Drake's debut album leaked less than 24 hours before last night's official listening party for Thank Me Later in New York, but the Young Money rapper's spirits remained improbably high. "This is just one of those magical days that you remember forever," he said before debuting the disc, which hits stores June 15th. Earlier in the day, Drake visited the man who largely made the night possible: Lil Wayne, who is currently serving a yearlong sentence at Rikers Island. "I just looked in his eyes, and I could tell he was proud of me," Drake said. And since Weezy couldn't attend the party, Drake had a special surprise in store to ensure Wayne, in spirit, was the guest of honor.
Drake, who admitted he never thought he'd elevate past free-mixtape fame, first paid homage to two artists who inspired his first album. He thanked Nas, "a rapper I never quite understood, but studied his cadence and storytelling," then spent a few moments praising Jimi Hendrix, citing how the guitar god's "performance and demeanor" shaped his own artistry. "I want to get better with every body of work I submit to the world," Drake said.
Surrounded by Cash Money honcho Birdman, members of his entourage and a slew of guests including Chris Brown, Bow Wow and Jay Sean, Drake unveiled his masterpiece. One by one, Drake introduced each of the album's 14 tracks with a few insights and back stories. "This song is about dealing with the question of when your life is changing, are you changing?" Drake explained prior to the introspective "The Resistance." "Karaoke" focused on the MC's real-life longtime flame, who split after she realized she couldn't handle the spotlight. Each intro provided context for what undoubtedly is the rap album of the summer: The first third of Thank Me Later is stocked with essential party tracks, the second third houses the slow jams — highlighted by the incredible The-Dream collaboration "Shut It Down" — and the final act wraps with a pair of monsters, "Find Your Love" and "Thank Me Now."
The disc's A-list roster of guest talent takes the LP to the superstar stratosphere: T.I., Young Jeezy, Alicia Keys, Nicki Minaj, Swizz Beatz, Lil Wayne, Jay-Z and, with a pair of production credits, Kanye West, all cameo with top-shelf contributions. Last night Drake rewarded his guests with a special bonus that fans who listened via leak missed out on: After Jay-Z's verse on the scorching "Light Up," Drake did some quick editing to add in a freshly recorded, minute-long freestyle by Lil Wayne, his voice shrouded in static since the vocal was recorded over the guest-to-prisoner phone during Drake's visit earlier in the day (video of the verse has now hit the web). Rest assured, Weezy fans: though he's been deprived of his iPod and his marathon sessions in the studio, prison life has not slowed Wayne's flow at all.
"This is authentic hip-hop… doesn't matter where it charts or how much it sells," Drake announced prior to unveiling the Kanye-produced "Show Me a Good Time." While Thank Me Later will likely have no problem on the charts, on his debut album Drake — like his mentors Lil Wayne, Kanye West and Jay-Z — finds an appealing balance between critical acclaim and commercial success. "Ain't no turning back for me, I'm in it 'til it's over," Drake promises at the end of "The Resistance." At his listening party, dressed in army-fatigue pants like he was ready for battle, Drake let his music prove he's not going anywhere.