If every artist’s word was taken as gospel, there’d be an ocean of Greatest Rappers Alive right now. At some point in any mainstream MC’s career there’s sure to be the very biggest brag: that they are, in their own mind at least, the best of the best.
Stop a rap fan on the street and ask them who is the greatest rapper alive, chances are they won’t snap straight to Toronto’s Aubrey Graham for an answer. Nas, maybe. Jay Z, even, albeit probably only up to ‘The Black Album’. Busta had a go for a while. Right now, Kendrick Lamar presents a convincing case – or, rather, peers do on his behalf; be that through substantial support or disbelief at his critical acclaim.
But as Drake – it’s his middle name – Graham has now reached a level of global recognition that places third album ‘Nothing Was The Same’ under the same scrutiny as Kanye West’s ‘Yeezus’ (Clash review) and ‘Magna Carta… Holy Grail’ (Clash review). He’s been known to talk the talk, and does so here, closer ‘Paris Morton Music 2’ featuring a remark about being the “best of my generation”. But, maybe, Drake is beginning to walk like the (long-past-mixtapes) legend he’s previously announced himself to be.
He’s got support – and not just from the millions buying his music, his merchandise, his tour tickets and into his OVO brand and label. In a recent interview with Clash, Wu-Tang Clan’s RZA spoke highly indeed of the Canadian. “As far as raw talent goes, an MC with raw talent and focus, Drake has both,” he said (read the interview in issue 88 of Clash magazine, details). “Whether he’s rapping or acting, you can tell that the only thing that will stop him is himself.”
Not yet. Although he alludes to the opportunity to quit now, inarguably while he’s ahead – “Bank account statements just look like I’m ready for early retirement,” he says on ‘The Language’ – Drake is still finding freshness in both rhymes and beats. There’s originality here, that’s obvious enough, albeit of a kind fenced in by Drake’s own set of influences and his lyrical limitations. It’s less variations on a theme, more a mixing of fresh tones on a familiar palette.
Which is to say: ‘Nothing Was The Same’ offers the listener a lot of what they’ve come to love (or loathe, indeed) about its maker, with the occasional flash of something a little more daring than might’ve been anticipated. Not in the sense that this is anywhere near as out-there as the more hyperactive moments of ‘Yeezus’, but that these 13 tracks are possessed by a mood slightly removed from what’s come before them. The tone is one of an understated satisfaction with the artist’s current lot, rather than a scramble for more.
Drake’s spoken of a new contentment in his life, and the coherency that flows across these cuts, joining one to the next, is indicative of a clear confidence in his current creative process. At times it’s bordering complacency, but never for so long that the overall experience becomes dour. At its most meandering, attentions can begin to drift – surprisingly, it’s a Hudson Mohawke production, ‘Connect’, that’s most guilty of travelling little distance over its run time – but there’s often a detail, something cunningly set distinctly in the mix, that snaps this music back into focus.
A lot more boisterous is ‘Worst Behaviour’ – arriving at track six, it’s the first selection here that really bumps, rather than grinding politely against the senses in the style that past Drake tracks like ‘Club Paradise’ achieved; those cuts that are all drifts and drones beneath clean percussion and shades of introspection. Drake sounds charged up, properly prickly, as he spits about how a certain “motherf*cker never loved us”. It’s also one of several tracks here paying respect to Wu-Tang Clan, with the line “You better have my money when I come for the shit like ODB.” (There’s also a subtle reworking of Mase’s opening lines to Biggie’s posthumous hit ‘Mo Money Mo Problems’.)
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Drake, 'Too Much', live on Jimmy Fallon
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The sincerity of RZA’s patronage of Drake could be questioned given the times that his Staten Island Clan is celebrated on ‘Nothing Was The Same’ – in lyrics as per the above and via samples, not to mention titles, as the cut ‘Wu-Tang Forever’ borrows a hook from the rap crew’s 1997 single ‘It’s Yourz’. Then again, there are far worse rap outfits to plug into for inspiration, and when ‘Pound Cake’ samples ‘C.R.E.A.M.’ it does so to the track’s clear benefit, as a compositional constituent rather than outright foundation.
Silkier cuts ‘From Time’ – featuring a wonderful vocal from Los Angeles singer Jhené Aiko and production/writing assistance from Chilly Gonzales – and the single ‘Hold On, We’re Going Home’ provide essential contrast to the surrounding hip-hop flavours. Of ‘Hold On…’, Drake has commented that he wanted to make a track that could be played in several years’ time, at weddings, for the whole family to enjoy. And it’s a great track, indeed: ‘90s R&B meets ‘80s pop, like some sort of marriage made in a Miami sunset, chunky beats stirred into Hall & Oates funk-soul.
If 2011’s ‘Take Care’ album threatened to buckle under the weight of its heavyweight guests – amongst them: Rihanna, Rick Ross, Nicki Minaj and Lil Wayne – ‘Nothing Was The Same’ is more sparing with its feature spots. Another British connection, following Drake’s collaboration with HudMo, is ‘Too Much’, a great late-LP track that samples the Sampha song of the same name. The south London singer, probably overdue his breakthrough proper as a solo artist, appears again on a stateside bonus track, ‘The Motion’.
Elsewhere, there’s room for LA producer and rapper Detail, on the sluggish and forgettable ‘305 To My City’, but for the most part Drake is enjoying his spotlight here, refusing to let anyone else steal it. And it works: both in terms of producing a flowing album ‘proper’, rather than an arbitrary arrangement of singles-in-waiting, and in revealing more of this artist than we’ve heard before – unexpected, at this stage of his ascent to fame.
There’s the definite sense throughout that Drake doesn’t need to do this anymore – not because of a lack of quality, but because he’s made all the money he needs to in order to live out a comfortable life. He’s been through stages and phases across his career, embraced opportunities as they’ve come and, to his credit, seemed to take little for granted. When he says, on ‘Too Much, “The moment I stop having fun with it I’ll be done with it,” you believe him. He could easily click his fingers. He could easily stop himself.
But that he hasn’t – and has avoided the rich man talking about his riches problem Jay Z’s experiencing of late (he’s at it again here, delivering a tedious dollars-this, cents-that guest spot on ‘Pound Cake’), instead focusing on the how rather than the now – is worthy of some congratulations. Greatest rapper alive, Drake is not. But he remains an honest one. We’ll thank him for it later, no doubt.
Words: Mike Diver
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Drake, 'Started From The Bottom'
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