Despite a roster 15 deep, the Young Money imprint is really carried by three stars: Lil Wayne, Drake and Nicki Minaj. Outside of a few early collaborations, Minaj has never been especially attached to Wayne, but the same cannot be said for Drake. Lil Wayne took Drake on as a pupil, and guided him through his first major mixtapes and Thank Me Later. The two have had a clearly defined master-apprentice relationship.
Oh, how times are changing.
While Drake has hallmarks of Lil Wayne/Young Money style, I’ve always thought he (especially since Thank Me Later) owed much more to Kanye West. Part of that is in terms of rap and style; like West, Drake has a knack for throwing punchlines in that don’t always land, but also, 808s & Heartbreak did as much for Drake’s career as Lil Wayne flying him to Houston did. Moody, navel-gazing rap had been done before, but 808s‘ cold electropop isolation had an impact on the mainstream that none had had before.
It’s an impact that made the commercial success of a record like Take Care possible. On some level, Take Care was always going to be an artistic success; Drake said that the album’s title comes from how involved he was able to get in the creative process and not rush a record out like on Thank Me Later. In ways, this album focuses on the less commercial themes of Drake’s debut; anyone looking for a sequel to “Over” is going to be disappointed, and Later‘s chilly aloofness has been transformed into full-blown isolation.
Plenty of that isolation comes from main producer Noah “40” Shebib. He draws on downtempo dance sounds and late-night style R&B, giving Take Care both texture and momentum. Opener “Over My Dead Body” is nothing short of gorgeous, filled with tinkling synth piano and an enhanced female vocal. “Marvin’s Room”‘s reverb and swell heavy production makes the song feel as far removed as Drake sounds; 40 and Drake work so well together because 40 knows how to express in music what Drake expresses in words. 40 oversees Take Care‘s lush production, but he isn’t afraid of letting other producers sit in the chair as well; other longtime Drake collaborator Boi-1da pops in for lead single “Headlines”, and veteran Just Blaze contributes the throwback R&B heavy hitter “Lord Knows”.
Another aspect of Take Care‘s isolation is that for a 2011 high-profile rap release, it runs remarkably low on guest appearances. Hell, Lil Wayne had to get bailed out by Tech9, Busta Rhymes, and Andre 3000 among others on Tha Carter IV, and I’m surprised Drake himself didn’t pull a back muscle from carrying Wheezy single “She Will” all by himself. While Thank Me Later‘s collaborations felt like marketing ploys to help an up and coming artist, Take Care‘s guest roster fits Drake comfortably. Rihanna drops by for a surprisingly low-key performance on the title track (Take Care‘s only obvious single), where she plays a forgiving lover to Drake. Rick Ross adds to the pomp of “Lord Knows”, and Andre 3000, living proof that talented rappers don’t have to give a fuck about rap speed, saves Lil Wayne (again) off a fumble on “The Real Her”. “Make Me Proud”, which sounds the most like a Young Money song, features Nicki Minaj in a comfortable cameo with a few solid lines.
If the Grammys or anyone gave out an award for Most Improved Performer, that thing’d be Drake’s in a heartbeat. As a persona, his exists on Take Care as two compelling opposites: the narcissist, womanizer, and egotist that we expect from big rap names, and the introspective, honest, and borderline sensitive guy from (as he always reminds us) Toronto. However, there’s nothing separating the two; he’ll brag about himself in one line, then ponder it for the next one. It’s less “More money, more problems” and more “More money, same problems”.
I don’t know if he’s had an extended performance schedule, or what got into him, but his work on Take Care outstrips his prior output by a mile. His flow is more developed and nuanced, and he sounds more confident singing as well. Punchlines still abound, but the hashtag rap (“I could teach how to speak my language, Rosetta Stone”) is mostly done away with, and when it shows up, it’s actually funny (see: “Man, all of your flows bore me, paint drying”).
The big complaint I’ve heard from fans is that Take Care is too slow. Honestly, I don’t see it. Yeah, it’s a slowburner, but the guy’s an upper-class former child actor; staying in the dated idea of “rappers must be hard” limits the genre. Jay-Z, he ain’t. That, and honestly, he’s more interesting when he slows down and mixes the rapping and singing. And besides, he raps his ass off on cuts like “Underground King”, “Headlines”, and “HYMR” (and most songs have at least one solid verse), sounds truly pissed on “Lord Knows” when he says, “I know that showing emotion don’t ever make me a pussy”. Take Care‘s major flaw is that it’s in dire need of an edit; few 80 minute albums justify their existence, and this record is not one of them. But on one hell of a sophomore album, I’ll let Drake take his time, four stars out of five.
tl;dr: “Tha Cater” who, now? 4/5.