Drake changed rap. He reshaped the landscape and forever altered the things that we expect from big rap stars. Before Drake, sensitive souls like Andre 3000 and Kanye West made a point of showing what rap stardom could look like if you dropped all the tough-guy stuff, but none of them came across quite so ferociously, defiantly wimpy as Drake. A suburban Canadian half-Jewish child star who simply cannot stop rapping about his feelings, Drake seems like exactly the sort of guy who, say, N.W.A would’ve happily robbed once upon a time. But through craft and charisma and canny decision-making, he’s pushed himself into a position as one of rap’s dominant figures and prime influencers. On a song like A$AP Rocky’s “Fuckin’ Problems,” Rocky and Kendrick Lamar sound like really good rappers, but Drake sounds like a star — a star whose top-dog status has helped create a climate where former Drake opening acts like fashionista Rocky and twitchy Kendrick can come close to stardom themselves. At this point, he’s redrawn the battle lines enough that you have to take him seriously, even if you don’t want to. And now, with Nothing Was The Same, Drake has made an album of defiantly simpy sad-bastard new-wave R&B, and it’s one of the most anticipated and satisfying rap albums of the year.
Nothing Was The Same isn’t Take Care, and it only gets to exist because Take Care came first. On Thank Me Later, Drake’s first official album, he was still struggling to get over on traditional rap-star terms, and he succeeded only because of his hooks and his beats and his guest appearances. His persona was rancid — complaining about fame on his first album — and his rapping was clumsy as fuck, but he had a team around him that wasn’t going to let him fuck up his momentum. It reminded me of the Game’s The Documentary — a great album from a mediocre rapper who was only allowed to taste greatness because everyone around him was doing incredible work. On Take Care, Drake threw out the blueprint, going for a sad soul-music style that fit his chiffon grunt beautifully, getting Jamie xx to make clouded-up club music for him and Rihanna and introducing the Weeknd to the VIP room behind the other VIP room. It was a bold, stark, expressive album — one that’s really only improved in the two years since Drake released it, in part because its influence has trickled out to completely suffuse whatever’s left of rap’s mainstream. Nothing Was The Same doesn’t really push musically beyond that; it’s the first Drake album to luxuriate in the sonic environment that Drake’s already created for itself. But what an environment!
Much of the credit for Nothing Was The Same will probably go to Noah “40” Shebib, Drake’s producer, and lord knows he deserves all of it. The actual music on Nothing Was The Same is an architectural marvel, a work of idiosyncratic widescreen pop-music largesse that plays like an interior monologue. The six-minute intro track “Tuscan Leather” doesn’t need a chorus because it has 40 flipping the same Whitney Houston sample a bunch of different ways, Drake breaking from the big talk long enough to muse that “40 is on Martin Scorsese” — not a bad comparison, in terms of vivid and detailed and mythic world-building. Ghosts of Houston rap dance through “Connect,” a faraway flicker of a Trae sample coexisting with Hudson Mohawke’s smeared dabs of expensive synths and a Phil Collins-esque heartbeat-kickdrum that doesn’t kick in until the song is half-over. “The Language” is a mocking echo of a DJ Khaled banger, always holding the cathartic anthemic boom just out of reach. A horror-movie music box chimes underneath all of the bonus posse-cut “All Me,” lending some uncanny dread to its great 2 Chainz verse. And musically, the single “Hold On, We’re Going Home” is prime nu-new wave; it could practically be a Chairlift instrumental.
Over tracks like this, Drake doesn’t really need to rap, and so he doesn’t, not really. More often, he sings in that plainspoken tenor coo, sounding like he’s confessing even when he’s bragging. The only song where he really gets that stadium sneer revved up is “Started From The Bottom,” a song that’s built on an obvious and transparent lie — Drake absolutely did not start from the bottom — and one that feels like a years-old nugget from a past life at this point. “The Language” is pure bravado, lyrically, but he sings it all softly. And on “Worst Behavior,” his simplistic emotive yelling almost sounds like a parody of the Chief Keef grunt-style. He steals one Mase verse wholesale — and not an obscure one, either — and then spends the rest of the song bellowing “worst behavior!” and “motherfucker never loved us!” over and over, successfully gambling on the idea that he can get that feeling across without translating it into actual bars.
But Drake can rap, when he wants. He’s enormously improved in that respect. And yet he does it selectively, just pulling out his sharpest lines where they’ll matter the most. Consider, for example, “Pound Cake / Paris Morton Music 2.” Beyond R&B impressionists like Jhené Aiko and Sampha, there’s only one big guest on the whole album, and it’s Jay-Z on that song. And Jay sounds like trash. That part where he just says “cake” over and over? Jesus. Whoof. Now, even at this late date, a Jay-Z guest verse still means something to people. It’s a status symbol, and Drake uses it as one. But he also takes the opportunity to show how effortlessly he can outrap a rap god. On Thank Me Later, Jay showed up to offer Drake life advice in rap form. Here, he’s just the guy talking before Drake flashes back on romantic regrets and trying to get Lil Wayne to notice him. Even on Take Care, Drake enlisted a ton of famous rappers for guest verses. Here, he mostly can’t be bothered. He’s created his own context.
And that context is a funny thing. Beyond the few braggy tracks here, the lyrics on Nothing Was The Same practically belong on a ’70s singer-songwriter record. “Don’t assume cuz I don’t respect assumptions, babe / I’m just trying to connect to something, babe”: That could practically be a James Taylor line, right down to the condescending babes. There’s going to be a lot of talk about Drake’s treatment of women on Nothing Was The Same, and it will all be justified. Drake does sound like an asshole most of the time. But I also submit that he knows he sounds like he’s an asshole, that he’s putting that side of him out there on purpose. On one “From Time” verse, he drunkenly flips through a mental list of past relationships and realizes how he fucked up and lost each one. “The one that I needed was Courtney from Hooters on Peachtree / I’ve always been feeling like she was the piece to complete me / Now she engaged to be married; what’s the rush on commitment? / Know we were going through some shit; name a couple that isn’t” — can it be that Drake is here, in public, wrestling with the idea that you can blow it with someone you like, when you don’t offer that person what she needs? Is it just occurring to him as he sings it? Or is he putting his selfish shortsightedness on display because it makes him look bad? That one comes a couple of tracks after “Own It,” where he murmurs about being drawn to a toxic relationship, unable to disentangle himself from it, sounding helpless and just hoping he can figure out how to make it work. Lyrically, this is Fiona Apple territory — not rendered as eloquently, maybe, but still fucking revolutionary when it comes as part of an A-list rap album. In the middle of that song, where he erupts into tough-guy talk — “Niggas talk more than bitches these days” — it’s transparent, and it doesn’t last long.
So here we have a gorgeously wounded piece of work, intricately arranged to flow, about how the guy who made it is a hopeless and confused emotional oaf who can’t find happiness even though he knows he has everything going for him. That’s a complicated idea to get across, but Nothing Was The Same does it with slick panache. It’s a deeply pretty album about deeply ugly ideas. And even if it’s only barely a rap album, rap is more interesting with an album like this around.
Nothing Was The Same is out 9/24 on Young Money.