Written by Chris DeLine
In a Loop 21 article published last month, Marc Lamont Hill (Associate Professor of Education at Columbia University) further provoked criticisms of the former Degrassi: The Next Generation star,
“Drake has mastered neither the art, science, nor stylistic etiquette of MCing. From his frantic attempts to stay on beat to his inability to improvise even slightly, Drake represents a dangerous historical moment in hip-hop culture where rapping has overshadowed other dimensions of MCing, like freestyling, battling, and moving the crowd… Take one look at Drake and you can almost hear the calculations of greedy record execs looking for the next crossover act: Preexisting white fanbase: check. Exotic Ethnic Background: check. Light Skin: check. Celebrity Cosigners: check.”
For the criticisms to bear any weight however, they have to have some foundation in the reality of who Aubrey Drake Graham actually is. But despite a wave of potentially damaging claims, Drake has had no trouble finding major supporters to stand behind him: Jay-Z, Lil Wayne, and Timbaland being just a few of the names to contribute to his full-length debut release, Thank Me Later. Or is that just more evidence of the Drake-as-a-product suggestion? Or is it a sign of his underlying talent: some of music’s top names openly willing to work with a young artist who has but a few mixtapes, an EP, and a pool of guest credits to his name. Thank Me Later provides evidence supporting both of those options.
While still in his Degrassi days Drake dropped a pair of mixtapes, 2006’s Room For Improvement and 2007’s Comeback Season; the second of which spawned a video for “Replacement Girl” which was featured that year as a BET “New Joint of the Day.” While being a casual honor, at the time no other unsigned Canadian MC had ever garnered the title. Drake met the arrival of 2009 with his So Far Gone mixtape which eventually led to the Young Money/Cash Money release of an EP of the same name later that year which included five of the mixtape’s tracks along with two new songs.
Within the span of a year Drake had gone from a member of Lil Wayne’s Young Money crew to one of the most discussed names in hip hop and R&B. “Best I Ever Had”—which was also released on the So Far Gone EP—and “Every Girl” both debuted on the Billboard Hot 100 (entering at #3 & #10 respectively) which marked a groundbreaking accomplishment for the then-unsigned artist. When the EP was eventually released, it debuted at the #6 position on the Billboard 200. It has since sold over 450,000 copies. His unheard of success was met with equal celebration from a number of powerful sources: winning the 2009 BET Hip Hop Award for “Track of the Year” (Every Girl), and “Rookie of the Year,” Drake was also nominated by the MOBO Awards, MTV Video Music Awards, and Soul Train Awards in 2009 as well as the Grammy Awards and Juno Awards in early 2010. The latter ended up honoring the vocalist with both “Best New Artist” and “Rap Recording of the Year.”
Again, keep in mind that all of this overwhelmingly powerful support was essentially bestowed on Drake primarily on the basis of a mixtape. This, likely, is where anyone with a remotely cynical attitude would raise the bullshit flag and questions, just as Hill did, the authenticity of the unbelievably fast rise of Drake’s star. Seeing as though he was also tied to Universal Motown by the time that the wave of acclaim began to flow, it’s no wonder why Drake had attracted such a mob of people attempting to debunk his authenticity. But one of the benefits that accompanies flaunting your history and flossing what you have is that as long as you’re being honest within that realm, there’s really little that can be said to compromise your story.
Within moments of the first piano notes of “Fireworks,” Drake begins to assess his position, be it in terms of finance or class, and he does so in a manner as honest as anyone could ask him to. Had he spouted off about his struggles or his hard-luck rise to the top it would be easy to raise a fuss over the track. He does anything but in “Fireworks” however, as Alicia Keys joins in vocally on the chorus while the song begins to relate to the lack of certainty within the business—and within life—Drake eventually reflecting on how quickly everything can vanish, “My 15 minutes started an hour ago.” One of the most interesting elements of the track comes with his digression into the realization of how truly green he is despite his success, “Haters so familiar to me, tell me I’m so to embracing it/Doesn’t come naturally, bear with me it could take a bit.” Naysayers in mind, within the first five minutes Thank Me Later Drake has blended Keys’ smoky vocals with a blunt explanation of how he’s not only keeping an ear to his critics, but that he concedes to there being a bit of truth to some of the flames being shot at him.
“Karaoke” follows with a choppy beat and a slowed down R&B-leaning flow that showcases the duality of Drake’s musical persona. New York City’s Francis and the Lights, who have covered Kanye West and opened for Drake in the past, add the musical backing and production for the track. It’s not long before Drake rediscovers his inner-rapper however, sounding like a less smoked out version of his mentor, Lil Wayne. Produced by Toronto’s Noah “40? Shebib—who worked with Keys on her single “Un-Thinkable (I’m Ready)“—“The Resistance” finds the vocalist spinning a series of short charming one-liners, a trend which is repeated throughout the entire record. “I avoided the coke game and went with Sprite instead” and “The game need a life, I put my heart in it” being just two of the simple bars laid down within the track. Again Drake returns to a personal revelation with the song however, looking at himself in the mirror he reveals, “I live by some advice this girl Alyssa told me/The other day Alyssa told me that she miss the old me/Which made me question when I went missing, and when I start treating my friends different.” Rhetorical, sure, but all the same the questions are clearly there: “Did I just trade free time for camera time, will I blow all of this money, baby—hammer time.”
