“Over My Dead Body”
Every piano chord is a shimmering pool, glassy on the surface, deep enough to get lost in. A sparse beat kicks up in the background, skipping and thudding as if we’re hearing it through the wall. Then comes Chantal Kreviazuk’s voice, sighing yet casually impassioned, painting streaks of neon on the music as she professes her irrational devotion. Crafted by Kreviazuk and a young sonic visionary named Noah “40” Shebib, it’s a softer, prettier intro than you’d expect from a blockbuster rap album before 2011. It sounds immaculate.
Aubrey Drake Graham had gone supernova more or less overnight by making softer, prettier music than your average rapper. With his second proper album Take Care, released 10 years ago today, he completed his ascendancy to the top of the mainstream rap food chain at a time when his status as a half-Jewish Canadian teen soap opera actor still felt novel. Drake was well aware of his vaunted position, and he wasted no time letting us know he’d taken the throne as prophesied on that summer’s “I’m On One” — as if the album cover photograph of him somberly holding court with his goblet and his candle and his solid-gold owl did not sufficiently convey the point. The first words out of his mouth: “I think I killed everybody in the game last year/ Man, fuck it, I was on, though.”
From there Drake surveys his kingdom with a now-familiar mix of ill-advised strip-club romance, humblebrags (and regular brags), wordplay both clever and groan-inducing, faux-wisdom that occasionally stumbles upon inspiration, and the airing of petty grievances, his rapping sliding now and then into little bursts of melody. Only once does he revert to the “hashtag-rap” flow he’d ridden to fame, and only to make a pointedly meta joke about his own improvement as a lyricist: “Man, all of your flows bore me/ Paint dryin’.” It is difficult to believe him when he insists, “I just been playin’, I ain’t even notice I was winnin’.”
“Shot For Me”
By the time Drake blew up, there was a robust two-decade history of R&B singers carrying themselves like rappers, but rarely had a rapper come off so much like an R&B singer. Lauryn Hill, certainly; Nelly, maybe, I guess? So when Drake tenderly crooned, “Bitch, I’m the man/ Don’t you forget it,” he was stepping into a long lineage of guys like Bobby Brown, R. Kelly, and Usher, but from the opposite side of the singer-rapper divide, with uncommon vulnerability and passive aggression.
Upon hearing “Best I Ever Had” two years earlier, when So Far Gone was rocketing him to fame, I had actually assumed Drake was an R&B guy at first. A rapper who didn’t just sing his own hooks, a la Biz Markie, but routinely broke out into sweetly melodious choruses — and who sometimes went entire songs without rapping at all, instead languishing within pillowy production like a memory clouded by liquor and resentment? It felt radical, like a violation of an unspoken division of labor. There was a binary in place; it’s why T-Pain, who laid so much groundwork for Drake, felt compelled to name his 2005 debut album Rappa Ternt Sanga. Drake was discarding the distinction entirely, blurring the two roles into one, with a grace and fluidity several steps beyond what key influence and collaborator-turned-frenemy Kanye West was doing on 808s & Heartbreak.
The impact of this pioneering approach would have been significantly less profound if Drake wasn’t also making fantastic pop singles. In the coming years he would become the North Star for not just rap and R&B but for all of pop music, inspiring countless young artists to explore their own emotional interiors through stylish genre hybrids. To hear Drake tell it, his influence was already pervasive by the time Take Care dropped: “Soap opera rappers, all these n****s sound like all my children,” he declared in one of the album’s most impressively multi-layered lyrics. “Headlines” captured Drake at his most accessible, his voice intuitively gliding over 40’s rippling synthesizers. There’s a reason people were attempting to copy this template — the same reason Drake himself returned to this it repeatedly on future hits like “God’s Plan” and “Laugh Now, Cry Later.”
