Take Care was a monster of an album. Released at the back-end of 2011, it confirmed the reputation he’d spent the entire year building: he was the new kid at the top. Packed with explosive singles, a string of high-profile guest appearances (including Stevie Wonder popping by to play a harmonica solo) and Drake’s now-trademark world-weary-infused brand of braggadocio and intimate over-sharing, it changed the game entirely. Granted, that change had been a long time coming, foreshadowed as it was by Kanye West’s 808s and Heartbreak, an intensely personal and singular album of loss and sorrow. But Drake solidified the commercial prospects of emotionally bearing all, to the extent that ‘Marvin’s Room’, a woozy six-minute drunk-dial song, got certified gold by the RIAA. In the process of doing this, he offered up a new definition of ‘realness’, not one defined by bad-assness or thuggery, but instead by unalloyed honesty.
This move alone doesn’t make him the important figure he is, and neither was it Take Care’s defining feature. And it certainly didn’t endear him to everyone. One needn’t look far to find jokes about Drake’s softness; the most recent example is the ‘Drake the typa n*gga’ Tumblr, which is admittedly hilarious. In fact, the backlash was so extreme that even Common of all people took him to task, unprovoked, and that’s when you know. But Drake had on his side weapons that would prove invaluable. The first was a team behind him that would not let him fail. Thank Me Later, his label debut, was a slight misstep, but friend and producer Noah ‘40’ Shebib helped him craft a unique minimalist sound, restrained even at its most anthemic. Everyone who showed up to work on Take Care, from The Weeknd to Jamie xx, brought their a-game. The second was a clearly-improved rapping ability, exhibited most clearly on his expansive verse on the Rick Ross-featuring ‘Lord Knows’ or on his quick-paced and undeniably dexterous turn on ‘HYFR’. Both of these weapons are sharpened and out in full force on his third album.
In many ways, Nothing Was the Same is more self-assured than its predecessor, even if it doesn’t scale quite the same heights. It’s an LP that only makes sense in the context of Take Care, that only exists because its maker has had the all-conquering start to this decade that he has. There aren’t a huge number of left-field moves or high-intensity risks, but it has gotten to a point where Drake knows he can do pretty much whatever he wants now, and a lot of it comes off. The album centerpiece is a sugary-sweet four-minute RnB cut, that has Drake crooning loving lines to a ‘good girl’ (might sound familiar, but Drake’s is a decidedly less problematic song than the George Michael look-alike’s. It’s entirely out of place on the album, and on his already-expansive catalogue as a whole, but it comes off perfectly, and Drake’s confident delivery is a huge part of that. He almost gives the game away right on the first track, where he says ‘This ain’t nothin’ for the radio/ But they still play it though/ ‘Cause it’s that new Drizzy Drake, that’s just the way it go.’
That first song, ‘Tuscan Leather’, is notable for being the first Drake album-opener that doesn’t start with wavy organ-like piano reverb. On Take Care opener, ‘Over My Dead Body’, there is a minute of that and Chantel Kreviazuk’s sultry voice singing the song’s wistful hook before Drake appears, sounding withdrawn as he talks in introspective fashion about women and success. ‘Tuscan Leather’ feature an upbeat Whitney Houston sample turned into a Passion Pit brand of chipmunk vocals and Drake appearing straight away over a celebratory beat. But 40 flips the sample twice after that, the first time with dark pounding drums and Drake rapping ‘My life’s a completed checklist’, before it finally gives way to the sound we’re accustomed to hearing, and Drake calling himself out for his self-indulgence: ‘How much time is this n*gga spending on the intro?’
On Take Care, he was the reluctant superstar, an idea reinforced by the on-the-nose album cover which sees him sitting alone at a table surrounded by gold objects, eyes averted. Between cuts, he took time to speak directly, detaching himself momentarily from the music and the world he was creating. At the end of ‘Shot For Me’ he spoke the lines ‘May your neighbours respect you/ Trouble neglect you/ Angels protect you/ And Heaven accept you’. And as cheesy as those lines might sound, in context it worked. He was probably addressing the ex who the song was directed at, but it felt like he was talking directly to you, and on an album so singularly focused on its creator, it served as an invitation: join me on this. He affords no such reprieve this time, though. On Take Care closer ‘The Ride’ he promised ‘My Sophomore was all for it, they all saw it/ My Junior and Senior will only get meaner,’ and he certainly followed through on that. He’s stripped away the ambiguity from his character entirely, embracing his image as a wanton asshole. This is best embodied on ‘Worst Behaviour’, which has him at his most obnoxious, shouting over a restrained DJ Dahi beat and going so far as to steal multiple lines from Mase’s verse on Biggie’s ‘Mo Money Mo Problems’. Still, the introspection is never far away, and tracks like ‘Furthest Thing’ and ‘From Time’ have him at his most naval-gazing, reminiscing about love lost and relationships. On ‘Own It’ he sings ‘Next time we fuck I don’t wanna fuck I wanna make love/ Next time we talk I don’t wanna just talk, I wanna trust’, as if he saw every single wet-blanket meme of himself and thought, ‘Go ahead, make another one.’
One gift Drake undeniably has is the ability to turn any given one of his hooks into omnipresent catch-phrases. Last time ‘round it was a turn with Lil Wayne on ‘The Motto’, and the abbreviation of its ‘You Only Live Once’ refrain spawned endless t-shirts, hashtags, memes and probably no small amount of rash behaviour. This year’s ‘Started From The Bottom’ is an even more unlikely hit. At the time it came out, it sounded forced and clunky, but by the time it comes around early on Nothing Was The Same, you realise it’s become so ubiquitous that it doesn’t sound like it should be on a newly-released album.