The cover art for Drake’s third studio album, Nothing Was the Same, has become a story unto itself. It’s an oil painting by Kadir Nelson, the SoCal artist responsible for the bizarre orgy of imagery plastered over the King of Pop’s posthumous album, Michael. It’s a diptych set against a cloudy blue sky. One panel depicts baby Drake with an afro-comb wedged in his hair, and the other, the man formerly known as Aubrey Graham in the present day, rocking a fresh fade and gold chain. The two separate album covers are meant to face each other on record store shelves (if there still is such a thing). This is supposed to be an album that reconciles past, present, and future, and is meant to join a long line of seminal rap LPs boasting baby photos, such as Nas’s Illmatic, Notorious B.I.G.’s Ready to Die, mentor Lil Wayne’s Tha Carter III, and, recently, Kendrick Lamar’s good kid, m.A.A.d city.
But Nothing Was the Same doesn’t reach the lofty heights of its baby-cover predecessors, nor does it match the brilliant introspection of Drake’s sophomore album, Take Care, which was awarded the Grammy for Best Rap Album and heralded as the best album of 2011 by The New York Times.
As an artist, Drake falls somewhere between Kanye’s mad scientist and Jay-Z’s hollow braggadocio. He’s not the concept album type, but a mainstream entertainer whose wealth of contradictions makes him a beguiling figure; a rap Dadaist. In many ways, Drake is to rap what Katy Perry is to pop. He’s an artist who’s come to terms with his paradoxical past. Unlike ex-Disney kid Miley Cyrus, whose forays into “twerking” seem forced, Drake and Katy have gradually—and convincingly—evolved from their prior selves (Wheelchair Jimmy, Katy Hudson) into their current personas. These are also two artists with a very firm grasp on the musical climate. They realize that we are living in the age of the iTunes single, which is why Drake, with only three albums in the bag, has the most No. 1 songs on Billboard’s Hot Rap Songs chart, with 14. So with Nothing Was the Same, instead of, say, a wholly immersive concept album like the aforementioned good kid, m.A.A.d city, we’re treated to a deliciously seductive panoply of tracks.
Nothing Was the Same opens with a sharp meta-commentary on all things Drake. It’s a six-minute prologue that sees the rapper channeling his inner Virginia Woolf, rhyming stream-of-consciousness style over a helium-y sample of Whitney Houston’s “I Have Nothing” that’s been atomized and pulverized, then strapped to a Wile E. Coyote rocket and shot into the stratosphere. The track “Tuscan Leather” is named after a Tom Ford cologne that’s been unofficially branded eau de cocaine, implying that the silky Canadian rapper is up to similar subterfuge.
Here, the 26-year-old cleverly deconstructs his own public persona, e.g., his contentious relationship with label boss Lil Wayne and label-mate/former flame Nicki Minaj, the YOLO phenomenon, and even ’90s revivalism: “The Fresh Prince just had dinner with Tatyana, no lie / All these ’90s fantasies on my mind / The difference is that with mine, they all come true in due time.” It culminates with Drake spewing a critique of his own track—“How much time is this nigga spendin’ on the intro?”—before swaggering about like Maximus, sampling a quote from Curtis Mayfield’s 1987 concert in Montreaux: “Are you enjoying yourself?” We are, and the feeling continues on the smooth R&B tune “Furthest Thing.” On the surface, it appears to be pure, unadulterated baby-making music, but dig a little deeper and you’ll see that it’s littered with Drake’s now-trademark introspection: “I was young and I was selfish / I made every woman feel like she was mine and no one else’s.”
The low-riding Horatio Alger-on-HGH anthem “Started From the Bottom” needs no explanation, while the ironic track “Wu-Tang Forever” features Drake soothingly rapping over twinkling ivories and an old-school beat that’s ever so slightly reminiscent of the standout Wu-Tang Clan tune “A Better Tomorrow.” The bedtime rhyming is sporadically disrupted by a shout of “It’s Yourz!”, sampled from the WTC, before he turns up the heat in the final verse, addressing his inherent lack of street cred with the lines, “I find peace knowin’ that it’s harder in the street, I know / Luckily I didn’t have to grow there / I would only go there cause niggas that I know there.” The title of the track is a deliberate troll, reappropriating a seminal ’90s hip-hop album for indulgence’s sake. Such insouciance is a tad off-putting, to say the least, though the rapper does pay reverence to the Wu on other tracks, big-upping Cappadonna, ODB, and “C.R.E.A.M.”
“Worst Behavior” marks a low point on the album, with an ADD beat that feels more Magna Carta Holy Grail and less Drizzy. The track was produced by the relatively unknown DJ Dahi, as opposed to Drake’s go-to-guy, Noah “40” Shebib, and sees him repeatedly shouting, “MOTHERF--KER NEVER LUHHHED US!” It’s a vitriolic track aimed at his deadbeat dad, but Drake isn’t quite as convincing a ranter as, say, Kanye, so the message gets lost in the ether. There are, however, admittedly great lines about driving over to shoot Degrassi in his Acura, and this little gem alluding to his half-Jewishness: “Bar mitzvah money like my last name Mordecai / Fuck you bitch, I’m more than high.”
If Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories proved anything, it’s that subtle ’70s grooves are all the rage, and Drake’s “Hold On, We’re Going Home”—allegedly inspired by the rapper's brief tryst with Rihanna—is a shamelessly poppy anthem that, though it doesn’t seem to jive with the overall vibe of NWTS, serves as an au courant mid-album bridge. You’ll blast this one in the car, for sure. The Hudson Mohawke–produced “Connect,” on the other hand, sounds like a prolonged interlude and probably should have been scrapped.
In truth, of the 13 tracks, there are only about eight or nine fully realized songs, with the rest serving as musical palate cleansers of sorts. If Drake had embraced Yeezus’s economy, by excising these thematic intros/outros, shortening them, or swapping them with standout singles “Jodeci Freestyle” and “All Me,” both of which are mysteriously absent from NWTS, this would be a much tighter affair.
Because of Take Care’s emphatic reception, and the subsequent release of these singles, Drake’s third album arrives on a yacht full of hype, and the penultimate track, “Too Much” validates it. Drake spits hopeful rhymes about his uncle’s broken dreams and pleads with his mother not to give up on hers. “Heard once that in dire times when you need a sign, that’s when they appear / Guess since my text message didn’t resonate, I’ll just say it here / Hate the fact my mom cooped up in her apartment, telling herself / That she’s too sick to get dressed up and go do shit, like that’s true shit,” he says. It’s punctuated by a devastating hook from Sampha, the British artist known for his collaborations with SBTRKT, crooning, “Don’t think about it too much, too much, too much, too much / There’s no need for us to rush it through.”
Taken as a whole, Nothing Was the Same is a very good album—in the most modern sense of the word. There are eight very good tracks, four of which—like “Too Much”—are excellent, and some filler. In this day and age, this is probably the best we can hope for … until the next Kendrick comes around.