None of his imitators were making it sound quite so easy, though by his own admission even Drake struggled to pull off this sound for a while. “I had someone tell me I fell off/ Ooh, I needed that,” he sing-rapped on “Headlines” — a candid admission that his 2010 debut album Thank Me Later, despite contributing to his rapid rise, was far from his best work. No such trouble here: Take Care is the sound of Drake and 40 coming into their own, perfecting their aesthetic. After a clunky gestation period under the harsh glare of the spotlight, here was an album truly worthy of all that adulation, a modern classic that still stands as Drake’s finest achievement.
The Weeknd was still a phantom in 2011, a mysterious practitioner of nihilistic art-damaged R&B, and as a credited co-writer on five tracks, he haunts Take Care. In particular, you cannot un-hear Abel Tesfaye’s influence on the “Shot For Me” topline once you recognize it. But his big “Ladies and gentlemen, the Weeknd!” moment is “Crew Love,” a song that probably introduced Tesfaye to a far broader audience than his critically acclaimed mixtapes ever did. This song was intended for that initial trilogy, a shadowy environment custom-built for the Weeknd’s quivering tenor to wail away. It opened up chilling new corners of the mythologized Toronto that Drake’s discography was in the process of sketching out.
Drake doesn’t sound entirely at home within this lascivious underworld — maybe because it would be a few more years before he figured out how to convincingly project menace himself, or maybe because he was still struggling to convince himself it was a good idea to leave behind university life and become a world-famous performing artist. “Smoking weed under star projectors” certainly sounds like something you’d do if you were pining for the college experience. Meanwhile Tesfaye could not sound more callous and commanding in the space between the depth-charge blasts: “This ain’t no fucking sing-along/ So girl, what you singing for?” It wouldn’t be the last time Drake, always the expert curator, would turn over Take Care to a rising talent who would one day rival his own superstardom.
Within months of breaking through with So Far Gone in 2009, Drake was romantically linked to Rihanna, who by then was already one of the biggest pop stars in the world. They didn’t last long as a couple, but that didn’t stop them from leveraging public interest in their personal history in a series of event duets. The simmering intrigue was palpable on “Take Care,” lending a will-they won’t-they tension to Rihanna’s readings of lines like “If you let me, here’s what I’ll do/ I’ll take care of you.” But even two strangers might have sounded like star-crossed lovers if gifted with Jamie xx’s weightless, aching production — a sort of muted, deconstructed house beat that surged in and out of big-drums arena-rock bombast.
To some of us, Jamie xx contributing production to a Drake album — production sourced from a Gil Scott-Heron collaboration, no less — was more exciting than Drake and Rihanna professing their affection for each other on record. Even more so than the Lykke Li and Peter Bjorn And John samples on So Far Gone, “Take Care” functioned as a form of vicarious validation for indie nerds: The biggest rap star in the world likes the same music as us! Never mind that any sense of connection forged with Drizzy over his impeccable taste was about as fleeting and artificial as Rihanna’s interest in settling down with him. For four and a half minutes, it all added up to some spectacular showbiz.
The summer before Take Care dropped, I listened to two Drake MP3s on repeat almost constantly. Drake had intrigued and impressed me before, but I found these tracks completely mesmerizing. They elevated me from a casual fan to someone who would be attuned to Drake’s frequency for a long time, starting with feverish anticipation for Take Care. One of those songs, the holographic Jai Paul flip “Dreams Money Can Buy,” did not end up on the album and was confined to YouTube-rip purgatory until finally resurfacing on the Care Package comp years later. The other was “Marvins Room,” which became the cornerstone of Take Care, its pitiful, revolutionary center of gravity.
So much about “Marvins Room” felt new and transcendent. The music was one of the most impressive advancements of Drake and 40’s signature sound: a drum machine loop so minimal it could pass for a heartbeat, a cloud of keyboards that seemed to fade in and out of this dimension like a ghost. In terms of subject matter, the song is a deeply unflattering self-portrait in the form of a drunk dial, complete with snippets of actual phone conversation between Drake and one of his exes. When he tells her, “I’m just sayin’ you could do better,” it’s clear we’re not supposed to believe him. When he tells himself, “I’ve been in this club too long,” that tracks. On Take Care, Drake was still treating his flaws like flaws, and it led to works of devastating vulnerability like this. I miss that Drake. He was so good at being such a mess.
