It has already been said and it is a little cliche, but I’m going to elaborate anyways. Drake is the rap game LeBron James. The points are pretty obvious. They’re the most controversial players in their respective leagues, with millions of people who hate everything about them and claim they’re ruining the sport/genre. They’re both the most versatile. Drake both sings and raps, can operate in his own signature sound as well as go out and make hits for others. LeBron can play big or small, score and defend, and turn into Darth Vader at will. They’re both the most dominant, regardless of everything else. Drake’s breakthrough mixtape So Far Gone was LeBron’s absurd 48 point performance against the Pistons in the 2007 playoffs, an announcement that a star was born. Drake’s debut album Thank Me Later was LeBron’s first two MVP awards with the Cavs, a sign of success that still kept them out of the pantheon. But 2011’s Take Care was LeBron’s first championship. The biggest knocks on both of them were gone. LeBron was a winner who came through in the clutch. Drake had a critically acclaimed sophomore album that bent radio to his will and not the other way around. After earning the respect of their critics, they went on to garner the respect of their peers. LeBron led the 2012 US Olympic team to a gold medal and was undoubtedly the leader of the team. Drake’s Club Paradise tour was the most successful tour of the year as he handpicked all of Hip Hop’s rising stars to open for him and then gave each of them hit radio songs that boosted their careers. A list of artists that owe a LARGE thank you to Drake: Kendrick Lamar, A$AP Rocky, Meek Mill, 2 Chainz, French Montana, Waka Flocka Flame, Future, J. Cole, and others. So I suppose in this analogy Drake’s new album Nothing Was The Same would be the equivalent of LeBron losing his headband in the 2013 finals and bulldozing past the Spurs for a second ring. Well the headband may have come off, but in this album Ray Allen misses that buzzer beater.
That’s not to say that the album is bad. This is one of the (admittedly rare) cases where the hype has overshadowed the actual work. Drizzy Drake has an absolute stranglehold on the rap game, a radio midas touch. His first two singles from NWTS show his dominance. “Started From The Bottom,” a simple DJ Mustard-like banger cloaked in his cloudy Toronto sound, is all swagger and hook, the ultimate hashtag anthem for a man who’s made a living off of hashtag anthems. “Hold On, We’re Going Home” is the exact opposite, a throwback 80’s feel good song, featuring no rapping and is more at home on the Breakfast Club soundtrack than a major label rap album. And they’re both huge hits. What other rapper, what other artist, has that kind of range and can still be successful? I was expecting Nothing Was The Same to be his Blueprint, an album that showcases an MC at the peak of his commercial powers absolutely crushing the competition. The promotional push this album has had has been unbelievable, like Kanye’s G.O.O.D. Friday series for My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. Every new song Drake leaked to his fans added a new element or a new direction for his music. Would the album be more classic boom bap like his “Jodeci Freestyle” with J. Cole? Or would it be a softer for-the-ladies approach like “Girls Love Beyonce.” Or most excitingly, would it be the straight up rappity raps like “5 AM In Toronto” where Drizzy throws his hat in the ring for best rapper alive (and also claims he’s on his “King James shit”)? But it turns out Nothing Was The Same actually is the same, with Drake staying safely in his own zone.
One of Drake’s greatest strengths is his producer and collaborator Noah “40” Shebib. Together, the two have put together a unique sound, a dreary underwater desert inspired by Kanye’s 808’s & Heartbreak, which gives Drake ample room to sing or rap. But this time it’s Drake’s biggest weakness. Nothing Was The Same is Drake’s most insular record yet. Instead of rising to new heights, the production eats itself from the inside out, constantly burrowing into itself. Big melodic statements like the two singles are the exception, not the norm. A lot of reviews have been praising the production and I suppose it sounds impressive. It definitely deepens the sound that Drake and 40 have been pioneering the last four years, but it can get really boring. Inverted self indulgence at it’s finest. The beats may be more sophisticated, but Drake doesn’t endow them with any substantial hooks. It’s as if he’s letting the beats do the work for him and he’s content to drift platitudes over them. Drake’s power before was how he was able to combine his rapping and singing into incredibly catchy refrains and choruses, like on “Headlines” and “Best I Ever Had.” Here he forgoes that and the record pays for it. Songs like “Own It,” “305 To My City” and “Connect” all drift lazily by. “Connect” is the most frustrating because it’s a great concept gone to waste. A beautiful baseball metaphor highlighting a failing relationship that always swings for a home run, just trying to connect but always strikes out. It even opens with (I think) a recording of Joe Carter’s walk off homer for the Toronto Blue Jays in the world series. A great idea but then he starts singing about pussy power and I have to skip it.
