Any discussions surrounding the possibilities of Aubrey Drake Graham’s next studio album were probably affected, though not necessarily altered, with the release of lead single “Started From The Bottom.” The implication, however – and something that I expect most of us had been hoping for – has now become abundantly clear: Drake’s about to go hard.
It would be no stretch of the imagination to label Drake as being self-aware – especially when compared to the seemingly nihilistic, I-don’t-give-a-fuck attitude of his peers. It’s evident that he hears his critics. He reads the message boards. He follows the Twitterverse.
Most importantly, he’s cognizant of the public’s perception of him.
“He looks at everything that is associated with him as something that will either positively influence how people think of him beyond his art or potentially negatively influence how people think about him beyond his art,” offered Dave Wirtschafter, board member and former co-CEO of Drake’s talent agency, William Morris Endeavor, in a 2011 interview with Billboard magazine. Among other things, Drake is paying Wirtschafter and his WME staff to be keenly aware of how the public views him. “So everything that we’re trying to do is designed to be reflective of who he is as a person, what he stands for [and] how he wants to be presented to the world and what he cares about.”
Although Drake’s approval rating in 2013 is much higher than that of LeBron James in 2010, he and WME will need to go through a similar rehabilitation of his image if he hopes to change the sensitive, entitled, or tender perception that has commonly, and perhaps deservedly, been placed upon him.
“The part I love most is they love me more than they hate me”, quips Drake on the recently-leaked, swaggering teaser single “5 AM In Toronto.” Drake, however, seems to interpret those perceptions as accusations. Or does he? Has there ever been a rapper more concerned with his image while simultaneously claiming to not care what his haters think?
Why Drake May Use Backlash To Take Care As Fuel
Drake’s lesson in self-examination, 2011’s brilliant, Grammy award-winning Take Care perfectly captured the mood and mindset of an entire generation’s twentysomethings while also earning the respect and approval of anyone still on the fence following his much-hyped debut, Thank Me Later. Though it was a downright meticulous album – deliberate in its attention to detail and supremely eloquent in its quality control – above all else you got the feeling that Drake was making exactly the kind of music that he wanted to.
Unfortunately for Drake, when you make an album as unconventional, genre-bending and genuinely vulnerable as Take Care, it inevitably ends up creating a backlash: too soft, too R&B, too Emo, too…for-the-ladies. The Drake detractors were out in full force. The prevailing complaint from those in that camp seemed to center around the precedent that his first two albums had unknowingly, yet unapologetically, established – the emotional honesty, slowed-down song structure, and sure – “softness,” were not gimmicks. Nor were they a one-time thing. This was Drake. And everyone was confident that they had him figured out.
One of the loudest and most prominent voices in that group (thus, I suppose, giving some credibility to these claims) was Rap game elder statesman and Kangol aficionado, Common. In what would be another chapter in the sometimes subliminal/sometimes blatant mini-feud between G.O.O.D. Music and YMCMB that still has yet to take off, Common’s decent, sort-of diss track, 2011’s “Sweet” came practically out of nowhere (wait, Common is Young Jeezy all of a sudden?) and attempted to put Drake’s street credibility in question. Without mentioning Drake by name, though obviously directed at him, Common – in what was more rant than rap – throws out all the requisite verbal jabs (“ho,” “muthafucka,” “bitch,” etc.) before ultimately questioning Drake’s manhood and, you guessed it – accusing him of being soft. To summarize, he basically calls Drake a harmless pussy.
“Stay Schemin’” And Drake’s “Tipping Point”
But then “Stay Schemin’” came out.
Malcolm Gladwell would have called it a tipping point: the seminal moment where even non-Drake fans reluctantly, but perhaps literally, nodded in approval. If nothing else, it certainly felt like a line of demarcation, with Drake flexing his new-found aggression while also laying the possible blueprint for the kind of music that might follow. It was also the first time that Drake had responded on wax to any of his antagonists, the collective rumblings of which had been baiting him for years. Drake quips, “It bothers me when the gods get to acting like the broads...That’s why I see no need to compete with niggas like ya’ll…” and, “Back when if a nigga reached it was for the weapon / Nowadays niggas reach just to sell they record...” It was all, very…refreshing. In one of Rap’s most notable verses of the year, it felt like Drake – defiantly “fuck it” in tone – was exorcising all of his inner (and outer) demons in a public get-some-shit-off-his-chest therapy session that we all got to witness. Not only was it an acknowledgement of Common, but more specifically it was Drake’s acknowledgement (and dismantling) of the public’s perception of him. It was a culmination.
