When you look at Drake on paper, it’s astounding that he’s the biggest name in pop-rap right now. He’s an upper-class, Canadian, mixed, half-Jewish, former child actor who became an MC that dabbled in singing who blew up after getting picked up by the (at the time) leading name in hip-hop, who has created and as of Nothing Was the Same sustained a major career not on club-bangers or famously killer verses, but moody, insular and emotionally fragile (and a little pathetic) albums. The guy, quite simply, shouldn’t work.
Drake’s aware this, announcing that “This is nothing for the radio, but they still play it, though” not a minute into Nothing Was the Same. He made it work on Take Care, and it works for him again on Nothing Was the Same, albeit to a lesser extent. Take Care was Drake’s second album, but established his persona far more than the rushed and guest-heavy Thank Me Later. Between his introspective lyrics, varied delivery, and executive producer Noah “40” Shebib’s gauzy but gorgeous production, Take Care was a breakout album that put Drake in the upper echelon of crossover rappers (and, as of 2013, it’s still one of rap’s great Sad Bastard albums).
Nothing Was the Same, then, does relatively little to expand on the territory carved by its predecessor, but willfully explores the personal and isolating qualities of Drake’s music with even less attention to the radio (where it’ll still get plays–it’s that new Drizzy Drake, after all). And for something that mopes as much as NWTS, it’s interesting to see how confident this feels; opener “Tuscan Leather” sprawls out over six minutes, doesn’t have a single hook, and still starts the album on a triumphant note. Similarly, “Furthest Thing” is half typical moody Drake track, half Drake rapping over an old soul sample that works surprisingly well. Now that Take Care established Drake/40’s style as a template, NWTS sees them celebrating it.
Two of the best tracks here, “From Time” and “Too Much” put Drake in Oversharing mode, both with his love life and his family. On “From Time”, 40 and collaborator Chilly Gonzales’s beat consists mostly of simple drums and a melancholy piano melody, but adds jittery electronics as Drake’s rapping builds in intensity; it sounds like someone slipping away (Jhene Aiko’s fantastic hook helps the song, as well). Lyrically, Drake raps about his father’s alcoholism, his mother’s fear of being alone, and the infamous “Courtney from Hooters on Pea Street” and their failed relationship. “Too Much”, meanwhile, sees Drake call out his mom and uncle on not following through, and laments again how fame and money have changed him.
Those subjects–family, love, and how wealth complicates them–run parallel with the other themes of NWTS: namely, how great/rich Drake is, how much he loves where he’s from, and his past. Some of it is easy to relate to, like family trouble, love woes, and losing touch with old friends, but it takes a certain kind of person to consider “the bottom” as a middle-class child actor, ala “Started From the Bottom”. Honestly, the introspective sing/rap mood jams like “Wu-Tang Foreve”, “305 to My City”, and “Furthest Thing” work better than mugging tracks like “The Language” or “Worst Behavior” because three albums in, it’s still impossible to take Drake seriously when he tries to act menacing.
And while NWTS mostly eschews the radio, there’s still a pair of obvious radio singles here. “Started From the Bottom” is the weaker of the two: it’s a decently producted 40 and Mike Zombie track with an active snare and piano loop, but some sleepy rapping from Drake (I have also heard it more than anything else at the college bar near my house). Other single, “Hold On, We’re Going Home” is Drake at his poppiest, an MJ/Quincy Jones-inspired R&B track that consists entirely of singing, including some Miguel-esque falsetto. “Hold On, We’re Going Home” might be Drake’s best pop song to date.
Nothing Was the Same has some great parts, but a weak whole. Again, Drake’s a victim of few edits–the album’s “only” an hour, but has just enough uninteresting material to make especially the back half feel like a slog. Outside “Too Much”, the wheels fall off after “Hold On, We’re Going Home”; not even Jay-Z in the form of the album’s only guest verse can salvage “Pound Cake” (if anything, he’s part of the problem). Drake’s got plenty of arresting, engaging material on Nothing Was the Same, but what he’s missing is variety. Three and a half out of five stars.
tl;dr: Nothing Was the Same, but Drake’s as sad as ever. 3.5/5.