Let’s start with the bottom–figuratively, of course. I love the lead single from Nothing Was the Same. True, the ridiculousness of the music video helped matters, which featured everything from a quick shot of Drake’s mother looking super serious, Drake in an all-white outfit swagger-walking beside a white car while it’s snowing, Drake strutting on a billboard advertising himself, a brief advertisement for e-cigs in a bowling bar where Drake gets a strike, etc. It was full of gif-made moments, but the music was good too. Both Drake’s repeated hook until it was a true motto and 40’s beat that rides on a simple melody were effortlessly catchy. Meanwhile, the verses themselves could be taken as a response against the flaccid criticisms against Drake’s career as a rapper. And still, the same people missed the point. “What bottom?” they’d ask, aware only of his start as “the wheelchair kid from Degrassi” or that he grew up in one of the richer neighborhoods in the GTA, but unaware that he and his mother had to share a house in said neighborhood. But there’s also the way he words them and delivers them that’s humourous. He doesn’t bother mentioning his mother’s income or status as a single mother, instead opting with “Livin’ at my momma house we’d argue every month” and other first world problems like “My uncle callin’ me like, ‘Where ya at? / I gave you the keys told ya bring it right back.’” Other moments are just pure braggadocio, such as “I wear every single chain, even when I’m in the house,” but it’s at least believable and well-earned.
Taking a step back to see the larger picture, Drake has had a slight but undeniable growth through his discography. Thank Me Later was full of clumsy moments; he was marketed as a rapper, so he rapped, but it felt like he was only doing so to fill the obligatory space between hooks, which were the album’s selling point (think: the Alicia Keys-aided “Fireworks,” the fanfare of “Over,” the “OH, YOU FANCY, HUH” of “Fancy”). Take Care was a vast improvement, certainly, flawed only in the album’s length which tried to touch on as many aspect of Drake’s personality as possible: Drake the mobster who’ll catch a body (whatever that meant), Drake the drunk-dialing bitch, Drake the lover, Drake the guy who hangs out with the Weeknd on Saturdays and Stevie Wonder on Sundays, Drake the rapper, Drake the singer. Nothing Was the Same does away with all of that: over a concise album length (this one has 13 tracks spanning 60 minutes, compared to the 18-track, 80-minute Take Care), Drake shows an understanding of his strengths, either in style or subject matter, and hones in on them.
For example, he doesn’t even bother with rapping on second single “Hold On, We’re Going Home,” a contemporary R&B track through and through, and as a result, the people who criticize Drake as a rapper suddenly have no ammunition. On the other side of things, “Tuscan Leather” is an album opener to end album openers, six minutes of Drake rapping nonstop without a single hook in sight. And he knows his market well, noting that “This is nothing for the radio, but they’ll still play it though / Cause it’s that new Drizzy Drake, that’s just the way it go / Heavy airplay all day with no chorus” in the track’s opening verse and later, repeatedly asking “How much time is this nigga spending on the intro?” on the third verse. And the people who are sick of Drake’s limited subject matter on Thank Me Later or Take Care suddenly have no ammunition. He only briefly touches on girls on the second verse, but even then, it’s an admonishment that he needs Nicki Minaj in his life, “to check me when I’m tripping,” rather than the tabloid-pandering confession on “Miss Me.” On the other side of things, his flow is downright vicious on “The Language,” but, as opposed to the fake mobster from “Headlines,” this one is about a subject matter that Drake’s more than familiar with (“She just want to smoke and fuck / I said ‘Girl, that’s all that we do'”).
