Discard nearly everything dislikable about Thank Me Later, amplify the emotional candor by several degrees, and get ready for the most complete pop album of 2011.
There's something fun you can do when discussing Take Care with people that grew up in a different era of hip-hop, or just hate pop music. Call it beautiful. Go ahead, try it. Doesn't it sound funny to you, too? It's a weird thing to say about a hip-hop album. In fact I'm nearly positive it's never really been attempted before. Sure, rap artists have said beautiful things, featured beautiful choruses and, at the very least, introduced video viewers to a litany of beautiful women. But hip-hop always found its roots in bass, in at least a measurable amount of grit and mean-mugged struggle. Soul, funk, ruggedness. Take Care? This album could care less. The opening number is centered on a gorgeous little piano melody and Noah Shebib's signature low pass filters, both of which support Drake dancing between rapping and alto vocals more nimbly than ever during verses that lead us towards a chorus from a woman married to Our Lady Peace's Raine Maida. Which is to say, if you thought Thank Me Later was Drake playing it safe on the heels of So Far Gone's runaway success, Drake heard you.
Let's detour back to Thank Me Later for a moment. Initially I was fairly ambivalent about that album: nice hooks, some clever raps, catchy beats and a whole lot of Drake-being-soft. But those beats and those hooks had me coming back over and over again during the summer, with me slowly finding more respect for the awkward honesty Drake wanted to share -- not to mention simply huge collaborations like "Light Up" and "Miss Me". After a long hiatus, I returned to the album this summer and was flabbergasted to discover it was actually one of my favorite hip-hop releases of the past couple years. At some point over those seven or eight months I'd come to connect with Drake on a lot more levels than I had when Thank Me Later first dropped. Much like his original mentor, Phonte of Little Brother, Drake was a guy who could flip the rap/R&B switch near-perfectly, and wasn't afraid to tell us what was on his mind even at the expense of being taken seriously.
So, as Drake mounted the hype campaign for Take Care with the player hater anthem "Marvin's Room" and "Trust Issues", I couldn't help but wonder exactly how perfect Take Care could possibly be. Despite all his success, Drake seemed on the edge of losing his mind. Here he was, one of the most successful musicians of 2010 by nearly any measure moaning over the same girls he'd known before he was famous, the same problems he'd had as an upper class suburban teen. Could Drake really be that honest with us or, perhaps more realistically, play that character so convincingly for us over a whole album? Take Care responds with quite a resounding "hell yeah, fuckin' right" as Drake, 40 and his rotating roster of guests try their damnedest to create a pop rap album that can compete with Kanye West's monstrous My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. They don't quite get there, but they did a damn fine job trying.
After the opener I've already discussed, the following songs essentially act as prelude to the real meat of the album. Drake explains how he'll take care of his friends until he's dead and gone, how he views extravagance as an escape and reviews the personal struggles he let us in on during Thank Me Later. More than anything, he takes responsibility for his life and the lives of those around him repeatedly, a sentiment that reaches its apex much later in the album. After the album's most challenging moment (the Weeknd collaboration "Crew Love" -- seriously, that bridge is unexplainable and takes a couple tries to sink in), Drake duets with Rihanna on the album's title track (itself a remake of Jamie xx's Gil-Scott Heron remix "I'll Take Care of U"). Drake memorably explored his shortcomings as a partner for Rihanna on Thank Me Later, and this de facto sequel finds Rihanna delivering a vocal far, far prettier than one would ever expect from her lips that essentially forgives Drake and promises him friendship for life. Predictably, Drake does the same because what man is going to turn down Rihanna's open hand? Quite humorously, "Marvin's Room" follows, Drake's now infamous five-minute drunk dial in which he tears down an ex girlfriend's new lover and provides a list of reasons why Drake should be back in her life. Also, a ridiculous Kendrick Lamar verse is hidden as a tacked on interlude that describes Kendrick meeting Drake for the first time and realizing he was on the cusp of real fame. It's a fairly abstract, curious little thing that works in spite of itself. It feels like a random favor Kendrick took full advantage of.