“Over” and the Kanye-produced “Show Me a Good Time” both serve to re-energize the album, each continuing Drake’s pattern of dropping simple, yet sharp, bars: “I can teach you how to speak my language, Rosetta Stone,” landing in the body of “Over” and “I live for the nights I can’t remember with the people I’ll never forget” in the latter. “Up All Night” features 2010’s it-girl Nicki Minaj who comes through with a surprisingly tight verse that raises similarities to Lil Kim in her prime; surprisingly only because of the song’s contrast to her recent collaborations with Lil Wayne and Christina Aguilera.
The album’s clear-cut club banger “Fancy” follows with Swizz Beatz painting a boombastic aural picture, immediately setting things off with a crowd-hyping “Go, go, go, go ahead” chant. T.I. eventually jumps in with a flow that isn’t as impressive as it is smooth; combined with some of his other recent collaborations and DJ Drama’s Fuck a Mixtape, his “Fancy” verse stirs intrigue as to just how deep his forthcoming album King Uncaged might be. Drake follows T.I.P., maintaining his presence as he continues,
“Cinderella ’bout to lose the glass off her foot, and when I find it is when I find you/And we can do the things we never got the time to/Better late than never, but never late is better/Hey tell me time is money, but we’ll spend it together/I’m down for whatever, you just lead the way/We go to dinner you don’t even look at me to pay… I just knew that she was fine like a ticket on the dash.”
He’s not killing it by any means, but as the album continues Drake is by no means proving himself to be the lyrical slouch that many claim him to be.
The Dream slows things down with Drake on the panty-melting “Shut it Down” (“I feel like when she moves the time doesn’t”) and “Unforgettable” finds Young Jeezy absorbing some of the same smoothness, offsetting the typical grittiness of his voice and style, and sounding great in the process. “Light Up” continues with a great Tone Mason beat that reveals sharp drums snapping below Drake’s vocals, “Welcome to Hollywood and don’t let this town ruin you, and if you pillow talking with the women that are screwing you, just know that she gonna tell another nigga when she through with you.” Jay-Z’s verse is strong as well, offering a bit of his typically cheeky stuntin’ along the way, “The smart money’s on HOV, fuck what the dummy’s taught. I don’t do too much bloggin’, I just run the town, I don’t do too much joggin’.” Bun B momentarily jumps in on the Lil Wayne collaboration “Miss Me,” a song which initially reveals itself as a revelation about Drake’s evaporating level of trust for women (or maybe just strippers) before unravelling into an all-out dedication, “I love Nicki Minaj, I told her I’d admit it/I hope one day we get married just to say we fuckin’ did it/And girl I’m fucking serious I’m wit’ it if you wit’ it, ’cause your verses turn me on and your pants are mighty fitted/Ah, damn, I think you caught me in a moment…”
While it serves its purpose—including “interlude” in a title typically implies something about the song—“Cece’s Interlude” is ultimately forgettable; a lackluster guitar solo eventually lurks in the background while 40 goes over the top with the beat. By the time “Find Your Love” digs in “Interlude” has already become a distant memory. For all of the arguments suggesting that Drake sounds like a mix between Kanye and Weezy he doesn’t do himself any favors with “Love,” his vocoderized “I’m more than just an option, hey hey hey” sounds so much like 808s‘ “Robocop” that it’s hard not to make the comparison. The Timbaland-produced title track closes out the record, again immediately likening itself to Kanye, this time around sounding more like “The Good Life.” If you can listen to the flow and not hear even a hint of similarity, you might be best off checking out Graduation again—it’s definitely there. “Shout out to my city though I barely be in town. I’m the black sheep but Chris Farley wears the crown, and I know life is just a game where the cards are facing down.”
Does Drake deserve his fair share of haters? Absolutely. Regardless of Drake basing his lyrics on his reality, there’s still a fair share of truth to many of the claims being made about him: he can’t freestyle worth a damn, his stage presence is still questionable (he practically tripped over himself on stage last year which resulted in a torn ACL which he’s still rehabbing), and upon the most basic dissection of his lyrics he fails to come close to the greats. Most of this criticism comes under the pretense that Drake is a pure MC though. He isn’t.
What’s true of Drake is not only true of him, but of pop music as a whole as it continues to evolve. There are still rigged lines that separate genres, but like an ever-broadening grey area Drake is working around standards and doing what he pleases. Following a club-banger with a slow-jam isn’t anything new, but when considering the consistency exuded throughout Thank Me Later, it’s hard not to take notice of Drake’s talent. Just as the album has its moments of lyrical predictability, Thank Me Later also has its moments of triumph. Granted, if it wasn’t for the stellar production and the album’s stacked cast Thank Me Later would be an entirely different animal and Drake’s talent might potentially translate as far less skillful. But that’s all theoretical: If you can’t get behind the album, you still have to give it credit as a well-crafted retort to his detractors. But if you can get behind Thank Me Later then you’re likely to approach it as not only one of the most creative releases in pop/rap/hip hop/R&B/or whatever you want to call it, and as a telling sign of the potential Drake has to create something even more stunning in the future.