Photo: Ethan Miller/Getty Images for Clear Channel
Drake contains multitudes. Just ask him — he’ll tell you so himself. On his third album, Nothing Was the Same, the rapper compares himself to ODB and Keith Sweat; to Dwight Howard, Serena Williams, and Dan Marino; to “Guy Pearce in Momento” and to Prince Akeem, the African potentate played by Eddie Murphy in Coming to America. Critics have greeted the new album with their own theories, holding up Drake as a millennial standard-bearer, as a newly beefed-up tough guy, as a misogynist “asshole,” as James Taylor, as Porgy from Porgy and Bess. To this list we may add several other Drakes: avenging geek, Jewish neurotic, noir-pop crooner, tortured family chronicler.
Of course, the simplest answer to the question “Who is Drake?” — the answer that Drake himself wants you to give — is, simply, “Drake”: Aubrey Drake Graham, biracial Canadian child actor turned musician. “I’m authentic, real name, no gimmicks,” he crows in “Pound Cake/Paris Morton Music 2,” a song he shares with guest star Jay Z. It was a sneaky move, bringing in the elder statesman, and not just because of the torch-passing endorsement many fans will assume such an appearance confers. It’s possible to read Drake’s “I’m authentic, real name” line as a passive-aggressive diss directed at the duet partner born Sean Carter. Drake’s triumph, after all, has been to shift the terms of rap authenticity from Jay Z-style street bona fides to soul-baring honesty — to emotional authenticity, or at least the pretense of it.
You might put it another way. Before Drake, rappers were like Jay Z: They were braggarts. Drake is a humblebraggart. On Nothing Was the Same, as on Thank Me Later (2010) and Take Care (2011), Drake foregrounds his angst and ambivalence, his doubts and despondencies, but always against a backdrop of glamorous decadence. “I want to take it deeper than money, pussy, vacation,” he raps in “From Time,” but that’s not exactly true. In fact, Drake has found a new way to boast about money and pussy and vacation — he raps about his feelings about money and pussy and vacation — while acting like he’s not boasting at all, merely confessing and self-flagellating.
It’s a testament to Drake’s talent that he carries off this shtick. Nothing Was the Same is as impressive as any major pop album of 2013. Yet it’s not quite pop. With a couple of exceptions — the brusque “Started From the Bottom” and “Hold On, We’re Going Home,” an improbably luscious ballad — there’s no straightforward radio bait here. The songs sprawl out in chorusless verses, and swerve into surprising left turns; the beats, mostly by Boi-1da and Drake’s longtime comrade Noah “40” Shebeib, prize brooding atmospherics over hooks. But NWTS never drags. It’s tighter than Jay Z’s slapdash Magna Carta Holy Grail; it’s not as risky and provocative as Kanye’s Yeezus, but it’s ambitious nonetheless — approachably artsy. There can be little doubt that Drake, hip-hop’s glum tortoise, has slowly moved ahead of all the A-list competition and now has only open road before him.
You can hear why in the album’s best moments, when Drake’s psychodramas flash into focus with taut, precise storytelling and production that casts an eerie strobe-lit glow. “Own It” is a bipolar aria, in which Drake swings from remorse to recrimination, while longing for connection that’s frustrated by everything: a callous woman, his own untamed appetites, the baying hounds of the press, faulty cell phones. In “Worst Behavior,” Drake turns his ire outward, railing against his erstwhile doubters — “They used to never want to hear us / Remember?” — amid a hailstorm of rattling percussion.
That song, like so many others, finds Drake reveling in the role of underdog. It’s a bit of a stretch. It has often been pointed out that Drake didn’t start at the bottom, but somewhere in the solid upper middle. He grew up in the affluent central Toronto neighborhood of Forrest Hill; by age 16, he was a minor television star, cast in the role of a crippled former basketball player in the Canadian teen drama Degrassi: The Next Generation. Yet Drake’s sense of his own marginal status is profound, and on NWTS he’s still settling old scores. In “Pound Cake/Paris Morton Music 2” he raps: “My classmates, they went on to be chartered accountants / Or work with their parents, but thinkin’ back on how they treated me / My high school reunion might be worth an appearance / Make everybody have to go through security clearance.”
Listening to those lines, I couldn’t help thinking about another, unlikely Drake counterpart: a millennial megastar who claims the mantle of outcast bleacher creature despite her unmistakably cheer-captain-like looks and confidence. Verily, Drake is the rap-game Taylor Swift. Like Swift, he’s a memoirist, who has revitalized pop with next-generation musical confession — with songs that merge a classical mastery of form with an oversharing impulse that is as much Facebook as seventies folkie. And like Swift, Drake kisses and tells. In “From Time,” Drake raps: “The one that I needed was Courtney from Hooters on Peachtree / I’ve always been feeling like she was the piece to complete me.” Needless to say, it didn’t take long for Internet sleuths to track down Courtney from Hooters.
There is another telling comparison to make between Drake and Taylor Swift. Loving Swift’s music depends largely on whether you buy into, or at least tolerate, her lavish romanticism, her fairy-princess-and-white-steed vision of love and happiness. Drake’s songs serve up a different but no less extravagant brand of schlock: his tragic poon-hound routine, all those tales of a sex-glutted Casanova who kinda doesn’t enjoy it because he secretly longs for something deeper and someday just might make an honest woman of that stripper, but then again “I just want some head / In a comfortable bed / It could all be so simple” — you get the idea.
My own personal disposition is closer to Swift’s than Drake’s — forced to choose, I’ll take her white weddings over his black-lit boudoir — so as compelling as his music is aesthetically, I find it hard to connect to emotionally, except as unintentional comedy. When Drake raps, “Next time we fuck, I don’t want to fuck: I want to make love,” my impulse is to burst out laughing; when he hails the “Beverly Center Macy’s,” where he met a girl he banged for a while, as one of the “landmarks to the muses that inspired the music,” I can’t help but think of the cheesiest odes to the groupies ever served up by seventies arena rockers. Drake has changed hip-hop in at least a dozen ways, and one of the most surprising may be this: Today, it’s possible for the Greatest Rapper Alive and rap’s most clueless self-parodist to be the same guy.