It's the section that follows this segment which will probably develop the most heated discussion. T-Minus provides three straight tracks full of big time bass and 40-like filters, Drake going back to his themes of crew affection and self-reflection. Then Just Blaze supplies what many are calling the beat of the year (I disagree but it's definitely an appropriate conversation starter), this extremely massive, soul-burning concoction featuring Rick Ross in which Drake finds the courage to lash out at anyone who thinks his 'softness' is a negative trait. But after this vitriolic period, eventually "Good Ones Go" comes along, a sweetly tender ballad about the many things Drake's let slip through his fingers in his pursuit of fame. He then goes on to describe in detail women he's met who he's failed to make lasting connections with, going so far as inviting Andre 3000, Stevie Wonder's harmonic and Lil' Wayne along to help him explain how difficult it is for guys like him sometimes. These songs are heavy on his Autotuned-into-beauty R&B side, and some could find it a bit sleep-inducing, even though I find it all quite touching to the point it's my favorite segment of the album. The Stevie Wonder featuring "Doing It Wrong" in particular is so touching and addictive, especially when Stevie's harmonica slowly starts to creep in underneath Drake's lament over young people in love's inability to stop being friends or be friends without being lovers. That song is Drake at The-Dream levels of pop perfection.
By the time Take Care hits its crucial final three songs, it's hard to believe the album is near its end, even as the runtime ticks past 60 minutes. But "Look What You've Done" surely feels like Drake is ready to place his heart on the table and get out of our way shortly afterwards. He revisits his frequent analysis of the events that led to his fame, this time focusing acutely on his southern uncle and abandoned mother. He addresses his maternal relationship especially frankly, opening the song in his mother's basement with his famous ex-girlfriend Nebby, arguing with his mom about her struggles with quitting smoking and his anger over it that eventually develops into relief that he's successful enough to pay for her medical bills and a European vacation. The uncle segment details his wild summers in Houston and the various bits of life advice he gleaned from those trips to his uncle's house. It's a deeply touching moment that ends with a monologue from his grandmother via retirement home, something that feels much like Kanye West's "Runaway". Afterward we get a hype track ("HYFR") with Lil' Wayne and a strange, syrupy R&B cover of Juvenile's "Back Dat Azz Up", almost as if Drake needed to take a break before giving us the song he and many of his peers have claimed is the best song he's ever penned, "The Ride". Another collaboration with Abel Tesfaye and his production team, much like "Crew Love" it's a piece that takes a couple digestions to make sense of. But the verses are Drake at his most unfiltered, dismissing his haters once and for all amongst verses that describe first how hard he tries to feel normal and forget his old flames now that everything comes easy to him, and second how hard he once tried to attain the life he's not so sure he wants now. Both verses are filled with fabulous details and are among the strongest, most human moments of a career full of them already.
Take Care arrives without as many blatant highs as Thank Me Later, nor as many obvious singles. But it's also one slightly embarrassing Nicki Minaj verse and one awkward Lil' Wayne feature (the "HYFR" one) away from being by far the smoothest hip-hop and/or pop listen you're likely to come across this year. Unlike Thank Me Later, the flaws are never on Drake's or his producer's shoulders, and he's created a wholly consistent audio template to work with that makes the track sequencing pretty much perfect (those last four songs seem like they could go in just about any order, and I suppose that might be something to blame Drake and Shebib for) and gives the listener little time to contemplate one track before the next one has their full and undivided attention. All of which raises a perplexing question: it's undoubtedly true that Drake's success would have been slightly less dramatic had he not come out alongside the pop caricature version of Lil' Wayne and every 12-year-old girl's favorite rapper, Nicki Minaj. But now that his sophomore album's biggest faults lie in the hands of his connections to Young Money, and its greatest successes a result of his expanding relationships in Toronto and the industry at large, one has to at least entertain the possibility Drake would be even better off if he set out on his own. Then again, at this point the only person that could halt Drake's success at this point is already Drake himself. Sure he's corny, but he's also an excellent songwriter, and he owns his quirks, which for my money is all I ask for from a pop artist. Especially if you're going to make something as shiny and attractive to the ears as Take Care.