He started out as Aubrey Graham, now he's Drake. And Drake, a romantic beneath the cigar haze and braggadocio, wants to come home. His new album, Nothing Was the Same, is sonically less rich than its predecessor Take Care, but nothing close to unambitious. The all-star MC is confident here, reflective there. One minute he's window-gazing, and the next he's flying out through the pane.
A lot has been made of a rags-to-riches single in which the star rapper declared his progress, "started from the bottom, now we're here." But the bottom is relative and irrelevant; forget it, forget the start. The here is what matters.
His atmospheric third album reflects a search – a check of everything that is and what has been. A long quote is included toward the end of the liner notes to Nothing Was the Same: "A lot of people want to be famous and then don't want to be famous. You signed up for this, you gotta pay for it. ...You really just let go of a lot of relationships that require presence and constant nurturing. You say goodbye to people ... lot of things just go by the wayside." Who said that? Ross Valory. Who's Ross Valory? He's the bass player for Journey, the Wheel in the Sky band, the "I've been trying to make it home, got to make it before too long" band.
And so Drake is dealing with the wayside, whether it be Nicki Minaj or acquaintances further back. Any punk knows that nothing will ever be the same. Drake is beyond that. He suspects that nothing was the same, which is a weird thing to get your head around. Let's just say he's left behind the brooding, self-conscious hero of 2011's Take Care. This guy has paid for his fame. It's time to own it.
Thirteen tracks make up the basic version of Nothing Was the Same. Let's start from the top.
"How much time is this [fine fellow] spending on the intro?" There are two answers to that: Six minutes and six seconds, or, as much time as he wishes. Producer Noah (40) Shebib and lyricist Drake are just plain bodacious on the album opener. A Whitney Houston sample is chopped up, sped up and spun around for three verses. Choruses? Drake doesn't need choruses – he's rewriting the rules. "This is nothin' for the radio, but they'll still play it though," he vaunts outrageously, before suggesting a new slogan for DZ-FM: "Heavy airplay all day with no chorus."
Over corduroy swishes and a slow clacking beat, a more sombre and Auto-Tuned half-singer now admits he's less than perfect and in a state of limbo, "somewhere between I want it and I got it." To a lover, he hates that she doesn't feel she belongs to him. But what can he do, he's too busy to run home to her. He's "stayed reminiscing," though, and, remember, "I've seen you naked." (Just what a woman loves to hear.) The two-part song breaks open eventually to a snazzy outro, with Drake coming to the realization that "this is the life for me." He knows that because his mother told him so. Wonder how she and the girl get along.
Started From the Bottom
The lead single and easily the most memorable track, with a short, circular and hypnotic motif that winds through a plodding rhythm and some rubbery, speaker-testing beats. The thing is less than three minutes long, but it repeats in one's head for hours if one lets it. (I do.)
Drake recalls a nineties hip-hop clan as he slow-jammingly informs a woman that his sex is all hers, using the Wu's It's Yourz as a mantra and selfless opening line. Later the meaning changes, with the possession being more about Drake embracing his own status.
The theme of Wu-Tang Forever continues on a murky track with a pitched-down backing vocal. Drake again is unselfish with his stuff: "Guess whose it is? Guess whose it is?" He's trying to be sincere in his giving over of himself, but it sounds like he's talking to a dog or something. Then again, he seems to be interested in something more than sexual, pledging that he not only wishes to talk, but wishes to trust.
The album's worst song, again with the charmless, downbeat tempo. Drizzy reminisces about his Degrassi days, sneakily celebrates his wealth – "it's gross what I net" – and expresses his displeasure for not being in hometown Toronto as much as he would like, as in "back and forth across the borderline, hate to leave the city but I've got to do the overtime." Border guards now know never to ask the hardly-home-but-always-reppin' rapper if he has anything to declare, because he'll go on all night with his sad-sack routine if you let him.
With Chilly Gonzales's elegant piano riff, the album is gorgeously back on track. "I love me enough for the both of us," croons Jhene Aiko, which frees Drake to rap about wanting to be beyond money and get back to the kid in the basement he once was.
Hold On, We're Going Home
Drizzy be singing, on a song in which he and pal-producer 40 reportedly wanted to "channelize the Michael Jackson-Quincy Jones sound." A sweet number.
Co-produced by the Scottish DJ (and Kanye collaborator) Hudson Mohawke, Connect leaves pop land for a trippy-drippy track about an unsatisfying relationship. Drake swings for the fences (with a home-run metaphor), but doesn't get all of it.
"This has been years in the making, it's all for the city," Drake boasts, in a head-nodding flow, "You know I come right every summer..." He's talking about his annual OVO blowout in Toronto. Cash Money Records co-founder Birdman hard-rhymes "show times and headlines" with "big time and sun shine," while Drake asks for nothing more than the same type of room service received by Leonard Cohen at the Chelsea Hotel.
305 to My City
Screwed-down, pitched-down blues, with a Wizard of Oz reference. We're not in Kansas any more indeed – we're in Miami, Drake's adopted hometown.
Too much? Not at all – perfect actually. Built around an affecting sample from the aching English soul singer Sampha, this standout is about family members who've given up a little on life. Drake's having none of it; he can't have enough.
Pound Cake/Paris Morton Music 2
A classy sample from the late jazzman Jimmy Smith opens the two-part show-closer: "So, hope you enjoy listening to this album half as much as we enjoyed playing it for you. Because we had a ball..." A winded Jay Z mars the track's self-congratulatory first half, but Drake does indeed seem to be having a ball on the agile, pianoed second. "Understand that I'm not doing it the same, man, I'm doing it better," sings the invigorated and young moneyed one. And Jay Z, catching his breath on the sidelines, is probably too tuckered to disagree.