“Buried Alive Interlude”
Ten years later, is wild to envision a young Kendrick Lamar breaking bread with Drake the newly minted superstar in Toronto. It is wild to hear Kendrick, still a year away from good kid, m.A.A.d. city, openly thirsting for Drake’s success despite dreading what money and fame might do to him. It is wild, given the cold war that would later transpire between them, to remember that Drake shined such a spotlight on Kendrick in this era, gifting him this interlude and even hand-picking him to open for the Club Paradise Tour. It is wild to be reminded that Kendrick was already rapping like this back then, contorting the English language and the human voice with such abstract poetic flair. It is wild that this same conflicted nervous wreck from Compton would hijack Big Sean’s “Control” less than two years later and declare himself the king of New York. It is wild to think about what would happen if these two blog-era survivors got on a track together today.
“Under Ground Kings,” “We’ll Be Fine”
“Seem like yesterday that I was up and coming,” Drake raps on Take Care‘s celebratory party track, just before declaring, “I’m trying to let go of the past.” Yet he spends much of the prior song taking us “back in the days, Acura days,” reframing his formative years as the stuff of legend. Take Care does not have an overarching narrative, but it is probably no coincidence that the song where Birdman shows up to anoint Drake with resplendent shit-talk comes right after the one where Drake remembers bumping “Neck Of The Woods” with his friends, when life as a Cash Money Millionaire was still just a dream.
“Make Me Proud,” “Lord Knows”
By this point, though, Cash Money had given rise to Young Money. In 2011, YMCMB was rap’s new dynasty, with Lil Wayne still riding high off his legendary 2000s run and two of his proteges remaking popular music in their own image. Drake and Nicki Minaj will always be linked: not just as label-mates performatively flirting with each other on single after single, but as transformative figures who redefined rap’s relationship with pop and became archetypes for a whole generation of rising stars. In 2011 Nicki was achieving levels of Top 40 radio success that have been elusive even for Drake, channeling that pop-rap symbiosis into outlandish high-fructose bangers while holding on to the ferociousness that made her “Monster” verse so instantly legendary. It’s nice to think back on a time when she was known more for her awe-inspiring rap skills than the her ignominious public profile.
Drake was still setting trends rather than riding them at the time, but “Make Me Proud” is about as close as Take Care gets to boilerplate radio rap. Helmed by Nikhil Seetharam and T-Minus, it’s one of the only tracks where 40 does not have a production credit, and its brisk, booming sound stands out a bit from the floaty opulence that defines most of the album. Its lyrics fit in just fine, though: Drake is rarely more on-brand than when encouraging a strong, successful woman with words that feel worshipful and condescending in the same breath. Maybe there are women out there who have been inspired by this track, but between the levels of cringe in Drake’s attempts at empowerment — the kind of talk that so easily curdles into patronizing “Hotline Bling” material — and the laziness of the hook “I’m so I’m so I’m so I’m so I’m so proud of you,” this feels like the nadir of a mostly masterful record.
Just Blaze’s thunderous, triumphal “Lord Knows” beat sticks out on Take Care even more than “Make Me Proud,” but in a good way — a blast of old-head shit on an album that crystallized the new school. And if the music is out of step with the rest of the album, the presence of Rick Ross makes perfect sense. Rozay was not signed to Young Money, but he was a constant presence alongside Drake and Lil Wayne in this era, to the point that there were plans in the works for a joint Drake/Ross mixtape called YOLO — yes, regrettably, as in “you only live once,” the catchphrase immortalized(?) on Drake and Wayne’s hyphy-inflected Take Care bonus track “The Motto.” That tape never materialized, but Drake remained loyal to Rick Ross over the years, continuing to give him high-profile guest work long after his moment as an A-list rapper expired. This is a net positive for popular music because Ross remains a commanding presence with genius comic timing a decade after bellowing, “Villa on the water with the wonderful views/ Only fat n**** in the sauna with Jews.”
