Drake had already changed the game. Technically, Thank Me Later, released 10 years ago, was his debut album. But with his 2009 mixtape So Far Gone, he had rocketed straight to superstardom and begun the process of fundamentally altering the sound of mainstream rap. It was time for the coronation. Instead, Drake delivered a confounding LP that, even as it spun off hits, raised questions about whether a debut could be a sophomore slump. “I had someone tell me I fell off, ooh I needed that,” he’d rap the following summer, owning up to Thank Me Later’s flaws — not that that the album’s bizarre sequencing, rampant self-pity, and abundant hashtag-rap clunkers stalled out his career momentum whatsoever.
When So Far Gone first blew up, Drake had been an easy punchline for rap skeptics and self-professed guardians of “real hip-hop” alike. A former teen soap opera actor? From Canada? And he’s cooing sweet melodies over fluffy synthesizer clouds like some hipster R&B singer? This was no one’s idea of a superstar rapper. It didn’t matter. The more people jeered Drake’s defiantly soft approach and clumsy bars, the louder the cheers drowned them out. Gracefully gliding between singing and rapping, backed by Noah “40” Shebib’s opulent mood music and buoyed by cosigns from both mentor Lil Wayne and key inspiration Kanye West (the two biggest stars in rap at the time), Drake went from Datpiff obscurity to the A-list in an instant.
In the 16 months since So Far Gone’s release, Drake had launched the jubilant sex romp “Best I Ever Had” — a then-novel track on which he both rapped the verses and sang the hook — all the way to #2 on the Hot 100, bolstered by a lascivious basketball-themed video directed by Kanye. The gloomy Trey Songz duet “Successful,” had also become a rap radio staple, and when the EP-length retail version of the tape dropped, “I’m Goin’ In” popped off too. Drake had garnered critical acclaim with a palette of guests and samples that catered to both the hip-hop blogs and the indie-rock blogs, but he very quickly ascended to an echelon in which reviews became irrelevant. Across 2009 and 2010, he appeared on singles by Jamie Foxx, Mary J. Blige, DJ Khaled, Timbaland, Rick Ross, Diddy, Birdman, both the living and dead members of UGK, and, in what became his first #1 hit, Rihanna. His buzz was such that he headlined “Forever,” an all-star posse cut also featuring Kanye, Wayne, and Eminem, which soon became the soundtrack for his own Sprite commercial.
“Forever” etched young Aubrey Graham into a Mount Rushmore of rappers with extreme pop crossover power. Commercially, it makes perfect sense retrospectively since he was a radio staple right away and hasn’t really waned in that regard. But creatively, he wasn’t in the same league yet. On his opening verse he notoriously rapped, “She insist she got more class, we know/ Swimmin’ in the money, come and find me, Nemo,” a dour example of the hashtag-style punchlines that were a crutch for him at the time. His chorus, though, was piercingly melodic. It was far from his best work, but it showed off his pop acumen. This guy knew from hooks. Run his voice through some filters and let him cook, and he was guaranteed to serve you up something catchy.
This intuitive grasp of melody lent excitement to even Drake’s less-than-stellar rapping; in a fumbling cadence, he’d be condescending toward some ex back home in Toronto or marveling at the spoils and perils of his newfound celebrity, and then suddenly his voice would dart upward into a delicate croon, crystalline and sweet. Both his rapping and his singing could be embarrassingly bad, but the way he blurred the line between the two was intoxicating. He understood how to put a sparkling sheen on Kid Cudi’s lonely-stoner innovations. A decade later, his knack for turning everything into a hook remains key to his appeal. It’s a big reason he has been able to survive and thrive through so many sea changes in rap. Even as he struck tough poses, improved his skills as an MC, and kicked out rap-focused releases like If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late, he was essentially a pop artist operating out of the hip-hop sphere.
So naturally, Thank Me Later is both an obnoxiously bad rap album and a pretty good pop album. At the time, Drake was like a superhero who had discovered his powers and was still learning how to use them, with all the requisite growing pains that entails. He and 40 had cultivated a distinct vision, but commingling his personal aesthetic with the prevailing sounds of the moment — a trick they’d return to again and again over the years — was an awkward process at first. Although it featured a 2010 rap and R&B all-star team including Lil Wayne, Jay-Z, Alicia Keys, Young Jeezy, T.I., Swizz Beats, Nicki Minaj, and The-Dream, Thank You Later wasn’t the stereotypical clunky rap debut album, on which a meddlesome label A&R forces an artist in directions that don’t make sense in a misguided effort to cater to different markets. It was clunky for reasons that had everything to do with Drake’s own choices.
