Hype is a hard thing to overcome-I’ve said it before. As someone who follows the goings-on of the music industry, I certainly fall victim to heightened expectations and wind up getting disappointed every once in a while.
No one’s been the beneficiary of more hype over the course of the past year than Drake. His story seems unlikely in the world of hip-hop. He’s biracial. He’s Canadian. His first name is AUBREY, for Chrissakes. Even more damning, he was a child star-on “Degrassi”, no less. While that works for Justin Timberlake or Christina Aguilera, in hip-hop, you’re only as good as your street cred. And Drake has about as much street cred as Miley Cyrus.
Nevertheless, Drake seemingly burst out of nowhere with the single “Best I Ever Had”. Soon, he got snapped up by Lil Wayne and became part of his Young Money crew. Big name artists were chomping at the bit to work with him-hell, how many newcomers get to jump on a track with Weezy, Kanye West and Eminem? Anticipation’s been running high for his full-length debut, “Thank Me Later”, for a year. Granted, a lot of this anticipation was media-created, but unlike most prefabricated sensations these days, the general public actually seems to have drunk the Kool-Aid.
Despite the screaming of the hype machine, I’ve tried hard to listen to “Thank Me Later” with an open mind. The verdict? It takes a couple of listens to get the full effect, but it’s not a bad record. Drake himself isn’t especially compelling from a skill-set standpoint. He’s a mediocre emcee-think Lil Wayne without the space-cadet punchlines. If you put this guy in a cipher, 75% of rappers would smoke him. However, if good albums were all about rhyme skills, then it wouldn’t be a decade plus since KRS-ONE’s last good album, feel me?
“Thank Me Later” is saved by several things. One is Drake’s subject matter, which has a self-reflective tone to it. The songs that reflect Drake’s ambivalence about his burgeoning fame and the complications that have resulted from it are the best, although some of you might get a little tired of someone belly-aching about being famous. Drake’s conversational rapping style isn’t especially witty, but it draws you in. He’s a more emotive singer than rapper, although he’s not super-proficient in either field. “Thank Me Later” is very much in line with most of the good hip-hop that’s appeared since Kanye (who contributes several tracks here) appeared on the scene. Actually, if “Thank Me Later” has any precedent, it’s Kanye’s similar moody “808s and Heartbreak”. The production (mainly provided by Drake’s in house associates Boi-1da and Noah “40” Shebib, with the standout track “Karaoke” produced by Francis & the Lights) is atmospheric and synthesizer-heavy. It’s pretty un-hip hop, with more in common from a musical standpoint to your average indie rock record. This is a plus. A big plus.
One other thing “Thank Me Later” has going for it is the quality of the guest appearances. It’s a sign of the times that in order for an album to be commercially successful in urban music it has to have numerous guest appearances, but damn-how many “featuring”s did “Illmatic” or “Ready to Die” have? At any rate, T.I. rips the frame out of the album’s most bouncy cut, “Fancy” (which also has a nice, moody coda-nice job on the instrumental tip!) and Jay-Z delivers some timely big-brother advice on “Light Up”. Young Jeezy and Lil Wayne are relatively unobtrusive on their respective cameos. The only major misstep on the cameo tip is Nicki Minaj (surprised?). Someone needs to sign legislation making it illegal for this no-talent waste of silicone to rap.
So…ultimately? “Thank Me Later” isn’t going to save hip-hop. It’s not a paradigm-shifter (although to be fair, hip-hop hasn’t produced a paradigm shifter since “The College Dropout”), but it is quite listenable. Drake comes off as much more relatable and engaging when he’s looking inward. In order to truly appreciate it, you definitely have to strip away the hype and inflated expectations.