Drake’s ‘Nothing Was the Same': Our Impulsive Reviews
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Late into the weekend, Drake’s much-anticipated third album Nothing Was the Same leaked to the internet. Here, SPIN editors give their hasty and completely impulsive opinions…
(Read SPIN’s full-length review of Drake’s Nothing Was the Same here.)
Credit NWTS to 40 feat. @champagnepapi. Unless you only listen to albums to queef out lyrical tweets, sub or otherwise, this album begins and keeps on going with the leading-edge sonic design of producer Noah “40” Shebib. Edit the vocals down to fillips and sideswipe hooks, sit on the bass, pitch up the tempos, and this is the craftiest dance-music record of 2013. As is, it’s both the most subtly avant and compulsively listenable R&B or hip-hop record of the year. The cagy, six-minute, multiple-movement “intro” of “Tuscan Leather” sets the boldly unhurried tone with its swirling, chipmunk-soul hieroglyphs and sly sandpaper tears and sudden synth surges (Drakes boasts, “I could rap for an hour on this beat, nigga” and what MC wouldn’t claim the same?). At the close, the duo up the eeriness with a chilling, disjointed Curtis Mayfield quote from a late-era live show: “If there’s a hell below, I’ll see you when you get there / Are you enjoying yourselves?” Just as impressive are the double-shots of “305 to the City” (with its aquatically screwed beat) + “Too Much” (perhaps the album’s highlight, giving Sampha’s croon a poignantly agitated setting) and “Started from the Bottom” (a spooky, sci-fi march) + “Wu-Tang Forever” (a gently cascading nod across the decades to producers like RZA and Rick Rubin, though it doesn’t sound like either).
There are flat patches, as well: Drake’s Wu references throughout are those of a wee lad for whom the Shaolin crew were his childhood soundtrack, not necessarily his inspiration; as a result, they come across as goofy shout-outs or self-serving trolls. Of course, there are the usual drizzly, granny-doth-protest-too-much lyrical flourishes: Drake illuminates his hardscrabble early days by confessing that he had to charge some Michael Kors togs on his mother’s debit card, and asks us to take his romantic travails seriously while he namechecks “Courtney from Hooters on Peachtree.” Still a lot of broken hearts on that pole, apparently. (The less said about Jay Z’s Berlitz blather on “Poundcake” the better; “carat cake,” really?)
As far as Drake’s mic skills, he’s never sounded so at ease, so forceful without straining to prove the point. And this is coming from someone who finds his persona insufferable and his content boorish. This is the album where his hold-out nemeses will have to cease chirping about the man’s endless sexting with exes and shallow, repetitive musings on fame’s dastardly clutches. With 40 at his side, he’s gonna be here for awhile, regardless of where he started.
Early score: 8/10
Christopher R. Weingarten
An album that’s emotionally “somewhere between I want it and I got it” is naturally somewhere between exploring and maintaining. He wants us to think his wavy, purple nurple, dro-motion, merriweather post-breakup syrup Slurpee music is cutting edge (“This is nothing for the radio”), but Earl is a better rapper (and actually got Robert “Wu-Tang Forever” Diggs on his album), Kanye West is a better hooks writer (and he actually got Mason “ain’t nothin’ changed but the limp” Betha on his album, and Frank Ocean is a better singer. Probably decent for night drives and late night OK Cupid surfing — too bad the the whole thing isn’t like the Miami Vice Lionel Ritchie Refn-and-B of “We’re Going Home.”
Early score: 6/10
It doesn’t take a conflicted rap megastar to know that spiritual anomie is a bitch. It also doesn’t take any sort of deep emotional sophistication to hear Nothing Was the Same and understand that taking spiritual anomie as your main subject matter is, for a musician, an even bigger bitch.
The issue isn’t Drake’s attitude. The title track in particular registers as more honestly ambivalent about his selfishness than just about anything he’s done before, and the rambunctious “Started From the Bottom,” shows that Drake sounds more, rather than less, sympathetic when he’s in brag-mode. Those dynamic tracks are the exceptions though. A lack of musical imagination is the problem. I get it, Drake is sorrowful and conflicted. So a brooder like the carefully detailed “Worst Behavior” is muted and sparse — as are, oh, nine of the album’s 13 tracks. There are plenty of ways to render remorse in sound, but Drake and his producers recreate the same shadows over and over. Yeezus wasn’t exactly a rainbow of emotion either, but the music had a visceral thrill that Nothing Was the Same, singles excepted, lacks.
Drake, I’m talking to you now — one Toronto guy to another. (My sister went to Vaughan Road, too. Maybe you overlapped?) Think of Wendel Clark, okay? Sometimes he’d lay out a motherfucker who was stupid enough to be skating with his head down; other times, he’d laser one five-hole. The point is that the range of possible behaviors is what made him exciting. But you’re Sundin-ing it on the new album — monochrome excellence is hard to love, even if you’re wearing the “C.” Or, dude, you mention taking Eglinton to the 401 on “Connect.” Well, this album is very Eglinton. A little more John and Richmond gaudiness would’ve been good. (Scarborough gets a shout-out, too. Scarberia?) Aubrey, Bubbeleh, you need to put some mustard on that peameal.
