I consider myself something of a snob when it comes to hip-hop. If you’d told me at some point before Drake’s arrival “Hey, Mike. The most commercially viable rapper in 2013 is a half-Jewish Canadian former TV star,” I wouldn’t have been happy, but I also wouldn’t have been surprised. If you’d told me that I’d actually like the guy? I would have been quite surprised. I might have even punched you.
Honestly- I’m not mad at Aubrey Drake Graham. He’s got a sufficient amount of lyrical skill and he’s also a passable singer. Someone probably needs to activate his “edit” button, but I don’t knock his hustle. I’d rather listen to him than about 90% of what passes for mainstream hip-hop these days.
Besides-his most obvious influence-Kanye West-is one of my favorite artists. Take away Kanye’s politicism, his big mouth, his art aspirations and his production skills, and…well, there’s Drake. A safe, approachable Xerox of a Xerox of Kanye. The younger rapper has obviously listened to a lot of College Dropout and 808s & Heartbreak, not least because his third full-length album, Nothing Was the Same, opens up with a sped-up sample (courtesy of Whitney Houston’s “I Have Nothing”) and ends with a Jay-Z feature. Other ‘Ye trademarks are evident, incuding plenty of navel gazing, eye-rolling braggadocio, and that detached style of vocalizing that polarized audiences on 808s.
Despite the title, Nothing Was the Same doesn’t sound a helluva lot different from Drake’s other albums, but that’s not to say there aren’t subtle new wrinkles. A big one (to my ears/eyes at least) is that Jay is the only big-name guest that pops up on the entire album (I believe the deluxe version, which I didn’t buy, has a few more collaborators.) When you consider hip-hop’s tendency to go overboard on the big-name features and Drake’s full Rolodex, this is a minor miracle. Think about Drake’s relationship with the Young Money/Cash Money camp and realize that neither Weezy nor Nicki takes a breath on this album. You’ve gotta give him props for that alone.
While Nothing Was The Same is by no means worthy of the full-on saliva-encrusted handie that Pitchfork gave it in their review, it’s not the piece of trash that many will reject it as, either. It’s interesting from a production standpoint (very much electro-pop/downtempo/’80s influenced) and there are a couple of excellent tracks amid a slew of average ones. “Hold On, We’re Going Home,” might be the best pop song of 2013, and could have just as easily been a smash for, say, Culture Club back in the mid-Eighties (the high-pitched vocals echoing Drake’s are giving me serious Helen Terry vibes.) “Wu-Tang Forever” is a song that has drawn a bit of criticism for not sounding like the Wu-Tang Clan, but anyone with half a brain can see that the point wasn’t to recreate a sound, it was to maybe pay tribute, but most obviously to reference the prominent sample of “It’z Yourz” that appears throughout the song.
What might get a little old after a while is the fact that Drake essentially has two settings-braggy and moody. The braggy stuff gets old really quickly (I didn’t like “Started From The Bottom” the first time I heard it and like it even less now,) and the moody stuff can be grating if you’re not musically attuned to that kind of stuff. I listen to a ton of singer/songwriters, so it doesn’t bother me in the least, and the fact of the matter is that it generally results in Drake’s better material. That said, even 13/14 tracks of Drake might be too much, and it’s telling that the most memorable moment on Nothing Was The Same comes from someone else. Jigga’s rhyme on “Pound Cake” (which certainly references Rihanna and might also take shots at her) is more inspired, more energetic, than anything else on the album.
Can you give a “passing” grade to an album whose main artist doesn’t even appear in its best moment? Yes. By that hypothesis, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy would have to be docked a few points because Nicki Minaj and Chris Rock provided the two most interesting moments on it. At the same time, the material on Nothing Was The Same is a fairly mixed bag. While Drake’s certainly established himself commercially, and has more than his share of great singles, I’m still waiting for him to make a great album. And for all his Kanye-spirations, this ain’t it.