Drake has always been hip-hop’s premier jack-of-all-trades. Last time we checked into his heartbreak hotel, he was busy deciding whether he was “a descendent of either Marley or Hendrix.” Now, two years later, he makes a similar attempt to plot his trajectory – this time “somewhere between psychotic and iconic.”
By now we’re used to his emotional, meme-inspiring posturing, and tracks like the piano-led ‘From Time’ and ‘Too Much’ show that Drake’s still at his best when he has a tissue at the ready. His after-dark reflections are delivered with almost uncomfortable levels of precision (‘From Time’s mention of “Courtney from Hooters on Peachtree” is particularly specific) but they belong to the Kanye West school of lyricism. For both rappers, disclosure is used as an emotive catalyst rather than an exploitative name drop. Make no mistake, Yeezy taught him.
And like Kanye West’s Yeezus, Nothing Was The Same spends much of its time reflecting an angrier, more abrasive image of its creator. Drake’s evolution began as early as January of last year, when he delivered a guest verse on Rick Ross’ ‘Stay Schemin’’. Forced into a corner by a growing number of detractors, his biting response was bitingly brutal but, most importantly, unexpected. His physical appearance soon followed suit: press appearances revealed angular shoulders, defined biceps and a rougher attitude, while his Instagram became populated with workout shots. Before long he was drinking shots out of his Grammy award.
A handful of well-selected guest verses during 2013 cemented the fact that Drake was out to prove his legitimacy as a rapper as much as a singer, and Nothing Was The Same finds him flexing his flow. ‘Worst Behaviour’ is a curious thing: with its West Coast trap slouch it manages to out-do Rick Ross at his own game, but it’s simultaneously the most ridiculous track he’s ever released. It’s testament to his character, then, that he’s able to communicate as much with a one-word hook (“Remember?”) as he does with ‘Tuscan Leather’, the album’s introductory 7-minute lesson in braggadocio. “I could go an hour on this beat” he boasts, like a man who’s got everything to prove.
Then there’s ‘Started From The Bottom’, the now-infamous come-up story for the Facebook generation. Drake’s early beginnings as a Degrassi child star are hardly the drug dealing backstories that his peers possess, but there’s a knowingness in his bars that suggests he’s baiting the hip-hop community on purpose. And he makes a good point: disadvantage doesn’t make you ‘real’ by default – ‘the bottom’ is a completely subjective state. When he expresses the desire to make his old high school bullies go through security clearance at his next reunion, there’s no denying the fact that it’s a revenge fantasy with legs.
Surprisingly, Nothing Was The Same is at its most exciting when it descends into abstraction. ‘Own It’ is particularly raw, an interpolation of the preceding track ‘Wu-Tang Forever’, which in turn borrows its hook its namesake (more specifically their single ‘It’s Yourz’). Seldom do major label hip-hop albums take such risks, so its all the more interesting that the genre’s biggest crossover success story not only advocates but relishes in such experimental endeavours.
It certainly makes a strong case for those championing Drake as a usurper to the throne, especially given Jay Z’s embarrassingly weak set of bars on the closing track. In fact the album cover, which follows a grand tradition of baby faces in hip-hop’s seminal output, almost reads as a self-fulfilling prophecy. Nobody’s played the game better this year than Aubrey Graham, the man with the smile, the sex appeal and the smack-talk who never let us forget him pre and post-album release. Illmatic this ain’t, but with Nothing Was The Same, the Grammy winner’s surely on his way.