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Drake, ‘Take Care’ (Young Money/Cash Money/Universal Republic)

SPIN Rating: 8 of 10
Release Date: November 15, 2011
Label: Young Money/Cash Money/Universal Republic

Perhaps “Headlines” had you thinking Take Care would be Drake’s humble moment. On that relatively upbeat single, he raps, “I might be too strung out on compliments, overdosed on confidence,” and, later, expresses appreciation for the fans who told him he “fell off” between his hit 2009 mixtape So Far Gone and his star-packed 2010 debut Thank Me Later. And even though “Headlines” is pretty much a rewrite of a previous hit — the “6 Foot 7 Foot” to “Over” ‘s “A Milli” — that hardly matters because Drake is consciously lapping himself, returning to the same topic and style with another year of experience, making his conflicted approach to being richer than you just a little more lived-in.

An appropriately absurd cover depicting a despondent Drizzy, five o’clock shadow-sad, looking like a decadent Baba Booey, also foreshadowed a hard, if melodramatic, look in the mirror. Plus, he titled this new one Take Care — so much sweeter than Thank Me Later, right?But on “Over My Dead Body,” Take Care‘s first track, our favorite confused Canadian calculates last year’s earnings plus how much he paid in taxes, and chalks the latter up to “you lose some, you win some.” All right, look, man, the cash lopped off the end of my paycheck blows too, but the whole idea behind taxes is that by paying them, we all, in the long run, “win some”!

Turns out he didn’t mean “take care” in the open-hearted Big Star sense, but as just one more sly, passive-aggressive way of saying, “Fuck you, I’m famous.” Drake’s got a special gift for figuring out the most unsympathetic thing to say at any moment, damn near daring listeners to hate him. “Niggas with no money act like money isn’t everything,” coming from a former child star on Thank Me Later‘s “Up All Night,” really smarted. But then, just when you want to throw up your hands, he admits that he’s just as in-over-his-head as you are, and suddenly we’re implicated in, and captivated by, this gauche complainer’s rarefied struggle.

Consider Take Care‘s subtle stand-out “Look What You’ve Done,” which finds Drake caught up in a bitter argument with what sounds like a painkiller-popping party girl — his version of Danny Brown’s “Party All The Time.” Turns out he’s narrating an intense argument with his sick mother and the song’s about the fact that fame provided him with the money to pay for her surgery. “Look What You’ve Done” ends with a crackling, answering-machine message from his grandmother, reminiscent of the angry, drunken phone call with an ex on “Marvin’s Room.” Freudian!

The best moments here are strange and inspired like that. “Practice” takes Juvenile’s “Back That Azz Up” and Weeknd-izes it into a depressed boner-kill dirge about dumb dude discomfort with the fact that, indeed, your girlfriend has fucked other people besides you. But you know what, they don’t matter like you because “all those other men were practice.” Who else but Drake would think to do this? And who else could make it work?

The only time the almost 80-minute Take Care doesn’t work is when it indulges something resembling conventional hip-hop. Lil Wayne and OutKast’s André 3000 are off-kilter enough to fit, but a yammering interlude from Kendrick Lamar called “Buried Alive” has no place on a record this patient; the same for Nicki Minaj’s typically fervid verse on “Make Me Proud.” Surrounded by almost ambient production from Noah “40” Shebib, the Weeknd’s Doc McKinney and Illangelo, Jamie xx, and Chase N. Cashe, the rap-gospel banger “Lord Knows,” featuring Just Blaze’s baroque production and Rick Ross bragging that he’s the “only fat nigga in the sauna with Jews,” comes off like two delusional fools gassed up on a beat that ain’t half as grand as it’s supposed to be.

See, Drake’s whole deal is how he’s perpetually apprehensive about all this fame shit, so blustery event-album concessions don’t serve him well. He’s at his best mixing nice-guy vulnerability with wounded narcissism — the line “looking for the right way to do the wrong things” from “Lord Knows” should be his epitaph. Throughout Take Care, Drake finds ways turn the douche chills he elicits into a large part of his appeal. The solemn Stevie Wonder harmonica solo on “Doing It Wrong” also helps — so does the album’s glowing production, which makes you wanna gobble Vicodin like they’re Sweet Tarts. But he’s been working hard and thinking even harder, stumbling upon new ways to own his smarmy charm.

On “Doing It Wrong,” Drake mutters dorky Dr. Phil-isms, like,”We live in a generation of not being in love” over a sustained synth tone, and somehow makes that sound moving, instead of, well, mad corny. Go back to Thank Me Later after listening to this one and it feels like a bunch of rough demos. With Take Care, Drake has his accelerated Kanye West moment — when a little too much ambition and all the asshole feelings he’s got inside coalesce into an insular, indulgent, sad-sack hip-hop epic.