“Cameras / Good Ones Go Interlude,” “Doing It Wrong,” “The Real Her”
One of the main arguments against Take Care being the best Drake album is that it disappears too far into a blur of slow jams in the middle. I could not disagree more with this assessment; to some extent this run of songs cements the album’s greatness. Take Care is one of Drake’s few truly great album-length statements, and the third-quarter descent into darkness and intimacy is pivotal to the journey. It only works, though, because each track is so lush, so melodious, so finely tuned to a specific emotional wavelength: the creeping paranoia of “Cameras,” the fear of missing out on love in “Good Ones Go,” the aching regret crossed with relief on the breakup ballad “Doing It Wrong,” the exhilaration of new romance on “The Real Her.”
Drake is mostly in R&B-singer mode on these songs, delicately working through his feelings while delivering cogent analysis like “We live in a generation of not being in love and not being together/ But we sure make it feel like we’re together/ ‘Cause we’re scared to see each other with somebody else.” That lingering worry continues to gnaw at him — the fear that he made a mistake by trading a normal life for celebrity, the threat of ending up alone, the longing for friends and lovers left behind in Toronto — but not enough to stop him from cycling through partners at a rapid clip, exulting in the glory of the moment before this latest good thing inevitably goes bad. This part of his persona was the most believable at the time — far more so than his talk about catching bodies on “Headlines.”
Drake and 40 were in their bag during this stretch of the tracklist. It was as if they had set in motion the sullen mood of that wonderfully absurd album art and were making it crawl, drift, or glide depending on the need of the moment. It surely helped to be working with ingredients as potent as an impassioned Jon B sample, a lovelorn harmonica solo by none other than Stevie Wonder, and a head-spinning guest verse from André 3000 that managed to work in references to both Adele’s “Someone Like You” and the blue football field at Boise State. Dre’s presence on Take Care was a big deal to me in 2011. It’s almost “Marvins Room”-level embarrassing to admit this now, but as someone who was hyper-conscious of Drake’s faults and was eager to project the image of discerning taste, an endorsement from Three Stacks was permission to take Drake seriously.
“Look What You’ve Done”
Before the dawn breaks on this nocturnal quadrant of the album, Drake spends a track expressing heartfelt appreciation for the people who carried him through to adulthood. There may be more overtly pretty songs on Take Care, but none are more beautiful than “Look What You’ve Done.” The song is mostly just Drake rapping tributes to his mom and uncle over a lounge-ready piano loop, sharing detail-rich memories of the hard times and the good. Thanks to that specificity and Drake’s willingness to drop the various postures he adopts throughout the rest of his catalog, it’s not nearly as saccharine as you’d expect a song like this to be.
The vacuum created by Drake’s father, who was mostly absent during his adolescence, looms large in these anecdotes, whether it’s his mom comparing Drake to his dad as a form of foul play during a conflict (“My one button, you push it”) or Drake standing in awe of the uncle who went above and beyond by loaning Drake his car and letting him bring dates to his swimming pool: “Boo-hoo, sad story/ Black American dad story/ Know that I’m your sister’s kid, but that still don’t explain the love that you have for me.” I don’t think he’s ever sounded so honest and unguarded. Even before the voicemail from Grandma kicks in, the sense of genuine love and gratitude is overwhelming.
