3.5 stars (out of 4)
On his multimillion-selling 2011 album, “Take Care,” Drake sank deeper into his role as one of hip-hop’s most conflicted stars. Eminem and Kanye West also go to war with their contradictions, but their tone has an edge to it; there’s nothing mushy about their emotional blood-letting. Drake was a different story, sharing as many similarities with introspective singer-songwriters as he does with his hip-hop peers, to the point where he had to remind everyone that “showing emotion don’t make me a (wimp).” It’s not something you’re ever likely to hear from Drake mentors such as Lil Wayne or Jay Z.
His third album, “Nothing was the Same,” won’t require any such explanation or apology. It presents an even more complex persona, one who is less reassuring but no less vulnerable.
Two album covers were created, oil paintings of Drake as a child and as a grown-up. The music finds him caught “somewhere between psychotic and iconic … somewhere between a mistress and commitment,” as he raps on “Furthest Thing.” With his conversational delivery amid slow hand claps, hazy keyboards and a narcotized tempo, the track oozes intimacy, then the tone shifts and the vocals become more strident, Drake owning up to his decadence and vulnerability simultaneously. He sounds confident in his contradictions, and it’s disconcerting.
“Started from the Bottom” echoes the monotone menace of East Coast rappers Clipse in one of their dire, drug-dealing tales. Percussion rattles in “Worst Behaviour,” and Drake talks tougher than he ever has. “Remember?” he asks, turning the question into an accusation, a demand.
The Toronto-born Drake doesn’t try to integrate his sound with the rest of the rap mainstream. Instead, he continues to work with fellow Canadians such as Noah “40” Shebib and Gonzalez, and they help him build on the unconventional foundation of his previous two albums: introspective, slow-moving, vaguely psychedelic, with refrains that emerge like ghosts from stream-of-consciousness raps. In “305 My City,” he turns the recurring phrase “I get it” into an unexpected hook, even though it feels like part of a conversation.
Drake does most of the rapping, instead of relying on the heavy-hitting cameos he could surely command, and sings with the tenderness of old in “Hold On, We’re Going Home.” Mostly, he tries to evoke interior monologues or bedroom conversations, with the listener as voyeur.
In “Connect,” he protests to a lover, “Don’t talk to me like I’m famous.” But, cf course he is, and he helpfully provides reminders of that throughout the album. But he’s still not sure exactly how he feels about it. In “Too Much” he suggests that his family is growing apart as his bankroll swells. And over finger snaps and piano in the big, empty room that is “From Time,” a lover recedes even as they swap verses. It’s a perfect marriage of words and sonics, the sound of a relationship dissolving.
Drake’s increasing mastery of not just rhyme, but tone and inflection is readily apparent. He chooses his words carefully, and their meanings multiply with each listen. “I’m on the road right now swingin’, girl,” he raps on “Connect.” But it’s not the voice of someone hustling. Instead, he sounds like he’s dangling from a precipice, wondering how long he can hang on.
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