It’s become quite evident that being a rapper is getting to be an awfully tough career choice for much of the latter half of the 2000s. You can thank our dependency on the digital age for information—with bloggers, critics, 24-hour celebrity news/gossip, trolls, and whatever else lurks far too much in the crevices of the internet for the almost immediate pressing dark room interrogation of their character, on or off the stage, in or out of the recording booth. But perhaps, more than anyone else, it is the rappers themselves who are to blame for their inevitable occupational struggles and downfalls. After all, many of them choose to foolishly self-incriminate, if not dropout entirely and commit career suicide. Be it Rick Ross’ now infamous correctional officer background, Lil’ Wayne accidentally shooting himself with a handgun, 2 Chainz’ robbery caught on tape and steadfastly denying it, 40 Glocc not fighting back against The Game and hiding out in the bushes, Consequence trying to make peace with Joe Budden after he is confronted on camera, etc. The list goes on and though many of the aforementioned rappers’ careers are still intact, their reputations have been hit and anything they say or do from here on will surely be looked under a microscope. Be cautious, the internet is watching.
If there’s one rapper who has been left virtually unscathed by this ever growing, second-to-second documentation and scrutiny facing contemporary hip-hop, it would have to be Canadian rapper Drake. Easily, in fact—by default. For every potential misstep (cellphone freestyle on Hot 97), tabloid headline (nightclub brawl with Chris Brown) bit of superfluous gossip (relationship with pop star bad girl Rihanna), embarrassing moment (being denied post-game access to the Miami Heat locker room, the “Drake lean” meme) or the streets checking his privilege (“You gonna hype me up and make me catch a body like that/ Cause I live for this, it isn’t just a hobby like that”, “Started from the Bottom” in its entirety) he has bounced back with gusto—often while laughing it all off—and playing right along. If anything, the Canadian global superstar has benefited greatly from the media and internet’s obsession and incessant attempt to derail his good fortune and hot streak.
Amongst the most probing questions in the case against rappers’ authenticity and credibility are some of the most rampantly rapped about topics in the modern mainstream hip-hop scene; misogyny, narcissism, reputation, and drugs. While these themes are neither found solely in, nor were started by hip-hop, they are more prominent in rap than in any other genre today. Of these four subjects, Drake has always managed to bypass the theoretical and delve into the pop existential. The Canadian rapper develops humane allegories, most of which are about failed romances, relationship with friends and family, growing wealth and fame, concerns about leading a hollow life, and even despondency. While this may sound like the trappings of another cliché Drake album, this could not be further from the truth. Drake brazenly returns with his third album, but this time with a pure focus of the lyrics, concise and clear headspace, and the pitch perfect production to compliment the former.
Where Thank Me Later was a fairly average debut rap album and Take Care was an intimate, confessional battle cry far removed from the usual tropes of a sophomore slump, Nothing Was the Same is the album that finds Drake comfortably seated in the cockpit, content for the first time in his short yet prosperous career. Here he’s rapping from a tight pocket all the while never professing his satisfaction with status quo. Here Drake is willing to extend his hand to the listener, revealing a personality seldom seen by fans or media. Though it’s no secret that Drake has a penchant for the emotional outpour, often bringing his personal life at the forefront of his music, on Nothing Was the Same he is simply clearing his name and dispelling the rumor mill and tabloid fodder before it ever gets there. The album is for purposes of moving past all the nonsense, as for every step forward you can take ten in reverse. “I’m actually here in front of you living the truth. I wake up in the morning and my heart is light, man. It’s not heavy,” Drake told GQ earlier this summer. “This is my real age, my real name, my real past, and I’m good with that.” Where Take Care often was criticized harshly and labeled as being melodramatic and “a total downer” by some, Nothing Was the Same removes itself from any of that melancholic self-doubt—displacing vulnerabilities with absolute confidence and triumph.
Like David Bowie on Low before him, Nothing Was the Same is about being at a certain place in life. It captures a certain feeling. It isn’t a feeling that everyone can relate to, but artists the likes of Bowie and Drake delicately paint it with crafty precision. Akin to that of Bowie relocating to Berlin in the mid-1970s, Drake relocated and his style is reflective of personal discovery, he becomes a part of his songs, and seemingly all at once a part of Los Angeles. Both Bowie and Drake went to a new place, not necessarily expecting to spawn some creativity they had not been aware of, but just out of spontaneity, curiosity, and general want. Of course, the dire circumstances that they were in plays a role here, too. However, when they were in their new setting—as sometimes when we go places we haven’t been before—they saw things from a different perspective and reacted accordingly, with prudent awareness and respect for the ‘now’. Although it’s surely a farfetched comparison at surface level, the career trajectory of the two seemingly polar opposition pop sensations of their time is the very embodiment of artistic renewal, and so it is both enlightening and inspiring.
