I think it was Rakim or someone who said that form should match content, and so this review of Drake’s Nothing Was The Same is going to be just as irreducibly convoluted as Drake’s rap persona, and just as long and difficult to digest as one of his albums. Also accordingly, at times you might hate this review, thinking it self-obsessed, corny, and ultimately a waste of time, but like the album, it will slowly change your mind with an utter, naive devotion to its admittedly singular craft, with an atypically total sense of self-awareness and a starry-eyed, endearingly obvious desire to win you over.
In highly pretentious music criticism and in rap music alike, especially in the cases of mainstream rap superstars and unpaid, embittered former liberal arts students, art is ego. Rather than trying to shed the ego through the formal recreation of a superpsychic, egoless state through waves of anonymous, deliberate repetition, rap music and music criticism revel in the mythologizing, aggrandizing, and general exploration of the creative subject’s ego.
Let us digress for a moment and speak on the Kendrick verse. Yes, the one where he calls out so many of his contemporaries that even Mac Miller scores a namedrop. Judging by the internet’s reaction to “Control,” people seemed to vibe with Lamar’s genre-wide call to arms for breathless extended metaphor, but it’s my personal belief that this reaction had more to do with the kind of hip-hop that Lamar represents than with the legitimacy of his sweeping dismissal. To be clear, I actually really like Lamar, but does he honestly believe that everyone he’s calling out is even playing the same game he is?
“Rap” has splintered into dissonant threads; depending on whom you ask, “real” rap either means Auto-Tune’d expulsions of monosyllabic expressionism over a poorly mastered drill beat, well-enunciated lyrical psychodrama plush with socially conscious dialogue, or in the case of our subject at hand, stream-of-consciousness-addled post-R&B, adorned with meandering, pontificating piano samples and muscular 808 drums. While Lamar’s condom-utilizing taunts and technical hotdogging might signify a return to hip-hop’s supposed core values for some, why should we expect Drake to answer to it? He’s on his own shit. We’re talking about a former Degrassi supporting actor here — Drake has never been hip-hop’s core values, but who fucking cares?
And so, on Nothing Was The Same, Drake crystallizes into a more defined version of the paradoxical self outlined on his last two records, separating completely, but uncleanly into the oppositions that already typified his ego: emo yet macho, simultaneous come-up kid and reigning champ, bona fide cornball yet still somehow legitimately cool, sentimental yet sycophantic, rapper’s rapper versus songwriter’s rapper, rapper’s singer versus songwriter’s singer, rapper’s songwriter versus songwriter’s songwriter — you get the idea.
The title of the record speaks to Drake’s uncollapsable schism of ego. Out of context, it’s a prematurely retroactive boast; as in, when this record dropped, Nothing Was The Same. But in context, as it appears on early standout track “Furthest Thing,” the lyric is an admission of personal loss, addressed to (who else but) a former lover: “But you been missing, girl/ And you might feel like nothing was the same.” In this barely-cryptic thesis statement, as in pretty much everything he does and says, Drake’s ego can’t decide whether to inflate or deflate.
This fracture in Drake’s ego can be separated into two essential poles: the universal subject versus the transcendental object. Most of today’s rap superstars swing closer to either pole — on Magna Carta Holy Grail, whose takeaway was basically, “I got more money than all of y’all, actually tho,” Jigga’s ego transcended into the object realm via a seamless translation into the sleek language of capital. The even more divisive Yeezus contained a humble little ditty called “I Am A God,” and in the sense that the album’s lyrical content was blatantly inaccessible to the majority of its listening audience, Kanye became Godlike in his untouchable status as a distant icon of superstardom, opposite the hungry everyman of street rap. Someone who sticks closer to the category of the universal subject, in my estimation, would be someone like the aforementioned Lamar, whose detail-rich, day-in-the-life storytelling on good kid, m.A.A.d. city served to bring the listener along into the thought processes of its troubled protagonist. To bring the discussion back to the artist in question, Drake is an anomaly in hip-hop because he is constantly drawing closer to both poles at once: his psyche “Somewhere between psychotic and iconic,” his love life “Somewhere between a mistress and commitment,” his state of mind “Somewhere between ‘I’m sober’ and ‘I’m lifted.’”
On Nothing Was The Same, which The New York Times praised for supposedly being Drake’s “tough guy” album (LOL), the rapper is far from leaving behind the contradictions that haunt him. This is not a bad thing, as Drake’s paradoxes are what make his psyche a compelling form for listeners to trace as it convolutes and snags on itself: puffing itself up only to double back and pop the bubble with an admission of doubt, arriving on the scene and announcing its preeminence only to post-up on the throne and ponder its own vast distance from perfection.
