Hip-hop has never produced anything quite like Drake – a guy with a Jay-Z ego and a Charlie Brown soul. The Canadian singer-rapper introduced his melancholy-player persona on 2010's platinum Thank Me Later, spooling out alarmingly mellow confessional brags over synth-streaked tracks that suggested someone had spiked his Cristal with NyQuil and truth serum. "Famous like a drug that I've taken too much of," he rapped, and somehow made you sympathetic to all his stardom-is-hard meditations.
So, how's he feeling these days? The cover of Take Care says it all: Drake sits forlornly in the depths of a mansion he could've bought from 1970s Jimmy Page, slung over a golden goblet of $50-a-glass painkiller. Dude probably had sex two minutes ago, but he looks like his dog just got run over by a garbage truck.
The music is grandiose, full of big names and weighty references – from the drunk-dial epic "Marvin’s Room" to the N'awlins hip-hop tribute "Practice" to cameos from André 3000, Nicki Minaj, Lil Wayne and Stevie Wonder. Where Thank Me Later was airy and spare, Take Care truly goes for it with luxe, expansive production: On "Cameras," beatmaking prodigy Lex Luger provides diamond-bright high-hat clicks, low-end vroom and soulful background vocals as Drake struggles to convince his girl he's not cheating on her after she sees him in a magazine with another woman; on "Lord Knows," Just Blaze laces a shake-the-sky mix of gospel choir, gauzy R&B sample and stomping beat, and Rick Ross swoops in for a hilarious freestyle: "Villa on the water with the wonderful views/Only fat nigga in the sauna with Jews." There's even a funky thank-you letter to Drake's mom.
Mostly, Drake stretches out over languid, austerely plush tracks that blur hip-hop, R&B and downtempo dance music. "Over My Dead Body" opens the album with a dreamweave of cascading pianos and plaintive backing vocals from Canadian singer Chantal Kreviazuk: "I was drinking at the Palms last night/And ended up losing everything that I came with," he raps in his finest just-woke-up voice.
It's what Drake does best, collapsing many moods – arrogance, sadness, tenderness and self-pity – into one vast, squish-souled emotion. On the elegant title track, Jamie Smith of U.K. band the xx lays down house-music pianos, ice sheets of guitar and a sample from recently deceased R&B radical Gil Scott-Heron as Drake and Rihanna do their laid-back, realist appraisal of the love game: "When you're ready, just say you're ready," he reassures. Is it going to work out? Maybe. But like most hopeless romantics, Drake favors the illusion of infinite promise over the reality anyway.
"We live in a generation of not being in love," he says over Stevie Wonder’s harmonica on "Doing It Wrong." It's as close as Take Care gets to a message for our times. But deep down you wonder if he'd have it any other way. After all, in a fully requited world, who'd need Drake?
Listen to "Lord Knows":