So now, post-“Stay Schemin,” and after laying down guest verses on some of the biggest tracks of the past year (“No Lie,” “Pop That,” “Amen”), we’ve arrived at “Started from the Bottom” – the dark, deliberately sparse first single from Drake’s upcoming third album, the ambiguously titled Nothing Was the Same. The initial takeaway most people will have from this song is just how un-first-single-ish it sounds – which is telling, considering that Drake was likely aware of that exact same thing when he made it. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t see this coming; contrary to his comments last spring about wanting indie flag-bearer Jamie Smith of The xx to have a bigger role in the album’s production, any tracks they create will likely be relegated to cutting-room floor status.
Instead, expect usual cohorts Boi1da, T-Minus and Noah “40” Shebib to once again be the main contributors here, with each one presumably being asked to cook up the most menacing, hardcore beats that they can possibility imagine (and with a dash of “club-friendliness” sprinkled in as to not risk a total alienation of the bulk of Drake’s fanbase). One could then surmise that Drake’s affinity for singing will, at least for this album, be temporarily shelved. It’s doubtful that we’ll hear anything in the vein of slow-dance baby-maker “Shut It Down” or the wrenching, post-breakup laments of “Doing It Wrong.”
Drake’s recent and predictable move to Los Angeles, though assumingly done more as a necessity rather than as some sort of statement (Wirtschafter hinted at Drake pursuing a film career), will likely result in a net gain, music-wise. One of Drake’s greatest talents has been his ability to offer a unique perspective on topics otherwise familiar. And so his reflections on an angle as widely-covered and clichéd as the “L.A. lifestyle” should be interesting, and hopefully done in his usual, unorthodox approach (even though it’s felt he’s been rapping about that lifestyle for a while now). However, it’s doubtful that we’ll hear any “California Love” in the tradition of Dre or Snoop; this is Drake we’re talking about – pitfalls, trappings, paranoia and emotional dichotomy will be the subject matter du jour.
Viewing Nothing Was The Same As An Outlier
More than anything else – and if “Started From The Bottom” and “5 AM In Toronto” are any indication – look for Drake to be somewhat defensive on this album. Hell, if anyone deserves to feel slighted, it’s him. After millions of albums sold, and despite overwhelming journalistic praise, he still somehow remains the most polarizing artist in all of music.
Unlike many of his contemporaries, and in direct contrast to a certain skateboarding member of Team YMCMB, Drake’s music has always carried a certain air of responsibility to it; rarely do you hear him delving into crass obnoxiousness on the scale of a Gucci Mane or engaging in the lavish embellishments of a Rick Ross. But maybe this is the lone album of Drake’s current and future catalog that will act as an exception to that rule, with Drake fully-exploring the reckless/carefree style that runs rampant amongst his peers in the Rap game (rather than just paying a periodic homage to it). Maybe he wants to show off, thinking he’s clever enough to utilize that style better than they can (not sure he’d be wrong). Maybe he feels an album like this will shut people up, leaving both his rivals and his critics with nothing left to nitpick. For Drake, maybe this is the album he wants to make. Maybe this is the album he needs to make.
Of course, it’s possible that I’ll be proven wrong on all of this. But would that be such a bad thing? Love him or hate him, there’s never been an artist quite like Drake. If he were to continue making the kind of music he always has, most of us would not mind. In fact, most of us would prefer it. The sales figures of Thank Me Later and Take Care – 1.5 million and 1.9 million units sold, respectively – would certainly back this up. The guy fucking delivers. There is perhaps no one else in music – all genres included – that can give you exactly what Drake can give you. After the waiting-my-whole-life-to-make-this (and thus, typically strong) debut album, and following the inevitable letdown of album number two (though triumphantly avoided by Drake), an emcee’s third album usually sets the tone for establishing the kind of artist they’re going to be going forward. And if that’s true, then the question is this – who does Drake want to be?
Drake is calling his next album Nothing Was the Same. And maybe nothing will be. But maybe everything will be.
Ryan Redding is a freelance music journalist and former employee of Atlantic Records. He currently resides in Southern California. He can be reached at [email protected]