As someone who’s seen every episode of Degrassi: The Next Generation, it was hard for me to take Drake seriously as a rapper at first. I did like his mixtapes, but it was difficult to listen to them and not think of poor Jimmy from Degrassi, who was shot and wound up in a wheelchair about halfway through Drake’s time on the series. Of course, he was credited by his given name, Aubrey Graham, on the show, and I suppose that’s another reason why I found it difficult to buy him as a rapper. It just seemed forced for him to change his name, and especially egotistical for him to change it to a one word name. Even Kanye has a last name, ya know? And then there was the hype. Between the props from other rappers and the uber-positive reviews from critics, it seemed like everyone was in love with Drake and usually when someone is hyped up that much they wind up disappointing you. Even if Drake was truly brilliant, how could he have lived up to those heaps of praise? Plus, a lot of the praise sounded like blatant ass-kissing, like people were just sucking up to him because other people were sucking up to him and they all wanted to participate and be cool, too. In spite of all of this, I did listen to Drake’s mixtapes and his albums and I gradually found myself liking them more and more. That said, I didn’t like the super critically acclaimed Take Care as much as some of his mixtapes. It almost felt like he was trying too hard to be the guy the critics and other rappers were painting him as. Almost like he was becoming a caricature or a parody of himself. And his sing-speak style was starting to get old already. Still, I was excited when his new album, Nothing Was The Same, was announced and I’m happy to say that this one actually lives up to all of the hype Drake has been getting since he first stopped acting in favor of the rap game.
The biggest difference between Nothing Was The Same and Drake’s previous work is that he does much more actual rapping, and must less sing-speaking, this time around, which is fantastic because he can actually lay down superb rhymes when he gets going. I think he was holding himself back when he did all of that sing-speaking on Take Care. It was like he was afraid to let things flow out of himself too quickly, like he would run out of things to say or just plain stumble and fall. Who knows? Maybe he just did so much sing-speaking because that style was what critics were going gaga over? Of course, he was also frequently applauded for being such a “soft” guy, for being so emotional. And I could appreciate that. Too many rappers try to act like tough guys. If they’re not pretending to be gangstas, they’re bragging about all of the sex they have and money they make. For so many of them, it truly is an act and it rings false with me. I’d rather know what people really think, not just what they want other people to think about them. Especially when what they want people to think about them is so stereotypical.
That’s another way Drake is unique: he doesn’t conform to any stereotypes. He’s just himself. He might have been an actor on Degrassi, but I don’t feel like he’s acting on Nothing Was The Same. This time around, I feel like he’s 100% genuine, simply being Drake. And there’s a lot to love about this album.
Drake’s flow here is amazing and his lyrics never fail to be clever. Turns out he can actually spit out rapid-fire rhymes as well as he could croon in slow motion. Meanwhile, the beats are always engaging if not downright infectious. You also have to give Drake props for *not* having guest stars on most of the songs. There aren’t a lot of rappers who do songs solo anymore. Jay-Z and Kanye do, but most fill their albums with as many guest stars as they can. And it often rings false, especially when the guest stars are spitting out lyrics that seem to have nothing to do with the rest of the song, which happens at least half of the time. Plus, it tends to feel like a popularity contest, like these artists are cramming their records with as many guests as they possibly can to make themselves look popular. Also, how many albums have Wiz Khalifa and B.O.B. appeared on since they first hit it big? I seems like these guys will hop on anyone’s songs. You have to wonder if they’re doing it because they’re friends with these guys or if they’re simply doing it just to get paid. Which is another thing — most of these guest spots are paid for. Fans tend to think that these artists are hopping on each other’s albums because they want to out of the goodness of their hearts, because they’re all best buddies with each other, but more often than not one of the main reasons is to collect a paycheck. Suffice to say that there are a lot of reasons to be tired of rap albums filled with 25 guest spots. And so Drake proves how talented and original he is by doing most of his songs solo, not relying on others to spice up his tracks or make him look cool. He has no trouble with coming up with lyrics to fill his songs by himself. He also proves to be a great storyteller. How many times have you heard a rap album where the stars talk about sex during every track? Or money? It seems like the slightly different beats are all that separates one track from the next on many albums. With Drake, he has a lot of different stories to tell, and points to make, so his songs each feel entirely unique.
Even with the 15 track deluxe edition, I really couldn’t name a bad song on Nothing Was The Same. There isn’t a single song here that I skip over. But, sure, I do have some favorites that I’d recommend checking out first…
The propulsive opening track, “Tuscan Leather,” is six minutes of flowing without any real hook or chorus. It basically consists of Drake bringing listeners up to speed, giving an overview of where he’s at this point, meanwhile foreshadowing the themes that will appear later on the album. It also has the most bizarre Whitney Houston sample ever, as Drake speeds up her voice and raises the pitch so much that she sounds like one of the Chipmunks on, well, crack. Meanwhile, he just lets her vocals speed around in the background instead of using them for a hook to sell his song. To be honest, I’m not sure why he bothered to use them if he was just going to distort the hell out of them, but they do give the song added depth and it is kind of amusing to hear her vocals in such a bizarre fashion. I suppose it takes a big ego to do that to the late Whitney’s vocals, but this album is such high caliber that you feel like he is entitled to have a big ego at this point.
Drake delivers his rhymes on “Furthest Thing” in a seductive, laid back manner without sounding like he’s overdosed on codeine this time. His vocals and the punchy old school beats remind me of classic LL COOL J and, hey, that’s a good thing. LL was a damn good rapper before he caught the acting bug. (OK, so he still is, but doesn’t seem to have as many interesting stories to tell these days.)
Initially, I wasn’t crazy about “Wu-Tang Forever,” which samples the clan’s “Its Yourz,” but it’s a serious grower. Drake does do the sing-speak thing quite a bit here, but it seeps into you like a morphine IV and feels so good. And Drake delivers a whole lot of sexual lyrics without ever sounding too crude, something most rappers couldn’t pull off.
You also have to hear the R&B flavored gem “From Time,” which begins with pretty piano and silky smooth vocals from newcomer Jhene Aiko. I’ve never heard anything else by her, and I’m usually not much of an R&B fan, but when she gets around to releasing an album I’m sure I’ll buy it after savoring her precious vocals here. On this one, Drake really wears his heart on his sleeve, truly opening himself up in a rather vulnerable manner, and in a way that feels 100% genuine. Instead of merely painting himself as sensitive, he gets into why he is that way, especially now that things like money and fame are prone to meddling with his relationships, both platonic and romantic. “Learning the true consequences of my selfish decisions,” he raps at one point, criticizing himself as much as anyone who might just be out to use him.
2013 has been a great year for hip-hop, so it’s hard to declare any album the best, but this one is right up there with Kanye, Jay-Z and Big Boi’s latest releases, which is saying a lot. You definitely don’t want to miss out on this one.