“Don’t fuck with me, don’t fuck with me” sang a ghostly voice. It didn’t belong to Drake, but marked his return. The light, airy, acidic words on “Dreams Money Can Buy” sampled the enigmatic Jai Paul, repurposed for one of the most known quantities in the world. The sentiment was clear: Drake was going after the best.
“And I feel like lately it went from top five to remaining five,” he boasted. “My favorite rappers either lost it or they ain’t alive.” His “favorite” rappers seemed like a light jab at Kanye West and Jay-Z, during a time when Drake stealing their throne was more possibility than inevitability.
“It wasn’t meant to be a shot at the five rappers that I love,” he told Complex in 2011. “I’ve never even sat down and pieced together a top five before. I just feel like I’m really good right now. And I’ve never felt like that before. I’ve always felt reluctant to say anything like that.”
Almost a year removed from the critically tepid response to his 2010 debut album, Thank Me Later, Drake was back to settle scores no one knew needed settling. Before the release of his most critically adored work, Take Care — seven years ago today — he was in need of a reinvention. Thank Me Later sounded expensive, but not good. The Kanye West, Swizz Beats and Timbaland production spat in the face of the insular, Canadian sound Graham developed with Noah “40” Shebib and Boi-1da. So Graham decided to focus group his comeback via Blogspot, back when that was still a thing.
Seven years later, the real tragedy of Drake’s sophomore studio album is that some of the best songs from his early ’10s run — “Dreams Money Can Buy,” “Club Paradise,” “Trust Issues” and “Free Spirit” — have been largely lost to time, thanks to an unfair shift in platforms and short memory of the internet. And it’s those four songs that would define the essence of Drake as entity as we know him today: Distant, despondent, damaged, petty.
“Club Paradise” is an ode to his hometown of Toronto and, more importantly, the girls that still live there. It’s about strip clubs in the way most Drake songs are kind of about strip clubs. It’s his narcissism made sentient, sheer disbelief that these women’s lives could go on without him. The resentment threatens to boil over. When Drake raps, “She like, ‘Why you even give a fuck, you not even here?’ / Well, out there there ain’t nothing for me and I think I need to come home,” it’s everything we love about the idea of Drake, the man. He’s successful enough to shit on the people he left behind, but conscious enough that he needs them more than they need him.
From there, his new world spun outward. He devotes an entire song to singing about his “Trust Issues,” which, trust him, there are many — women who can’t mix his cough syrup and carbonated beverages correctly, women with cellphones, staying friends when you have “a bunch of feelings that you don’t show.” Seemingly no woman in Drake’s world is to be trusted. The woozy, nocturnal beat provided by Adrian X and 40 is as suffocating as the lyrics.
Drugs, namely lean, was as much of a muse during this time as Rose Mary or Leanne Sealey. Whether the choice was aesthetic or real isn’t as important as what the codeine-laced product meant as metaphor. “These days keep going by too fast, so give me anything to make shit go slow,” Drizzy rapped on “Free Spirit.” If Drake’s career was already moving before Take Care, in its aftermath it became a blur. Aubrey Graham would soon disappear behind a haze of creatine, tabloid fodder and Billboard hits.
He’d never stop namedropping the women who scorned him, trips back to his hometown ebbed and flowed, but each time it would be different. His once paramours now had children or were happily married, his haters receded or got 9 to 5s. Hearing the self-proclaimed “boy” grasping at what it meant to become a man was interesting then, without the knowledge that years of suspended animation would threaten to calcify the one note tale.
Maybe we’re better off with the Take Care tracklist that he ended up settling on. “Dreams Money Can Buy,” “Club Paradise,” “Trust Issues” and “Free Spirit” might only be four songs, not as well remembered as the rest of his catalog, but they were the first time hearing this particular story, and the last time the Drake that’s ubiquitous now seemed new.