Tuesday, September 24, 2013

album review: 'nothing was the same' by drake

Okay, time for a bit of disclosure: I live in Toronto, Canada. To quickly get over this part, I don't care about the Blue Jays or the Leafs - I didn't grow up in Toronto so neither was a favourite for me growing up. I've only been living in the city for about a year, and there's one thing I've noticed about this town that I find both perplexing and somewhat hilarious: this city wants to be the Canadian version of New York so bad it hurts. I swear, there are whole neighborhoods, particularly downtown, that are trying to replicate some of that NYC experience. And yet, since this is Canada, there always seems to be something of an underlying insecurity, a fragment of perspective and self-awareness that informs us in the back of our minds that no matter how hard we want to be New York, we aren't New York. 

And when I look at Drake as a hip-hop R&B act, I see a lot of that same self-awareness, at least in regards to his fame. While I've never been the biggest fan of Drake on anything he's done, he does seem to have a certain degree of perspective, particularly when it comes to the fleeting nature of fame. He knows that his time in the spotlight has an expiration date - and what becomes interesting is that self-awareness has leaked many times into his art. A lot of critics have considered it a very 'Canadian' sensibility, and I kind of buy that: there has been something of a lack of ego that can feel resonant throughout Drake's work that does reflect a view that's counter-intuitive to the majority of rappers south of the border; and whenever he does brag, it can come across as very hollow and empty.

This, if anything, was both one of the great strengths and great weaknesses of Take Care, Drake's critically acclaimed second album of which I wasn't much of a fan. It popularized a certain bleakness in modern hip-hop (which has had mixed-to-negative results in my opinion) and while it fit the more subversive and intellectual songs on the album, it really didn't fit the tracks where Drake and his collaborators were trying to prove they were unironically awesome. On top of that, the traditionally 'Canadian' sensibilities of his instrumentation and production - atmospheric, sweeping, kind of pretentious to the point of reaching tedium - didn't always pay dividends. It was rather analogous to some common criticisms of Canadian art films, interestingly: Take Care might have had things to say, but it was bleak, depressing, somewhat pretentious, and at points very boring. And as much as I like Drake - and I do - this lack of energy was a bad fit for him because it didn't play to all of his strengths, namely his rich, emotionally compelling vocal delivery and one of the reasons I think he'd be a great R&B singer if he chose to ditch rap entirely. 

But that being said, I was mildly impressed with Drake's verse on 'No Guns Allowed' from Snoop Lion's album earlier this year, and I was curious to see what he'd deliver on his new album Nothing Was The Same. Is it an improvement on Take Care?

Well, that's hard to say, and really, Nothing Was The Same as an album is going to be hard to talk about. Because make no mistake, there's a lot to like about this album across the board, but I'm not convinced that Drake's third album works all the way through, and it's less about the individual pieces and more about the album as a whole. Make no mistake, there are some tracks on this album that could stand to be some of the best material Drake has ever released - but at the same time, there's also a fair amount of material that doesn't nearly hold up as well, and reflects a problem that I've long had with Drake's material.

But before I get to that, let's start with the elements of this album that I do like. For starters, the production and instrumentation is almost uniformly great across the board. I'm serious, if they were to release this album as an instrumental, I would probably buy it because in terms of ambient music it works incredibly well in capturing a very distinctive, very authentically Canadian flavour - it was incredibly easy for me to imagine walking down deserted city streets on a chill, overcast autumn evening listening to this album, and that's a huge plus in its favour. The muted keyboards, the rich, sonorous production that gives every sound a heavy swell and impacting presence, all under a layer that feels watery and translucent as if its hiding hidden depths and subtleties, all of it works to create an incredibly dense and compelling atmosphere, and yet is minimalist enough to center attention on Drake and his delivery. This is instrumentation and production at its best - drawing the listener into the atmosphere and yet not overwhelming them, allowing them to focus all of their attention on the vocalist. It reminded me a lot of James Blake's production on his recent album Overgrown, but while Blake opted for a more organic swell in order to expose his deeper insecurities, Drake's instrumentation is a bit more synthetic, emphasizing his loneliness and isolation. Many people have drawn the comparison with Kanye West off of 808s & Heartbreak, and I can definitely see it and appreciate it. Although I feel obliged to mention that any inclusion of the chipmunk voice is inevitably going to get on my nerves, and the three times it popped up on this album definitely were annoying.

And as I've said before, Drake does a phenomenal job when he chooses to utilize his singing voice, and it leads to some of the big highlights of this album for me, notably in 'Hold On, We're Going Home' (arguably one of the best songs of the year), 'Connect', and 'Come Thru' (the big reason to get the deluxe version of this album). I've long been a fan of Drake's singing voice, because it's incredibly expressive and emotionally intense in a way I don't think his rapping has ever really approached. It helps that Drake's melancholy matches the instrumentation so damn well, and it's almost enough to convince me that Drake actually learned something when taking inspiration from Marvin Gaye's classic album Here, My Dear. Yes, his more R&B-styled tracks are less lyrically complex on a conceptual level, but when you nail them as well as he does, I'd argue that makes up for it.