Wisely abandoning the balladry sap entirely, Nothing Was the Same floats through thirteen tracks with practical ease, occupying minimal space and allowing for an overall cavernous atmosphere. Although the blaring trap rap trend of the past few years may seem tempting for a popular recording artist like Drake to jump on, especially given that he has appeared on such production as a featured artist (“Versace (Remix)”, “Pop That”, “No Lie”, “Stay Schemin’”, “I’m on One”, “No New Friends”), he and sidekick, producer Noah “40” Shebib stick to their guns and opt for the trademark downtempo/ambient style. Nothing Was the Same draws from a similar palette of sounds as its predecessor, so it’s instantly recognizable as being a Drake project. However, by undercutting any expectations and refusing to be compartmentalized this time around the twosome’s ideas flourish evermore, delving deep into a morass of clicks, cuts, processed jazz, skitters, harsh glitches, new age synths, amorphous drones, analog diversions, and some of those awesome chopped-up (oftentimes indecipherable) vocals with a confidence bordering on audacity. What Drake and company have carefully crafted in Nothing Was the Same is a literal cloud rap album (see: cover art). The kind of album dime a dozen rappers and producers on SoundCloud strive to achieve.
Nothing Was the Same is both instantaneous and ominous without any of the pretense that normally accompanies such works. This is an album of distraction. Yet, it is effective because Drake readily admits this. The essence of the feeling is like opting to play hopscotch instead of being depressed. There is a careful avoidance at work. Drake can also fool you into thinking he is just a fun guy playing stripped-down, easy-going songs. But don’t get tricked into thinking so narrow-mindedly. Actually, there are no traps on Nothing Was the Same. Initially Drake was a pretty inviting guy with his hit single “Best I Ever Had” from 2009, who only slowly revealed his true nature. You could talk about how his elemental melodies allowed greater shading with harmonics and rhythms, but this is unnecessary to enjoy Drake as he was always out to make great music, and on Nothing Was the Same, he is completely unguarded. Master of the obvious indeed.
When you get there this fast, it’s only natural to figure out how hard it is to stay there. In regards to that old adage, the formula supplies a direct answer: fill your album with other people to quell that feeling. Fortunately Drake abandoned the rulebook with this new work, which includes a total of five short features (excluding Birdman, who briefly appears to give a swaggering diatribe at the tail end of “The Language”) most of which do not even provide a verse, only choruses/hooks. In a way Nothing Was the Same reinforces Drake’s mindset from Take Care to here and it even makes a case for another old saying: misery loves company. At thirteen songs (fifteen with the deluxe edition), all tied together in rhythm, the album is palatable, a fine starting point for any Drake newcomers and doubters, but with enough range, and self-referential range at that to keep weathered fans feeling absolutely satisfied. And that’s a good emotion. Perhaps there’s less challenge in Nothing Was the Same, not necessarily less at stake, just less, perhaps, to brood on. Drake sounds freer, and yet more deliberately formal. Most of the songs break down like a classic hip-hop song often does, two-thirds of the way toward the end.
Gone are the sardonic emo-raps of “Marvin’s Room” or the overtly royal fanfare of “Over” that has permeated Drake’s back catalog for the last three years. By recruiting various lower profile crooners and rappers (Sampha, Detail, Jhene Aiko, Majid Jordan) to modestly belt out the hooks/choruses (because, let’s face it folks, there is nobody better in the mainstream than captain hook himself) Drake’s pen is allowed free range to further explore the paper. A ballsy move, potentially alienating to many, but it works to his advantage. Take “Too Much”—where the hook/chorus duties may perhaps seem like a daunting undertaking for a rookie like Sampha—actually blossoms into one of Drake’s most somber and focused rap renditions to date. Had Drake initially handled the hook/chorus duties the power of the pair of verses would have been sadly lost forever.
That isn’t to say Drake has become complacent with his signature sentimentality or that Nothing Was the Same lacks the emotional vigor of his previous output, as he churns out heartfelt musings a-plenty here. For someone who is a ripe 26-years-old, his lyrical subject matter is that of someone who is creeping toward a mental breakdown amidst a midlife crisis. And undoubtedly this sentiment couldn’t be more obvious than on “Hold On, We’re Going Home”, a song that’s as much about taking ownership of his past, driving his uncle’s car and all, with the knowledge that if he gave back the pain, then the end result just wouldn’t be him. In cadence and composition, “Hold On We’re Going Home” is Drake playing to his mighty strengths with more muscle than ever before—even if at surface level it can cuddle a puppy to sleep. The result scrupulously captures not only Drake’s journeyman past, but the whole musical impetus behind Drake as a rapper.
Every nook and cranny of Nothing Was the Same—while not visceral and thrilling like the best Kanye West song—becomes etched in your mind long after it’s finished. Drake coconspirator Noah “40” Shebib is every bit as responsible from keeping this thing from becoming another cut-and-dried effort of “good beats, good rhymes, good songs”, and elevates it into a lively dialog that makes every moment feel like a stone cold jazz classic rather than some stoner meanderings Mobb Deep or Wu-Tang Clan forgot to cut off their album. In fact, Kanye West is such a necessary comparison, not merely because he’s another (openly) middle class rapper or an influence on Drake, but as albums like The College Dropout or Late Registration get by on their relentless use of smooth samples and great composition but ultimately is a classic due its quirks and odd choices—à la vanguard albums like My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy or Yeezus. And with 2013 quickly winding down, Drake’s Nothing Was the Same is fittingly the sole hip-hop album giving West’s masterful Yeezus a run for its money.