a real or imagined female character. There have been so many of these sorts of characters in his discography that an unfiltered picture emerges only rarely. For all we get to know her apart from his Leonard Shelby-like unreliable narration, the Drake Girl might as well be a composite figure.
Single “Started from the Bottom” is aggressively stupid. A fantastic beat is sullied by all of Drake’s worst lyrical tendencies deployed in one song. Yes, the concept of “starting from the bottom” seems like a whopper coming from Graham, but “the bottom” is consistent with his recollections about living in the basement and then moving up. Besides, that phrase is the least of the song’s problems. Drake routinely curses like a child who is testing out bad words and trying to see what he can get away with. And even worse than his lazy padding of bars with such words when he’s in need of syllables, is the acute flagrancy in his overuse of one word in particular.
In June 2013, C. Shardae Jobson wrote an article for The Source called “Should R&B Singers Use the N-Word?” Though the ostensible focus of the article was the R&B context, Jobson covered a range of issues from the Paula Deen incident to the rebellious spirit of rap to “questioning hip-hop’s pass”. Jobson partially justified the use of the word in rap: “The roots of rap began from a background of undeniable creativity but crumbling real-life surroundings. The N-word’s place is more plausible in comparison because the streets were too real for even the most level-headed boy or girl coming of age.”
What then to make of Graham/Drake, who utterly lacks those qualifying conditions? On Nothing Was the Same, he spits the word out more than two dozen times in just the first three tracks. He uses the word arbitrarily and delivers it with relish. There’s no getting around the enjoyment he seems to derive from saying it, and that’s a disturbing reality of listening to his music. One scenario Jobson described was to hear the word “casually spewed from a Caucasian youth in all Pac Sun gear with their friends in the streets”. Let’s face it—that describes a key target market for Drake’s music, and I wonder if he’s ever considered the effects of that influence? His affection for the word might be less jarring if he devoted some time to discussing it, like Wale did on “The Kramer” in 2008. Earlier this year, Dangeruss made a case for his pass on “I’m Poppin”, a song that isn’t as smart as “The Kramer” but at least acknowledges the issue and lets the listener reach his or her own conclusions.
Another puzzling aspect of “Started from the Bottom” is the line “we don’t like to do too much explaining”. Given that Drake spends so much time explaining his persona that he never gets around to existing in a convincing way, the line contributes to a feeling that many things Drake says on the record are the exact opposite of true. Perhaps creating such statements is a way to bait his detractors. After all, the video for the single features him boxing with snowflakes—not exactly a rational defense against accusations of being soft. He seems to thrive on inviting and anticipating negative responses.
An additional possible instance of baiting is “Wu-Tang Forever”, a song that links the Drake brand with one of the most beloved hip-hop groups of all time. The track samples Wu-Tang Clan’s “It’s Yourz”, but apart from that connection the song has nothing in common with the talent or muscle of that legendary group. Rather, Drake chooses to invoke Wu-Tang on a song concerned for another girl from his past and one in which he preens in a fantasy standoff with a rival (possibly a remembrance of his club scuffle with Chris Brown).
The rest of the album’s first half is plagued with posturing towards women and self-affirmations. “Own It” begins as a lifeless song about wanting to take a romantic relationship to the next level, and it switches halfway through to an angry song about how people talk too much (specifically about Drake). Once again, to enjoy the song would require overlooking a massive contradiction—in this case the fact that foremost among those who can’t stop talking about Drake, is Drake himself. “Worst Behavior” is a triumph of production, but the lyrics are hollow. A full two minutes go by before Drake expresses a proper sentence/thought, and that one involves some fantasy he has of living up to ODB’s ability to shake down women for money. Eventually, there’s a characteristic mid-song flip, but the subsequent self-mythologizing is actually offensive in its empty posturing.
Without a single track to fully recommend, the first half of the album is an endurance test. If the listener makes it to track seven (“From Time”), there is a brief reward in the form of Jhene Aiko’s voice. She is to Nothing Was the Same what Rihanna was to Take Care, and like Rihanna she provides an assist that outshines the main attraction. Juxtaposed with Aiko, Drake’s entrance to the song is at first a vocal stink bomb. Nevertheless, he does attempt to create a narrative with his lyrics, cycling through a thematic retread of the first half of “Own It”, followed by a detour about his relationship with his Dad, and then a comparison of his girl to his Mom. A later verse concerns his ascendancy despite females’ lack of faith in him. Sure, it’s all overly emotional and confessional, but those are Drake’s best modes and here he succeeds in them.
“Hold on We’re Going Home” is another song that works, showcasing Drake’s suitability for soft pop/rock. If he could merge the attention to melody and the delicate tone of this song to the “hard” moments he never manages to achieve elsewhere, then he might be onto a good formula. Rittz and Mike Posner achieved such a hybrid earlier this year on “Switch Lanes”, providing a lead Drake would be smart to follow in order to find his own way forward. Alas, the good moments are short-lived. Like “Worst Behavior”, “Connect” finds intriguing orchestration marred by inane lyrics, this time about his (and his lady’s) sexual prowess. Drake is conflicted enough when using the microphone to talk to women from his past. He’s thoroughly lost when trying to talk on behalf of them.
“The Language” is a showcase for Drake’s relentless flow, but he does himself no favors by failing to explore any interesting lyrical territory. He rhymes “platinum” with “platinum”. Such laziness might be acceptable were the song not about language. “305 To My City” offers more of the same, as Drake rhymes “customs” with “customs”, failing to vary the meaning between uses. At this point in the album, it’s clear that in addition to largely sidestepping storytelling, Drake cannot or does not want to use insightful lyrics.
The final two songs on Nothing Was the Same are emblematic of its overall strengths and weaknesses. “Too Much” is the best song on the album, thanks to the contributions of Sampha Sisay. The hook gives an emotional weight to Drake’s corresponding lyrics about thoughts that trouble him. But “Pound Cake/Paris Morton Music 2” undoes that authenticity of feeling by trying to turn a spoken word Jimmy Smith sample into a “Giorgio by Moroder” moment. Earlier in 2013, Daft Punk did it first and best, so the technique here pales in comparison. Then Drake and his producers return to the Wu-Tang well by sampling “C.R.E.A.M.”. By the time Jay-Z appears for his verses, the cumulative impression is an attempt to harness classic tracks and acts in order to set up one final variation on Drake’s origin story. He ends the album by stating how far he’s come, but simply being able to afford access to the classics isn’t sufficient to become a legend.
In the end, Nothing Was the Same might be best understood as a way of summing up the difference between Aubrey Graham and Drake—at once the most self-conscious and least self-aware presence in pop music. The man and his character are at odds, staring each other down and narrating the process. While that might make Drake the ideal pop brand for the social media set, nothing in his musical output so far suggests that he’s the artistic pinnacle of a generation. He says in “Tuscan Leather” that he is “on a mission trying to shift the culture”. Yet he never specifies a new direction. Like his lyrics, the mission remains insular and under-developed. To paraphrase R.L. Sharpe from “A Bag of Tools”, Drake has given the culture a “stumbling block” disguised as a “steppingstone”.