(Originally written for Reverb1)
Drake is about as love/hate as it gets in hip-hop today. Hardcore hip-hop heads think he’s too soft to be taken seriously, which thanks in part to blog Big Ghost, has become a stock criticism for those without an opinion. Really, Drake shouldn’t be held up to the same standards as those old school names like Wu-Tang, Erik B & Rakim or Big L, the sort of hip-hop godfathers that “true” hip-hop fans pride themselves on counting their favorites. Drake’s game has always been half-R&B, half-rap, with a dusting of electronic — but above all, solid. He’s never been caught up on where hip-hop used to be; he’s been too busy making it what it is.
But that last part isn’t as true on “Nothing Was The Same.” Like on “Take Care” before it, Drake delivers a comprehensive album that double-dips in rap and R&B, pulling up a concoction that’s all him. This time around though, he’s nostalgic more than anything, concerned less with where he’s headed than where he came from.
As if to directly address his detractors, “Nothing Was the Same” ups the rap quotient of the Drake equation to about an even split. “Tuscan Leather” has him going in hard from the start, dropping three extended verses on Noah “40″ Shabib’s constantly evolving beat. Through the intro, we get smirky wordplay (“Like aye B, I got your CD you get an E for effort”), and about a mixtape’s worth of hype-up’s and put down’s. The straight-rap head fake doesn’t last too long, though. On “Furthest Thing,” Drake leads off with a silky rhythm and his smoothly sung admission of his persisting bad habits but again veers off into bars about said bad habits over a transformed, top-40 beat. Drake’s flirted with sung choruses and rapped verse, but he goes full Frank Ocean here, switching styles altogether mid song. “Wu-Tang Forever” has a similar crisis of identity. Drake plucks the chorus from Wu-Tang’s “It’s Yourz” and flips it into a term of sexual endearment, half-sung (“Baby, it’s yours”), half-rapped (“Nobody else’s / This shit belongs to nobody else”) but about as far from Wu-Tang as you can get. Still, Drake has an ear for what works in the liminal space he inhabits somewhere between Tyga and Miguel, and it’s entertaining to hear him play there and tag up on either end.
Along with typical love hang-ups, Drake is obsessed with dissecting the past—specifically the 90′s— on “NWTS.” Besides the countless Wu Tang name checks, we get a retrospective of Drake’s big break (“Pound Cake/Paris Morton Music 2″) a la Kanye West’s “Last Call” (right down to the Jay-Z guest spot), a look at how much has changed since he made it (“Started From The Bottom”) and how little has changed since he made it (“Furthest Thing”). With its Sony DRP-2 beat and dramatic synths, “Hold On, We’re Going Home,” is nostalgia in motion, re-imagining Drake as a 90s R&B singer on par with Boyz II Men. On an album that works best in big chunks, it’s also its most immediately gratifying track, though not stylistically representative.
It isn’t its best moment, either. That would be the piano-driven, Sampha-guested “Too Much,” right after the low point of “305 To My City,” which is all stripper, no heart of gold, and features shout-outs to shellfish and the Wizard of Oz. “Too Much” is a synthesis of Drake’s past and present, professional and personal. On lines that scan as genuine, like “Back then they didn’t want me, I’m blessed now,” Drake sounds jaded, not invincible. The difference four years have made is disconcerting, in his life and his family: “Money got my whole family going backwards,” Drake bemoans, “I did not sign up for this.” It’s the sort of deeply reflective track we only get from the likes of Drake or Kanye, bits of bared emotion that you just can’t counterfeit.
“Nothing Was The Same” doesn’t outshine “Take Care.” Though it’s got a pair of singles and only missteps occasionally, it just isn’t as strong. However, it’s a completely different beast, less hung-up on bad relationships and speaker blasting than it is patting its influences on the back to the sound of a calmative piano. It’s by no means next-level, but “NWTS” is smooth and even, a consistent output from a consistently (and strangely) divisive artist.