Earlier this fall, Drake released a moody, downtempo jam called “Wu-Tang Forever,” hoping to build anticipation for his third LP. Instead, a sizable contingent of rap traditionalists were outraged. That’s because “Wu-Tang Forever,” despite featuring a ghostly snippet of the Wu-Tang Clan‘s 1997 single “It’s Yourz,” sounds nothing like the Clan – it’s a heartfelt requiem for a girl he used to know. “I just love when I’m with you,” the Toronto star sighs, in a rueful tone that’s hard to imagine coming from Raekwon or ODB, or any other mainstream MC in the past 20 years, for that matter.
“Wu-Tang Forever” might be the Drake-iest track ever, but Nothing Was the Same is full of runners-up. There’s never been a hip-hop star quite like him – his taste in beats runs to gloomy synths rather than dusty samples, and passive-aggressively burning his exes (or himself) is his favorite way of bragging. This approach helped sell 2 million copies of his last album, 2011’s Take Care, and he’s not about to mess with the formula. A more accurate title for this album might have been Everything Was Pretty Much the Same: It’s a brilliant summation of all the things you already love about Drake – unless you find him totally annoying, in which case it probably won’t change your mind.
As usual, Drake is full of doubts and regrets, though maybe a little less so than before. On the catchy lead single, “Started From the Bottom,” he celebrates his success so insistently you can’t help but cheer him on – even if you know in the back of your mind that “the bottom,” in his case, was the set of the popular Canadian soap opera Degrassi: The Next Generation. Elsewhere, on the bittersweet piano ballad “From Time,” he settles a score with a long-gone flame: “She started telling me how I’ll never be as big as Trey Songz/Boy, was she wrong!” But just a few bars later, he’s switched to kicking himself over an ancient breakup with a Hooters waitress named Courtney: “Girl, I felt like we had it all planned out, I guess I fucked up the vision/Learning the true consequences of my selfish decisions.” Yep, still Drake.
His secret weapon has always been a keen ear for off-beat, vibe-y sounds. Longtime partner Noah “40” Shebib handles most of the production here, layering backmasked instruments that flutter like iridescent seaweed on the ocean floor. It’s the perfect backdrop for Drake’s quiet-storm raps, which he delivers in his signature suave singsong. The more melodic his flow, the slicker he sounds, allowing him to get away with some truly corny lines (“Girl, you know I’ve seen you naked”). He’s most charming of all when he breaks into a full-on croon for “Hold On, We’re Going Home” – an R&B air kiss so Eighties it should come with pastel leg warmers.
Drake reveals so much of himself on Nothing Was the Same that it’s easy to poke holes in his tortured-player persona: After a while, his confessions start to sound like sneaky boasts about all the beautiful hearts he’s broken. And maybe he wants you to see that contradiction. After all, hiding his flaws has never been Drake’s style – they’re the whole point.