Drake’s obsession with the immediate and the contemporary, as invoked best on We Outchea-style anthem “Started From The Bottom,” thematically reminiscent of Take Care’s “HYFR,” is countered by the voices of past ghosts that refuse to leave his mind, even after his fame has put him in a position to leave them behind: “You’re still the one that I adore/ Ain’t much out there to have feelings for.” These conflicting temporalities, the High Def sheen of Drake’s present fame and the poignant failed relationships and frustrations of his past, combine to catalyze a potent extract of what I can only describe as “immediate nostalgia,” or, the feeling that you are missing a person or feeling that you have never actually known. Drake’s music is curious, because even if you don’t identify with any of the specifics, the degree to which his aesthetic has fleshed out grants the songs a transportive quality, as if we were all with him back when he working nights at Savers in Toronto, “tryna get it on [his] own.”
While Nothing Was The Same won’t do anything to win over Drake’s detractors, doing pretty much nothing new for the rapper except bringing in more drill-style hi-hats and scaling back the obsession with 808s, dude is nothing if not reliable. Production-wise, Drake invokes the “no new friends” policy outlined on “Girls Love Beyonce,” mostly calling upon longtime collaborator 40 for beats, and it pays off — the music on the album is consistently prescient and compelling all the way through, even if the persistent sense of melancholia causes the record to drag a bit through the middle. Moreover, Drake has evolved into a truly impressive emcee, with the versatility to cop flows as dusty as classic-period Mase on “Worst Behavior” and as in-the-moment as teenage Chicago drill emcee Lil Bibby on “Too Much” and make them all fit snugly within his oeuvre. The standard characters are all here, too: the formerly absent, now reconciled father figure (“Ma’fucka never loved us”), the lost lovers who fed his ego with manic pixie dreamgirl-ish affirmations (“You would look at me with no hesitation/ And you’d tell me, ‘Baby, it’s yours’”) or with “negative energy” (“Then she started tell me how I’d never be as big as Trey Songz/ Boy, was she wrong”), his beloved mother’s world-weary nuggets of wisdom (“Who the fuck wants to be 70 and alone?”), the Wu-Tang Clan’s mantra-like “It’s Yourz” sample that belies more than a handful of tracks on the album.
Which brings me to my next talking point: Nothing Was The Same is preoccupied with the ownership of some phantom marker of success, signified only by “it” but never described in concrete detail, perhaps because that is the very nature of “it.” On “Tuscan Leather,” the album opens with Drake positioning himself “somewhere between ‘I want it’ and ‘I got it,’” still yearning for more of the elusive particle no matter how many times his nameless lovers or his favorite childhood rap group materialize to reassure him, right on cue: “It’s your(s)(z).” Maybe this ghost particle is what drives Drake’s ego to indecision between godlike, Rozayesque transcendence and emotive, heart-on-sleeve relatability. As criminally underexposed songstress Jhene Aiko poses on standout track “From Time,” Drizzy baby, “What are you so afraid of?”
In the end, Drake is still a puzzle to me, perhaps partially because he’s still a puzzle to himself. In attacking the even more daunting task of trying to evaluate this year’s much-debated Yeezus, fellow TMT writer Alex Griffin proposed a necessarily democratic and strikingly on-point metric: “Yeezus will be precisely as interesting to people as an album as Kanye is as a concept.” While I wish I could rest on the laurels of TMT’s critical body here, unfortunately I don’t think the assertion holds as much weight when applied to Drizzy. Treated as a concept, Drake is pretty much completely bland and uninteresting — dude is from Toronto (lots of love to my Canadians, though)! But somehow, even while the world is laughing at him, even while he tries to pass off lines like “Niggas talk more than bitches these days” as lightbulb moments, even while the album cover for Nothing Was The Same sees Drake looking like a cartoon knockoff of a Kehinde Wiley painting, even while he’s constantly reminding us in his nasal bark that we should pay attention to him, I find myself silently rooting for the guy, with a grin on my face and with his melodies stuck in my head while I drive to the airport on a traffic-less highway early on a grey, fall day. Maybe Nothing Was the Same is not a certifiable hip-hop “classic” (whatever that means), but for massively successful, chart-topping records from rap’s royal inner circle, we could do, and have done, a whole lot fucking worse.