“HYFR (Hell Yeah Fucking Right),” “Practice”
In hindsight, in a musical landscape shaped by his aesthetic and disposition, Drake’s decade-plus reign feels inevitable. But it is unlikely he would have achieved a fraction of his success without the support of his mentor and benefactor Lil Wayne. At the peak of Wayne’s power and influence, when all those mixtapes and guest verses and Tha Carter III had made him the most popular and acclaimed rapper in the world, he made Drake his protege, signing him to Young Money and very publicly anointing him as the next man up. The kid was a hard sell back then, an easy punchline, but Weezy’s endorsement counted for a lot. I’m not sure he will ever get enough credit for seeing the future.
One of the ways Wayne showed his support was by recording many, many collaborations with Drake. “HYFR” is among the best of them. Off the bat, Drake sets out to prove he can hang with the Best Rapper Alive, spouting off with a pre-Migos triplet flow at the speed of a Twista understudy. It’s another character sketch about some real or imagined Georgia State undergrad Drake is entangled with, whose “tuition is handled by some random n**** that live in Atlanta that she only see when she feels obligated.” From a technical standpoint, it was a flex: Look at me, I have the skill set to rap about Drake Things even when I’m not rapping in Drake Ways. After that, our protagonists spend most of the rest of the song outlining their suspicion toward journalists, and even that somehow translates into pop-rap gold thanks to a synth-squealing T-Minus beat and yet another brilliantly simple hook.
About that hook: Drake was a genius when it came to incorporating melody into rap music, but he wasn’t exactly a great singer. All you had to do was see him in concert to realize that the man’s records benefitted significantly from digital pitch correction. And yet compared to Lil Wayne, Drake was singing like an angel in 2011. The end of “HYFR,” when Wayne is rasping his way through the chorus in barely legible goblin-speak and then Drake slides in to carry the song home with effortless smoothness? This has always been fucking hilarious to me.
You know what else is hilarious? Drake repurposing “Back That Azz Up” as a self-deifying slow jam. One of Wayne’s earliest pop crossover moments was the outro on Juvenile’s 1998 mega-hit about grinding and twerking. Near the end of Take Care, Drake turns that song into source material for a bleary midtempo track about how “All those other men were practice for me.” “Practice” is far from a highlight within both Take Care and Drake’s career in general, but I still have to laugh at the audacity of it all.
Drake has always used the last track on his albums to offer a sort of State Of The Empire address. On Take Care, it is a dispatch from the brink of immortality, soundtracked by a swirl of pained Abel Tesfayes warning of a ride that never stops. None of Drake’s bars on “The Ride” indicate he’s concerned about such pitfalls of fame; it’s one of the few times on the album he actually seems to be enjoying his newfound success, reveling in the money and power and prestige, confidently barreling toward the future. Having aced his sophomore LP, he assures us, “My junior and senior will only get meaner,” a specious claim from a man whose fourth album would turn out to be Views.
As 2021 draws to a close, Drake is arguably as big as ever, but it’s been so long since he released a project as rewarding as Take Care. Some people will tell you he peaked with 2013’s Nothing Was The Same or 2015’s surprise mixtape If Youre Reading This Its Too Late, and there are arguments to be made for each of those records. Even by that measure, we’re long past the phase of his career when he was releasing stellar full-lengths. He is a singles artist now, a champion wave-rider, a stream-chasing data-dumper, a personal brand doing his damnedest to launch new memes. He would be in “How do you do, fellow kids?” territory if he wasn’t still so dominant on the charts.
Even for someone who made Drake a mainstay of my 2010s listening, who spent the decade consistently defaulting to his music as a form of comfort listening, attempting to forge my way through a whole Drake album these days is challenging. This year’s Certified Lover Boy, hailed by many as a return to form, left me cold. The luxe sonic environments, the familiar mix of puffed-chest boasting and resentful wound-licking, even that magnetic melodious touch — it’s all so antiseptic now. All pop music is a product, but Drake’s recent music feels like a product. Once upon a time in Toronto, before the it calcified into a formula, he was turning rap into pop and ending up with art: not just one of the most popular and influential albums of the 21st century, but one of the absolute best.