I resisted Drake. I resisted Drake hard. In the beginning, when he was just another face on Lil Wayne’s already-overcrowded Young Money roster, I wondered how the hell anyone was supposed to take this kid seriously. Rap, after all, has not historically been kind to Canadians or to teenage soap-opera veterans. When he released his So Far Gone mixtape, he suddenly started to make sense; his rapping was pedestrian, but he had a silky voice and a great instinct for what sort of music best fit it, and “Best I Ever Had” was the sort of stratospheric pop-rap jam that launches gigantic careers. By the time he release Thank Me Later last year, though, I was done. He was dead to me. I thought his unfunny-punchline hashtag-rap style was clumsy and artless, and I just hated the idea that this kid was already getting surly and self-involved about fame on his first album. But a year and a half later, Drizzy did it. He made a great album. He did it by focusing on his strengths, minimizing his weaknesses, and developing his voice. And more to the point, he figured out what he wanted to say and how to say it. Take Care is just as emotionally affecting as it is musically canny, and it’s miles better than anything I ever thought this kid could do.
The Lil Wayne/Rick Ross/DJ Khaled collab “I’m On One” was my first indication that Drake was doing something special this year. It’s not on Take Care, but it’s really a Drake song with a couple of extra guest verses and some easily-ignored DJ bellowing. On past posse cuts like “Forever,” Drake felt like he had to sound tough and bulldoze through his verses, and it didn’t work — for me, anyway. But on “I’m On One,” Drake floats over the beat, letting icy loneliness creep into his voice and dancing around the airily gorgeous beat on his own verse. The track effectively brings Ross and Wayne into Drake’s universe rather than floundering toward someone else’s idea of rap epicness. And it conveys a feeling — a lost, stoned-out remoteness that finally gives dimension and force to all the fuck-fame silliness of Thank Me Later; without blasting us in the face with the idea, Drake finds away to convey how alienating all that fame might be to a young guy like him. And it also recalls all the too-much-drugs-and-sex coldness of Drake’s buddy and fellow Torontonian the Weeknd, who’s become something of a spirit animal for Drake this year.
That’s something about Take Care: Drake finally has a fully-developed aesthetic, a sound that belongs entirely to him. The Weeknd’s snarly, debauched soul is in there. So is the xx’s wintry goth-pop, and the showers-of-glass bass-wobble of late-’90s/early-’00s Virginia R&B. European club music shows up, but it’s only heard at a distance, as in the smothered-in-blankets thump of the title track, which allows Rihanna to sound like an actual human being for what feels like the first time. And rap music is in there, too — especially the swampy Southern snarls shit and the twerked-up jackhammer snares that first built the Cash Money name. Drake namechecks Yo Gotti, lets Birdman gargle triumphantly on an outro, quotes an old rock-hard Wayne verse at length on “Underground Kings.” “Practice” reinvents a Juvenile crossover-bounce classic as a funereal hymn to Drake’s own loving prowess, and it also serves as a stark reminder that two tracks came from the same rap label, and that the same horniness animates both of them. Drake interacts with this rap music like a fan — never trying to inhabit that hardness the way he did on Thank Me Later, but letting it color his music, flesh out the details.
In the run-up to the album, there have been a few great stories about Drake’s production mastermind Noah “40″ Shebib; my friend Nick Sylvester’s FADER profile, in particular, stands out. 40 is worth noticing. He and Drake have built an immersive, powerful sound, and together they seem to understand perfectly how an album like this should flow. Plenty of big-name guests show up, but they don’t seem to be there for name value; they’re there because Drake and 40 know when different voices are needed. After a few early bleak tracks, the album needs a jolt of energy, so Nicki Minaj blazes through her “Make Me Proud” verse. Then, Drake needs to step outside the heartbreak for some triumphal rap shit, so we get the epically pounding Just Blaze verse and the kingly Rick Ross verse of “Lord Knows.” After the bitter internal monologue of “Marvin’s Room,” Kendrick Lamar stops by quickly, as if to remind Drake that there’s a world outside his head. The haunted Stevie Wonder harmonica solo at the end of “Doing It Wrong” lets that one drown in its sorrow. It’s all very, very smart.
Take Care’s closest peer is probably Kanye West’s 808s & Heartbreaks, an album I loved and one that only improves with time. They’re both bitterly inward, soulfully bratty documents from stylish A-list rap types. But on 808s, Kanye’s dessicated electro hellscape was an actual superstar freakout moment; he made that album to keep himself from drowning, or to help himself drown. Drake’s album is way more calculated, laser-focused on developing what it is, exactly, that Drake wants to say. One approach isn’t better than the other, necessarily. But Drake doesn’t have Kanye’s natural talent — not even close — so he needed to make this album this way. So he’s not rapping as much, not relying on that hashtag-rap format. There are still a few forehead-smackers — “Shout out to my Asian girls, let the lights dim some,” whoof. But Drake has improved as a rapper; he’s more fluid now, and he’s not underlining his halfassed lines with long pauses and beat drop-outs. And he’s also smart enough to realize when he’s not a good enough rapper to say what he wants. So the deepest-cutting moments on Take Care are the ones where he lets his voice drift along in an acid little singsong, one that beautifully conveys his heaviest shit.
My friend Sean Fennessey’s blog post about “Look What You’ve Done” is devastating, and that song — the one about the women who raised him, about his gratitudes and regrets — is really only the beginning. It’s one side of many. We also get Drake on “Marvin’s Room,” begging for help and lashing out at the same time, telling his ex how much he wants her back in the same breath as he lets her know how much sex he’s having. We get “Shot For Me,” with its sad drunken revelry in leaving behind a girl who he still loves. We get “Underground Kings,” where Drake tries to navigate the opposed polarities of rap-stardom largesse and self-doubt so crippling that you know it’s actually true. And we get feelings and ideas that I haven’t even managed to parse yet, since I’m still so struck with the surface-level musical prettiness of this whole album. There’s a lot to process here, and I remain gobsmacked that Drake has become someone who has given us music worth parsing. Salute.