[3 October 2013]
Nothing Was the Same might just be the closest we’ll ever get to listening to Charlie Brown take a victory lap. When I reviewed Drake’s sophomore album - Take Care - two years ago, I took some flack for asserting that it was the first time a rap album had been “beautiful”. I admit that my word choice was wrong, but I suppose the discussion concerning Drake’s repeated Wu-Tang namedrops, references, and of course “Wu-Tang Forever” on this album allows me to try again. When Method Man wrote “Wu-Tang Forever”, he called it “All I Need” and no one batted an eye. When Ghostface Killah wrote “Marvin’s Room”, he called it “Wildflower” (and when he wrote “Look What You’ve Done” he called it “All That I Got Is You”). One fundamental flaw in the criticism of Drake’s hip-hop approach is that he writes songs the Gods never would have; he’s just not trying to write “We Some Dogs” some day, that’s all.
“Wu-Tang Forever” is such a great song to talk about for everything but that title, too. That beat, all spiraling keyboards straight out of an Akira Yamaoka nightmare swallowed whole every few moments by the loneliest 808 note in the world, bellowing to the surface like the reverb of a depth charge. And in that atmosphere Drake lashes out at the world in complete self-awareness, using this track entirely produced by Noah “40” Shebib (their lone collaboration in solitude on the disc proper, mind) to stake claim on Toronto the way Wu-Tang Forever claimed Staten Island, to turn the narrowed street attitude of ‘90s New York rap into broad-stroked, wide-eyed confessionals without dropping the veil of conviction that allowed the Wu-Tang Clan to remain perhaps hip-hop’s most iconic entity, something to be celebrated by the genre’s “softest” artist on the 20th anniversary of the “hardest” rap album ever made.
Drake does seem to struggle with that last bit, though. We all see it. The random threats of violence we know Drake - both the character and the man - doesn’t have the Los Pollos Hermanos to pull off like a certain other “nice” bad guy. Drake remains his most believable when rhymes become an excuse for diary pages, which in some ways doesn’t sound all that different from Eminem’s prime. Like Eminem’s bi-annual closet cleaning, a Drake album means he gets to fill us in on his current status with mother and uncle, #humblebrag about the beauties he’s bedded while dancing around blaming himself for their consistent disappearances. “From Time”, a song owing quite a bit more to good kid, m.A.A.d. city than the Jhené Aiko appearance, strips his mother and a social-famous Hooters girl of any privacy for the sake of a good song, just as show-stealing would-be album closer “Too Much” and the mid-2000s Assholes by Nature-style break up record “Connect”.
These songs perk the ears not only because they’re gossipy, but because Drake clearly puts his most focused energy into these moments. It’s exhaustive the way Drake will grab a song that appears to be lilting carelessly through the air, as “From Time” tends to, and plant it firmly back on the ground, holding it under his shoe as he explains all the things money can’t buy him or his family. Assuming this confessional proclivity is for everyone would be a mistake, but it’s clear that his approach to honesty connects with a certain digital malaise consuming this generation; Drake writes rhymes that attempt to convey tiny elements of Louis C.K.‘s [http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5HbYScltf1c,typically shareable] Conan rant about smart phones and sadness.
Thanks to 40’s involvement on eight of the thirteen tracks here, Nothing Was the Same can boast fourteen producers without sacrificing a shred of tonal consistency. It’s hard to shake the illusion that this is yet another more complete, more satisfying product form Drake - that the ascension continues. But a closer analysis seems to find an artist so sure of what he wants musically that he’s a bit worried the actual character can’t keep up. “Worst Behavior” has been rightly pointed out as a Rick Ross imitation but those tuned into the mixtape scene are likely way more stunned by his dual turns as Rich Homie Quan, or the envy he has for Z-Ro’s dark gargoyle persona throughout “Connect” (a song I would be overwhelmingly taken by if not for a final minute and change that I have no use for). Through smart interlude work and the generally immaculate mainline production of DJ Dahi (expect to finally start seeing this name in bigger places), Nineteen85, Detail, Mike Zombie, Jake One, Chilly Gonzales and even Boi-1da, Nothing Was the Same feels consistent despite being far from it.
Before “Worst Behavior”, Nothing Was the Same shapes up exceptionally if typically; slow build to the single at track three, stunning album material that follows immediately after you’ve been hooked in…and then Drake doing Rick Ross. He coins at least three hashtags during the song, feels as engaged as anywhere else and DJ Dahi drops a dime the Kanye West/RZA duo are hanging their heads over, but the consistency is gone forever at that moment. Nothing Was the Same slowly becomes an album of songs designed for different moments in a way neither of his previous albums have, as though Drake were a Team Fortress 2 character trying on hats. “Hold On, We’re Going Home” is Drake’s bid to be cast in the Grand Theft Auto V version of Vice City, “305 to My City” is so blatantly a strip club song about ordering girls from King of Diamonds up to the T-Dot. “Connect” is this self-loathsome song sandwiched between a starry-eyed pop song and the one where Drake puts himself in the role of Al Pacino opposite Michelle Pfieffer on the dance floor.
While consistently interesting when taken as bite-sized moments, it’s been hard over the past week not to look at “Too Much” as the brief return of the album we really want from Drake. This is the sort of song where everything comes together in such new, glimmering ways as to validate any claims Drake makes to shifting the game around on opener “Tuscan Leather”. Drake, Sampha and Nineteen85 should be thanked immediately and often for that one. But it also reminds us how distracting the past 20-odd minutes have been, all posturing and cosplay in place of the riveting diary-writing going on around that. There’s something about Drake’s songs that refuses to be as engaging when he attempts to be a complete asshole - arguably, when he attempts to satiate hip-hop’s (former?) core tropes of testosterone and mean mugs. Still enjoyable, to me, but Nothing Was the Same doesn’t capitalize on Drake’s bipolar desires quite as well as Take Care did despite the condensation of everything into more digestible parts.
By the same token, Nothing Was the Same could very easily grow up to be one of those albums deemed “pretty good” at the time only to be recognized as Drake’s most likable album years from now. I certainly wouldn’t be surprised.
(The deluxe edition includes “Come Thru”, a simple little sex-ballad that’s clearly meant as a coda to the closing-track-titular Paris Morton, and “All Me”, a Big Sean and 2 Chainz number Drake happens to appear on. They aren’t necessary, but R&B Drake fans ought to dig “Come Thru” enough to warrant a purchase.)