Early score: 6/10
Drake is not very good at rapping because he just doesn’t try very hard. The problem with Drake’s crappy rapping though, has nothing to do with how it doesn’t adhere to some aging-out real rap type’s vision of “lyricism.” It’s because he hard-sells his clunkers and corniness like an hammy actor, performing the act of killin’ it, even though he isn’t. When you start your album by rhyming “record” with “record” a bunch of times, that’s fine. When you do it in a voice that communicates that you’re verbally tap dancing across that beat and you’re totally not, well it gets annoying real quick. Or consider, “Own It,” a lazy Screwston fascimile that even A$AP Rocky would’ve rejected, in which Drake brays, “Niggas talk more than bitches these days,” and then adds, “Let that shit sink in,” as if that’s any kind of original or profound or even just plain entertaining sentiment.
Then again, Drake doesn’t have to rap well because he’s buttressed by some of the most ambitious, bleary-eyed beats around right now: An egregious though maybe all the better for it sample of Whitney Houston chipmunked on “Tuscan Leather” (the kind of production mind you, that the can’t-listen-to-any-criticism-of-this-doof Drizzy contingent would call old-fashioned if it showed up on another record, but whatever); Those decaying, backward strings that slip into the second half of “From Time”; the Toto “Africa” remixed by Jamie xx-sounding “Hold On, We’re Going Home”; the stitched together slow jam qualities of “Too Much.”
Bleat-like rapping and contrived tough guy lines mostly exit once “From Time” appears (save for verses from sub-Lil Wayne whiner Detail on “305 To My City,” and Jay Z on “Pound Cake”) and Nothing Was The Same at least, turns compelling. The record gets cloudy and melodic and finds some room for #feelingz that aren’t just, “Fuck your feelings.” And because Drake’s worldview is so myopic, it gives Nothing Was the Same a conceptual consistency almost by accident.
Still, the album’s marred by discursive attempts to perform hardness and a kind of last word-ism towards friends, family, and lovers that he has yet to get over and totally should. Can you even imagine being Drake, superstar rapper with one of hip-hop’s best ears and all the resources in the world, and still waddling around your house and into the booth to say you don’t get enough credit? And hey Aubrey, bb, not every person you ever put your dick in or tried to put your dick in has to be “supportive” of you. You should be happy for Courtney who worked at Hooters who you were in love with or whatever, who is about to get married to some other dude, you dick.
Early score: 6/10
He has been called soft. He has been called suburban. He has been called a wuss and a crybaby and at some point, I would hope, Caspar Milquetoast. But whatever you think about Aubrey “Drake” Graham’s many sweaters and on- and off-tape personas, you’d be foolish to question his ear for melody. It made the nocturnal mood music of 2011’s Take Care highly listenable, burnishing each million-dollar transition he’d make from rapping into R&B melisma in the space of a song. It is also, thankfully, the foundation on which Nothing Was The Same tends to totter, its similarly anguished TMI rap and drizzly UK club atmospherics so hit-or-miss and altogether sedate on first listen that its hooks, unobtrusive and soulful, remain a saving grace. Keep listening.
Early score: 7/10
Julianne Escobedo Shepherd
Aubrey Graham kicks this shit off by bragging about Ellen Degeneres’ love for his music, which may be impressive considering three and a half million people watch her every episode, but also sounds like a gambit to get the Macklemore treatment. (That’s also less viewers than Maury, my dude.) Even with a self-aware DeGrassi shout out, it’s like we’re seeing him naked for the first time, and unlike his lyric “Girl don’t treat me like a stranger / Girl you know I seen you naked” (ugh), we finally know him to the point where familiarity breeds contempt, “Started from the Bottom” be damned. Nothing Was the Same is stewing in its own clichés, passive-aggression, guardedness, and his ever-reliant “emo as game” laurels — which is a damn shame, because it might be his best produced album yet.
“Hold On We’re Going Home,” with its HudMo Miami club leanings and Majid Jordan doing a pretty great Arthur Russell impression, is a more skillful interpretation of the retro vibrations of this summer’s incessant “Get Lucky”-isms, but it’s still Drake trying to convince a girl with low self-esteem that he makes her better, just so he can get her back to the crib. Lithe singer Jhene Aiko is a welcome voice on “From Time,” putting a little lightness and femininity on more of Drizzy’s meditations on girl probs and brags about his fame, which are as constantly defensive as his declaration of love for now-married “Courtney from Hooters” is manipulative. Other than that, he’s emitting major Thompson Twins vibes, hold him now, new romanticism given way to deflective narcissism. Shame, ’cause what a waste of beats — like “My Language,” or his sample of Sampha’s song “Too Much,” or the smokily soft “Pound Cake,” on which Jay-Z actually says “Last night was mad trill / I’m fresh out of Advil / Jesus grab the wheel,” or the gorgeous bubbling ambience of “305 to My City,” which he jizzes on by actually saying “we’re not in Kansas anymore,” ugh. Drake and the OVO team remain excellent curators — of beats, of talent — but the passive-aggressive emo shit as game is exhausting. As a woman, it is exhausting. Stop hanging out with the Weeknd, dude.
Early score: 4/10
AVERAGE SCORE: 6.16