So who is this Drake guy, anyway?
Of course, there's Drake the superstar, the guy who opens his latest, Nothing Was the Same, with the brag that he's as famous as his mentor--though at this point, he's arguably much more famous than Lil Wayne, who signed him to Cash Money. Drake's the guy who casually hit on Scarlett Johansson on Late Night with Fallon, who's been ranked by Esquire as "the Sexiest Woman Alive" not once but twice.
There's Drake, the former child star whose career trajectory has found him dominating the charts, casually shuffling between hip-hop and R&B. Drake, the guy who popularized the term "YOLO," embraced by your little sister on Tumblr, guys ordering bottle service in Scottsdale, and your grandma justifying dessert at Applebees. Drake is an institution.
Then there's that other Drake, the one who apologized to members of his family before lyrically shredding them with his Fallon performance of Nothing Was the Same's "Too Much." The singer pining after the "Courtney from the Hooters on Peachtree," calling out a waitress ex-girlfriend by name on "From Time," (a dick move no matter how you look at it.) There's the Drake who bitterly sampled a phone call from another ex on 2011's "Marvin's Room." ("Are you drunk right now?")
There's the Drake pitching hissy fits about his Would You Like a Tour guest Future's reasoned criticisms of his latest album. There's the Drake serving as poster boy for "emo rap," joked about by harder rappers and armchair hip-hop bloggers alike, all while he self-defensively claims he "started from the bottom," much to the chagrin of M.I.A., who loudly resents the notion on her latest, Mantangi.
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Drake's complicated, and like any good social creature, he's quick to remind you of it. Drake revels in his duality, playing both the braggadocio superstar and the wounded sentimentalist. Just look at the album cover: a bold, bright painting by Kadir Nelson, featuring Drake as a full grown man on some editions, and an Afro'ed Drake as a child on others. It's a sleeve that calls to mind classic '70s R&B more than current hip-hop.
Drake aims for pop transcendence, to be as timeless as Stevie Wonder, Outkast, or Marvin Gaye; he may not be all things to all listeners, but you'd have a hard time convincing him he isn't.
He opens Nothing Was the Same with a six-minute rant, "Tuscan Leather." "This is nothing for the radio," he raps, "but they'll still play it though. 'Cause it's that new Drizzy Drake that's just the way it go." He's right: by most conventional standards, Nothing Was the Same shouldn't work on the radio. It's long stretches of atmospheric (sometimes beat-less) gauze, courtesy of producer and closest collaborator Noah "40" Shebib, that furthers Drake's dedication to minimalist sounds. There are nods to indie rock's synthy underbelly, echoing sounds of the Knife or the xx (Jamie xx, producer of Gil-Scott Heron's I'm New Here, also produced the title track of Take Care.)
Drake's alternative leanings posit him as the inheritor of Kanye West's 808s and Heartbreak aesthetic. Indeed, if Kanye had released that album in 2013 it might have fared better on the airwaves than it did in 2008. Drake has a clear reverence for his forefathers. He carries Kanye's heart-on-his-immaculately-tailored-sleeve approach. He doesn't shy from 'Lil Wayne's outer space sex freak leanings. He pays tribute to Wu-Tang Clan with "Wu-Tang Forever," though the song - in typical Drake fashion - focuses more on his romantic travails than his Wu fandom (Inspectah Deck commented that despite Drake not having "deliberate snake intentions," the song doesn't succeed as a tribute to the legendary crew.)
Most notably, Drake doesn't fear embracing the "finer things" trappings of Jay Z, who appears on Nothing Was the Same's closing track, "Paris Morton Music 2," acting as a sort of co-signer on Drake's lavish boasts.
But for all the One-Percenter glitz, at his best, Drake knows how to connect. Nothing Was the Same's finest moment, "Hold On We're Going Home," aims purely for "the feels." Echoing the minimal automotive romance of Nicolas Winding Refn's Drive, Drake plays the steely hero, taking the wheel. The song doesn't make its sexuality explicit. Instead of boasting, Drake smolders demurely.
He doesn't merely spit lines as silly-on-paper as "I want your hot love and emotion, endlessly," he sells them. It's the best thing he's ever put to tape, and its evocation of Quincy Jones production and Marvin Gaye's smooth glide acts as pure homage, putting it squarely at odds with that other Marvin Gaye-styled Song of the Summer. Pay attention Robin Thicke: here's how you pay tribute without winding up sued.
The song finds Drake doing what he does best. There's a segment of his live show where Drake speaks to the audience - specific members of the crowd- as his crack backing band vamps on an extended break. He speaks to "the girl in the Sade shirt," the girls with their hair looking all "Afrocentric and shit." Drake scans his audience, looking directly at them, repeating a phrase: "I see you."
This vulnerability, even if it's faked (and we're talking pop music, so, it's always at least partially faked), is what places Drake in a league of his own. Seriously, listen to "Hold On We're Going Home" sandwiched between Eminem's "Berserk" and Jay-Z's "Holy Grail." The contrast is insane.
Drake is as conflicted as any other massive pop star in 2013, his life the subject of blogs and his boasts subject to intense scrutiny, but when he's at his best, he's about as good as anyone could be, capable of harnessing his most unique qualities and achieving a powerful resonance.
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So, who's the Drake guy? He's the one singing to you. Yes, you.