Since the emergence of the term, "emo rap" has been a pejorative shunned by any artist to whom the tag was applied. But it's a useful label nonetheless, aptly encompassing a particular brand of emotive, borderline-sensitive hip-hop that emerged full-force after Kanye West's flawed but important 808s and Heartbreaks. Canadian actor-turned-musical superstar Drake didn't sound like an "emo rapper" on Thank Me Later, his 2010 debut, but with last year's chart-topping Take Care, he became one incarnate (just look at the cover, with Drake's eyes staring into a golden chalice while a single candle lights the frame).
Opening track "Over My Dead Body" says it all. Over a terse piano coda, he raps about his multi-platinum success and pussy-magnet excess with swaggering bravado. But instead of sounding like typical boasts, the words come out wounded, almost shameful, as if Drake has managed to tap into the same sexual morass that Marvin Gaye or Al Green mined so well. It's a tough sell, but, damn, if he isn't selling it. "I met your baby moms last night," he croons. "We took a picture, I hope she frames it / And I was drinking at the Palms last night / Ended up losing everything that I came with."
Take Care is a rare kind of album — utterly pop yet anxiously complicated; sexy yet ugly and honest. Its gauzy sheen (courtesy mainly of über-hip producers The Weeknd and jamie xx) has enraptured critics, indie fans, and most importantly, mainstream radio audiences. It features guest spots from some of the biggest names in pop — Rhianna, Lil Wayne, Andre 3000, Nicki Minaj — but also establishes a genuine connection with Drake's soul roots, sampling Gil Scott-Heron, shouting out Gaye, and featuring a harmonica solo by Stevie Wonder.
Drake is scheduled to perform Thursday, May 10, at Ashley Furniture HomeStore Pavilion.
"Anything I write, any piece of music I put out, I'm proud of the emotion," Drake says over an ultra-managed and groomed conference call, in which a label-appointed interviewer praises him for his connection to "career-minded women" and "buzz."
"That's something I went through in my life. It's not painful; sometimes it's tough for me to do songs like 'Look What You've Done' when my mom is at the show, or my uncle's at the show, or my dad's at the show," he continues. "It gets kind of awkward for me to talk about such personal feelings in front of other people, but at the same time, you know, it's also a beautiful thing."
But one can't help wondering exactly how comfortable he is with the exposure. Drake states that next his album will be more upbeat, and he describes the atmosphere of his "Club Paradise" tour, featuring Wacka Flocka Flame, 2 Chainz, J. Cole, Meek Mill, and French Montana — as a "festival vibe."
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"It's outdoors. It's summertime," he says. "I want to make exciting moments for people."
You can't fault him for wanting to step back from the confessional intensity of Take Care — which features plenty of big, club-filling pop, too, but the brutal edge is what makes for such a compelling listen. It's voyeuristic listening, from the staged phone call of "Marvin's Room" to the false statements of love and commitment in "Doing It Wrong" to the sneering, vindictive "Shot for Me."
But Drake insists that the "tortured artist" act is just one side of what he does:
"I get to make the records come to life, and I know people are listening to what I'm saying. It's never painful or anything. None of my songs are pained emotions. I write about what's going on around me. I don't live like a sad, miserable life or anything. I've said that countless times over and over again. I'm a happy individual — I just don't live in a fairy tale or a bubble, you know. I try and really describe what's going on around me, good and bad."