But of course, for the most part this is a rap album, and here's where we have to talk about Drake's rapping. I'll put my cards on the table and say that before stepping into this album, I've never considered him a great technical rapper. Sure, he's better than most of his peers, but he still gets lazy and sloppy at points where he shouldn't, and he doesn't modulate his flow particularly well, or deliver with a lot of inflection or energy. With Nothing Was The Same, I will revise my opinion and state that I think Drake can be a great technically skilled rapper - when he tries. And on some of the tracks on this album, namely on 'From Time' and his collaboration with Jay-Z ('Pound Cake / Paris Morton Music 2', where he blows Jay-Z out of the water), I bought into hims as a technically skilled, occasionally interesting rapper. Yes, he's bragging and airing his dirty laundry in public regarding his past relationships (even dropping names, which, yes Drake, is a little tasteless), but for once, the bragging was actually somewhat compelling. On 'Too Much', his rapping highlights how his friends and family treat him different now that he's famous, and the isolation that he feels as a result - that's compelling, that's interesting, and Drake delivers this sort of melancholic reflection very well.

However, most of the rapping on this album doesn't have nearly that ambition, and thus we're stuck for big chunks of this album with brag rap after brag rap, and as I've said before, they don't fit well against the hollow, atmospheric instrumentation that seems to put the absolute lie to every one of Drake's statements. It makes all the money and wealth and women come across as token and unsatisfying, and look, if he's trying to make the statement that fame isn't all it's cracked up to be and is ultimately leaving him feeling hollow at the top, I'd be more appreciative, but too often the rapping is too shallow to take them at anything but face value. And when you take that sort of rapping at face value, it doesn't fit well against the instrumentation which is clearly implying a different context. It doesn't sound opulent or impressive or something I would want to aspire towards, Drake, it sounds shallow and not all that attractive. And if that was your point, well, fine, congratulations on that, but it doesn't resonate with me on any level.

And if his technical rapping skills stayed at the same quality against the shallowness of his subject matter, I'd be more forgiving towards the bragging - it might be shallow, sure, but it'd be worth something if it was well-executed. But most often, it's not, and that leads to the main issue I have with this album - whenever Drake opts for a shallower focus and leans towards the traditional 'cars money hoes' anthems common in his genre, his lyrics simplify and he doesn't do enough to make the tracks interesting. It doesn't help matters that more often than not, his hooks on these songs are really quite weak, often hitting the audience over the head with a few words or a phrase ad nauseum, and it feels jarringly out-of-place against his instrumentation which seems to demand more subtlety and class. On top of that, as much as Drake wants to come across as an arrogant superstar on a few songs on this album (particularly 'Worst Behaviour'), he doesn't wear it well and is incredibly unconvincing as a thug or some kind of harder character.

But you know, I was having a hard time pinpointing my issues with this album... until I remembered that 'Started From The Bottom' was the third track and then I had my solution: point at that song and say, 'Pretty much all of that'. The monotonous flow, the bragging with no additional subtext or flavour to make it interesting, the subject matter completely clashing with the instrumentation, the intent to sound opulent and wealthy completely and likely unintentionally undercut by everything else in the song. It's a terrible song and the nadir of this album, and it represents Drake at his absolute worst, and in a larger scope, the greater problems with this album as a whole. All the attention is on Drake... and yet he has nothing to say, and what he does say sure as hell isn't interesting.

So what's my ultimate ruling on Drake's Nothing Was The Same? To be honest, I'm struggling with this one. It has some great highs, some fantastic songs I really like, but there are enough lows and serious problems on this album to suggest that the uneven nature of Drake's content isn't going away anytime soon. I don't know if these songs were required by his label, but the brag rapping isn't a good fit for Drake, particularly with his choice of instrumentation and production. I'll say this, the guy does have charisma and proves that, once again, he can carry an album on his own (although Big Sean delivers his best verse probably ever on the deluxe track 'All Me' - 2 Chainz's verse is just hilarious), which is more than his peers can say. I feel like being generous and recognizing the quality of a Canadian peer (especially his producers, who are also Canadian and do a great job with this record) and giving him a 7/10, but I'm not sure I'm going to recommend it, even with that rating. If you're a fan of Drake, check out of the album because it's a good continuation of Take Care. If you're not a fan... eh, check out the tracks I mentioned positively, and if you like them, the album might not disappoint. 

And Drake... you get my respect and some amusement from me for repping for Toronto. I like most of your stuff, but when you start bragging... well, get back to me when it starts to mean something or it becomes challenging, and I'll definitely be interested.

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