Weirdly, Thank Me Later begins with three straight slow jams. First comes “Fireworks,” an Alicia Keys duet on which Drake reflects on his newfound fame over luxuriant piano and the moody synths that have always been the bedrock of his sound. Then it’s “Karaoke,” a wispy and Charmin-soft ’80s pop throwback produced by Francis And The Lights that includes such Drake-isms as “Isn’t it ironic that the girl I want to marry is a wedding planner” and “Don’t be fooled by the money, I’m still young and unlucky.” These are not elite Drake songs, but they’re fine in a vacuum. Then along comes “The Resistance,” the album’s nadir, which joins together with the first two tracks to form a quicksand moat of solipsism out front of the album. Over bleary post-808s & Heartbreak computer pop, Drake reckons with guilt over everything from not calling his grandmother to a tryst that ended in abortion. It’s a failed attempt at the profundity he’d attain a year later on the faded mirage “Marvins Room,” one that climaxes with Drake pitifully singing to himself, “What am I afraid of? This is supposed to be what dreams are made of.”
Drake’s fixation on aggrieved navel-gazing keeps resurfacing throughout the album, even as the tempo thankfully picks up. Even the sweeping and celebratory trap triumphal entry “Over” hinges on the observation that “I know way too many people here right now that I didn’t know last year — who the fuck are y’all?” Baring his depressed and agitated soul was Drake’s idea of depth — on the Kanye and No ID-produced “Show Me A Good Time,” he self-identifies as a “backpack rapper” and shouts out J Dilla — but mostly he just comes off as vapid and self-obsessed here. As Jeff Weiss wrote in the Los Angeles Times at the time, “Unfortunately, the emotionally charged lyrics rarely evolve beyond platitudes, exposing a profound emptiness at its core.” Drake consistently mistakes middle-school-grade punchlines for cleverness and patronizing analysis of his love interests for wisdom. It takes delusional levels of self-regard to end your album with a Timbaland-produced treatise called “Thank Me Now” that ranges from petty grievances to “Incredible Thoughts.”
Still, his confidence isn’t entirely unearned. Weiss also accurately pointed out that Drake “often finds himself outclassed by his blockbuster guests,” and yet some of the best songs on Thank Me Later are the ones on which Drake and his coterie of producers begin to force A-list collaborators onto their own territory. The brash and boisterous flirtation “Fancy” at first sounds like Drake attending Swizz Beats and T.I.’s party, but halfway through it descends into a low-key synthetic confessional epilogue as if disappearing into a dark corner of the club for a heart-to-heart, a trick Drake and 40 would continue to pull on tracks like “0 To 100/The Catch Up.” “Unforgettable” frames Jeezy’s thunderous vocals in misty sentimentalism. Jay-Z offers Drake career advice on “Light Up” over a shadowy, trashcan-banging beat that communicates high stakes even as Drake laments, “While all of my closest friends out partyin’, I’m just here makin’ all the music that they party to” and “I keep thinking how young can you die from old age?”
This was the sound of a sea change in progress, a hostile takeover played out one passive-aggressive aside at a time. That much was clear right away. In Rolling Stone, Jody Rosen raved, “Drake is in total command of a style that would have been hard to imagine dominating hip-hop a few years ago.” In an 8/10 Spin review, Ben Detrick opined that Thank Me Later “incorporates dynamics like few other hip-hop albums before it.” People argued in circles about Drake’s merit, but no one could dispute that he was bringing a radically different sound and perspective to rap radio and that it was catching on quickly. The fact that he posed such an obvious threat to blockbuster hip-hop’s status quo likely fueled the urgency of his haters — are we sure this is the guy we want to set the course of the genre?
For better or worse, there would be no stopping him. Thank Me Later’s aesthetic proved mesmerizing enough for legions of listeners to overlook its lyrical mishaps (or convince themselves he could spit), and his alienated, entitled posture clearly struck a chord with Drake’s fellow millennials, even if some of them felt as ambivalent about it as Drake himself claimed to feel. Most importantly, as ever, Aubrey had hits. “Over,” “Fancy,” and the Lil Wayne summit “Miss Me” were radio mainstays, bright and buoyant tracks that Trojan-horsed fans into Thank Me Later’s immaculate emotional quagmire. “Find Your Love” — a sweetly sung but weirdly demanding electronic R&B track produced by Kanye, No ID, and Jeff Bhasker — crossed over to Top 40 radio and became Drake’s second top-10 hit on the Hot 100. And this was the level of cultural saturation he achieved when delivering less than his best. By the end of the next year Drake would return with a truly great album that would cement him as rap and R&B’s new center of gravity. Drake’s story was far from over.