At this point, it can be a bit exhausting to debate Drake’s place in popular music; it seems like listeners are split right down the middle. Funny thing is, Drake’s pros and cons tend to sound remarkably similar: his detractors think that his peculiar brand of emo-rap appeals directly to overly-emotional high-schoolers who don’t know any better, while his supporters believe that his emotional accessibility and honesty ably compensate for any technical shortcomings. It’s the age-old question: do we find a performer engaging because we can connect to what they’re saying, or do we simply admire them for their skills?

In a perfect world, it’s both, of course: when the thrill of inventive, well-performed music dovetails with an emotional connection, it hits that lovely, narrow little sweet spot that we listeners strive to discover. Drake’s been leaning on his plaintive everyman qualities for most of his career, but with the hotly-anticipated Take Care, the former Aubrey Graham simultaneously runs in both directions, stepping up his rapping and singing games even as he unearths candid tales of heartbreak that could make Damien Rice blush at their intimacy. It’s a fascinating direction for a relative newcomer on a meteoric rise, and Take Care exceeds expectations as a lush, often ethereal examination of the soul.

As such, Drake’s borne the brunt of an awful lot of Kanye comparisons of late, notably because Drake’s warts-and-all approach to rhyming – standard-issue boasting tempered by a fascinating self-probing, insecure streak – and Take Care‘s diverse sonic palette seem to invite a superficial correlation between it and My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. In reality, a fairly straight line can be drawn between Take Care and an earlier Kanye record; the downbeat song cycle, stark instrumentals, and icy soul of Drake’s latest seem to share spiritual DNA with Ye’s AutoTune breakup album 808s and Heartbreaks.

The result is a remarkably heartfelt album; one that’ll be filed in the hip-hop section strictly due to Drake’s reputation as a rapper. In practice, Drake’s vocals – not as AutoTuned to hell as Kanye’s on 808s, but always slightly ghostly and vaguely processed – never lack emotional directness; Drake rarely resorts to bragging or the pursuit of materialistic things. He lays bare his desires for companionship, even as he’s set up residence in the eye of the fame storm (complete with all the temptations that implies). He sounds close to breaking on “Shot For Me”, a song that sounds remarkably lonely for a tune that involves the typically social act of drinking; even when he opens first track “Over My Dead Body” with “I think I killed everybody in the game last year”, it doesn’t sound nearly as self-congratulatory as it reads. Like Kanye West and Superman before him, Drake connects by acknowledging his strengths, but undercutting them by acknowledging that the human heart still yearns for the intangible.

It’s a remarkable stride forward in a genre that favors grandstanding punctuated by a few token ballads. Drake’s turned the equation on its head; victory laps are few and far between on Take Care, even as Drake’s at the height of his popularity. It’s a remarkably daring record for someone of his stature – it’s artsy, often abstract, highly conceptual, and far more suited to a night alone than a night on the town. The ghost of Gil Scott-Heron grunts in the background of “I’ll Take Care of You”, as Drake and Rihanna confront each other about a dysfunctional romance; mixtape favorite The Weeknd lends his processed, abrasive falsetto to “Crew Love”, serving as the snaky devil on Drake’s shoulder; lush synths and swooping strings drive the contemplative, wrenching “Doing It Wrong”, punctuated by a Stevie Wonder harmonica solo. And then there’s “Marvin’s Room”, the album’s centerpiece, and perhaps the track most indicative of Take Care‘s sound: it’s grand drama of the highest order, but universal enough to connect to. It’s lengthy, boasts no discernible hook, and features Drake at his ugliest, laying bare his insecurities over the course of a misguided drunken dial to an ex; it’s such a minimalist, strangely abstract choice for a single, but the stylistic gambit connects like gangbusters. Drake sounds emotionally distanced, permanently wrecked by heartbreak, and downright pathetic; it’s that warts-and-all thing again, but the approach pays off.

Such is Take Care – it’s not a particularly charming record, or necessarily a likable one. But it’s as close to a For Emma, Forever Ago as hip-hop has gotten in the new millennium, and it’s fascinating – Drake paints a portrait of himself as an extremely flawed individual simply grasping for human connection in the face of newfound fame. Synth-drenched, contemplative, often cold, Take Care cultivates a specific mood and pays dividends after multiple spins. Sure, it’d be a little bit better with a couple less Lil’ Wayne guest shots – how long before that dude’s fifteen are spent again? – but it stands as an impressive achievement by an artist who’s clearly making music on his own terms.

Grade: A

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