That does bring light to Drake’s growing writing skills. He’s turned into a very talented rapper and flexes his muscle on a lot of the tracks. There’s a lot of confidence to be found on this album, from the #anthem “Started From The Bottom” to the giant middle finger of “Worst Behaviour.” He might have even written a response for Kendrick on “The Language,” where he opens “I don’t know why they been lying but your shit is not that inspiring” and goes on to say “fuck any nigga talkin’ that shit just to get a reaction.” But while his writing has improved, he still raps in the same, totally in-the-pocket flow which can drag on for a while. Every time he goes in on a verse it’s the same style. There are some tweaks, like the southern style of “The Language” and the singing weaves in and out, but those feel like exercises rather than artistic statements. The album is still a very insular record where the sounds all blend together. When 2 Chainz comes in on the bonus track “All Me,” it’s a relief to hear someone actually rap unexpectedly.
Nothing Was The Same is disappointing in terms of aesthetic growth, but Drake is a star because of his empathy and universality. His best songs come from talking about very personal subjects and the ones found on NWTS rank as the best in his career. I don’t want to touch on the criticism Drake gets for talking about his feelings and writing love songs and such because it’s an embarrassing critique. As if all rap has to be knucklehead hard shit. As if you have to have a specific background in order to create great art. As if a song like “Started From The Bottom” doesn’t perfectly capture the world conquering feeling that Hip Hop embodies and open a conversation in which people of all backgrounds can participate. Enough of all that. But Nothing Was The Same has a different quality than his previous work. His digressions into his relationships are nastier, his reflections seem not as authentic. When he calls out specific girls it seems like notches on the bedpost, not real relationships. NWTS succeeds when Drake delves into his family and his childhood. On “From Time” (a duet with TDE affiliated singer Jhene Aiko who sounds incredible here; if Drake ever does do an R&B only album, it would be way better with a girl singer) he’s bonding with his dad over tough relationships and worried about his own future. “Wu-Tang Forever” has him slyly confronting his suburban past. But the gem of the album is “Too Much.” A haunting piano line underscores singer Sampha imploring Drake to “don’t think about it too much,” before the beat kicks in and Drizzy goes all stream of consciousness about growing up in Houston, his anxieties about performing, the change his family is going through and his own estrangement from them. It’s simply jawdropping.
I’ve been listening to Nothing Was The Same all week hoping it will grow on me the way Take Care did, but it doesn’t have the undeniable hook that his sophomore effort had. There’s an air of self importance that consumes the album, as if Drake and 40 are already completely impressed with themselves. Album closer “Pound Cake/Paris Morton Music 2” is a great ending, but it doesn’t feel earned. The first half has Drake out rapping Jay-Z, who’s in full on status symbol mode rather than rapper mode and says cake at least 20 times. And then the second half is one long verse where Drake outlines where the theme of his album. “Like I should be on my best behavior and not talk my shit and do it major like the niggas that paved the way for us, like I didn’t study the game to the letter and understand that I’m not doing it the same, man, I’m doing it better.” It’s a complete knockout of all the criticism that’s been directed at his entire career, an explanation for the Wu-Tang references that pop up all throughout the album. While his career may back up his words, this album doesn’t. Take Care and his Club Paradise tour had already silenced the haters. Nothing Was The Same sounds like the victory lap, not the home run it was supposed to be.