I have mixed feelings about Drake’s mixed feelings

So yeah. Thank Me Later, the first studio outing from talk-of-the-town newcomer Drake (occasionally “Drizzy”) and probably the most hotly anticipated album of the year so far, is finally out. So let’s talk about it.

Drake, born Aubrey Drake Graham, is a 23-year-old multiracial rapper and R&B singer from a wealthy suburb of Toronto who got his start in show biz as a child actor on the Canadian high school TV serial Degrassi: The Next Generation. Not exactly the most traditional background for a hip-hop phenomenon. He was more or less discovered by Lil Wayne and put on Wheezy’s Young Money label. Pretty soon he was showing up everywhere. He dropped a mixtape (technically his third) called So Far Gone, which shockingly turned out to be one of the most popular albums of the year. The for-sale EP version of So Far Gone sold 500,000 copies despite the fact that the whole thing was available free online. He got a huge hit with “Best I Ever Had,” and then another with “Successful.” Soon everyone wanted Drake on their album or mixtape. He added his sultry monotone to the hook on “Off That,” from Jay-Z’s The Blueprint 3. He seemed to pop up everywhere. Everyone said he was going to be the biggest new star, and even his detractors marvelled at how quickly he had flown into the spotlight. Soon his debut studio album was practically the only thing anyone talked about.

So how does it sound? Slow, for one. Some of the songs are about as minimal and down-tempo as you can get in hip-hop, or even R&B. Drizzy sing-raps or gently croons for much of the album, and admittedly he has the pipes to make it work. Sometimes he speaks so slowly and in such a slick monotone that it sounds more like bedtime story recitation than rap. Seems like Drake would rather make us contemplate the zen pool of his lyrics than sweep us up in river-rushing flow. This style is certainly original, and it is a testament to Drake’s force of character that he managed to get the studio and all his big time collaborators (Lil Wayne, Jay-Z, Young Jeezy, Nicki Minaj, Swizz Beatz, The Dream, T.I.) to go along with his unconventional choices.

On the other hand, much of it sounds like he was trying to make rap music for elevators and shopping malls. Hip-hop fans like hip-hop because they prefer bouncing to engaging beats over swaying to gentle melodies. Luckily there are some more up-tempo joints, and those are, for me anyway, the standout tracks on the album. “Over” thumps with complex, bold beats. “Light Up” invokes inner and outer darkness with menacing drums. “Thank Me Now” has some of the swerve of familiar tracks like “Good Life” from Kanye West’s Graduation. “Fancy” starts out with a for-the-ladies club hook by Swizz Beatz and a ripping fun verse by T.I. before slowing down and pulling back with the vocals for another melancholy story from Drake in the second half of the song. In fact, all these faster tracks contain the occasional moments of stillness that seem to be Drizzy’s trademark.

Drake’s main themes are his mixed and vulnerable emotions regarding fame, money and women, and the way fame and money have affected his relationships with women. The double-edge of stardom is not a new topic in hip-hop or music in general, and while I’m not super-interested in those issues (I’m not, after all, rich and famous), it is a discussion that I tolerate in doses. But usually artists don’t get to talk about their fame-pain in depth until at least their second big album, after they added something new to the conversation in their first. Not so with Drake. In So Far Gone Drizzy spent the whole time talking about how he was going to become famous, and now that he is famous he spends all of Thank Me Later reminiscing about things that are happening right now. For someone who spends so much time thinking about success, he sure seems bewildered by it.

Probably the best album about fame (heck, one of the best albums, period) is Eminem’s The Marshall Mathers LP, in which Slim harnessed the controversy surrounding his popularity to illuminate a great deal of hypocrisy by both his critics and fans. Drizzy doesn’t have any sort of socio-political agenda here. For Drake, it’s just all about Drake. He’s not interested in human nature; he’s interested in Drake nature. And on that subject he is extraordinarily open and emotionally articulate.

In “The Resistance” he discusses an accidental pregnancy that his lover had terminated, and admits that she sent him SMS texts saying she regretted the abortion, which were mistakenly read by whatever new girl he was then with. I appreciate his honesty here, but anecdotes like that aren’t profound; they just make him seem like a total tool, especially given how much of the album seems devoted to seducing his female listeners.

And then there are his many references to insomnia and having to stay up all night working in the studio. I get that: nobody likes not getting enough rest. But I can’t help but remember that Kanye West recorded his breakout single “Through The Wire” while in the hospital with broken limbs and his jaw wired shut after being hit by a car. Compared to that, Drake’s several complaints about lack of beauty sleep seem pretty whiney and insufferable.

There just doesn’t seem to be much for mortals like us to connect to in this album. On So Far Gone he crooned that “I want the money, the money and the cars, the cars and the clothes, the hoes…I suppose, I just want to be successful.” Now that he has all that, however, he seems kind of bummed out about it, even as he poutingly brags about how awesome his life is. That’s a paradox that bores me to tears. This may be my particular pathology, but I have no patience for existential angst. I came to hip-hop to get away from angsty music.

But dammit, this album is growing on me. In part it is because Drake’s introspective attitude seems to have rubbed off on some of his more straightforwardly cocky collaborators. Jay-Z’s verse on “Light Up” is truly excellent and takes a shocking turn when Hov admits that “I once was cool as the Fonz was / but these bright lights turned me to a monster” and darkly apologises to his mother for letting stardom change him. Even the rough-edged Young Jeezy comes out of his shell a bit, talking about a potential wife and admitting to a tender love for the rap game.

The other part is Drake himself, who for all his half-hearted talk of regrets and often un-endearing arrogance, is still powerfully compelling in his diction, his vocal charisma, and his sense of detail and narrative. After repeat listens, I couldn’t help but get drawn in. Maybe that’s Drake’s hidden strength, or maybe that’s just how music works: we’re more likely to like it the more mental energy we give it.

In a weird way, I kind of resent Drake for being lyrically interesting enough to make me want to pick up every note and joke, while also being boring enough by his lackadaisical ennui to make my mind wander mid-song. This combination forced me to spend a lot of time digesting this album, and that was time I could have spent exploring other rappers that weren’t preordained by Lil Wayne. A lot of music passes through my headphones, and if I’m too distracted I can easily miss something great if the hype hasn’t told me to pay attention.

So here I am: first wanting to like this album, and then not liking it, and now liking it without really wanting to like it. And I’m left not really knowing how I feel about the whole affair, so much so that I’ll probably waste even more time trying to sort my opinions out. I’m not exactly pleased with this situation, but maybe I’ll come around. Who knows? Given enough time, perhaps I will thank Drake later.

You can listen to music from Drake’s new album Thank Me Later on Myspace at http://www.myspace.com/thisisdrake.

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