But the best example of Drake’s growth as an artist is in the independence within Nothing Was the Same. On Thank Me Later or Take Care, he had a guest feature in practically every other track. You got the sense that he was insecure of himself in the case of the former, while you got the sense that he only pulled in big names on Take Care to help boost sales. If this was two years ago, “Hold On, We’re Going Home” might’ve been co-sang by the Weeknd instead of newcoming duo Majid Jordan (the first time their name has ever appeared in the music world, barring an EP released on soundcloud under a different moniker, but that’s been taken down anyway). Other features aren’t more well-known, but they all pull their weight, especially Sampha on “Too Much.” Two years ago, Drake might’ve opted to go the track by himself, but Sampha’s vocals help add an extra dimension where there was none on say, “Shot For Me.” Truthfully, the only guest that could have been removed from the album is veteran player Jay Z on closer “Pound Cake,” who drops disconnected lines like “I just might learn to speak Mandarin / Japanese for the yen that I’m handling” (that line is in sore need of an “or”), or else lazily rhyming words with themselves (“Cake, cake, cake, cake, cake, cake / 500 million, I got a pound cake / Niggas is fronting, that’s upside-down case” or “Dame made millions, Bigg made millions / Ye made millions, Just made millions / Lyor made millions, Cam made millions”). You really get the sense that he was only included to show how much better Drake is as a rapper now. Birdman acting as little more than a hypeman on “The Language” is a little superfluous but when it segues so nicely into “305 to My City,” it’s hard to criticize.
Which leads me to my next point: Drake is only half the equation on Nothing Was the Same; it owes a lot to its producers that gives it an album feeling rather than a compilation of tracks as on Thank Me Later. Long-time confidant, Noah ’40’ Shebib, is as confident as ever; his constant flipping Whitney Houston samples like they were hamburger patties on a grill on “Tuscan Leather” is the most tangible example of this, such that were it an instrumental, it would’ve carried itself fine. “Furthest Point” that follows manages to carry its own beat switch, despite clocking in at a fraction of the time. Elsewhere, 40 does away with the radio-ready tracks of Take Care, opting for a stripped away approach, because he knows better than anybody, that Drake can do fine by himself. “Wu-Tang Forever” follows “Started From the Bottom” with its earworming melody in its piano, and a sample of RZA yelling “It’s Yourz” that nicely contrasts with Drake singing the same words. For those who are angry about Drake’s choice of title, I’d point out that the song itself has as much to do with girls as does Common’s “I Used To Love H.E.R.,” while the sparse beats that dominate the album are obviously a tribute to RZA. And similar to the aforementioned segueing between “The Language” and “305,” 40 connects “Wu-Tang Forever” and “Own It” beautifully such that it’s hard to tell where one ends and the other begins.
But even when Drake does rap about girls, it’s not the same as when it was previously. “From Time” is the album’s most exhausting track–emotionally, that is. He does away with the cheesiness that you might’ve criticized “Marvin’s Room” for; his verses on “From Time” might be the best of his career so far. “I want to take it deeper than money, pussy, vacation / And influence a generation that’s lacking in patience,” he says, and does so, “My mother is 66 and her favorite line to hit me with is / Who the fuck wants to be 70 and alone.” Jhene Aiko does the same, the huge pause between the seemingly narcissistic “I love me” and the heartstring-tugging line, “I love me enough for the both of us” in the hook is probably the greatest use of a rest in a long time, delivered with such frailty that it’s clear that she’s not just saying it, she’s trying desperately to believe it too. Meanwhile, 40 hangs in the background, using mostly fingersnaps for percussion, and colored only by twinkling piano that doesn’t have a hope in the world of drawing your attention away from the subject matter.
There’s only one sour moment on the album, and that’s “305 to My City,” which sort of plods along, and its weak, repeated hook (“I get it, I get it, I get it, I get it”) doesn’t help matters. I’d also wager that Take Care had higher highs, in part because of the confinements that Drake imposes on himself here (see for example, not letting posse cut “All Me” onto the proper album, only available on deluxe editions). But Nothing Was the Same is easily his most consistent and most mature offering to date. It feels like Drake is ready to move past the image (the kid from Degrassi, the whitest rapper since Eminem, etc.) that’s been thrust upon him, and that alone makes me wonder what he’ll do next.