Drake sings or raps the word “I” 410 times on his debut album. Even in the realm of hip-hop– a style famous for its unswerving solipsism– this is a feat. For comparison’s sake, noted mirror watcher Kanye West managed to work only 220 “I”‘s into the verses and hooks of his big break, The College Dropout. Illmatic; 210. Reasonable Doubt; 240. With Thank Me Later, Drake attempts to enter the pantheon of those rap game-busters by the sheer force of first person singular pronouns. All eyes are on him– especially his own. But considering this mixed race, half-Jewish, all-Canadian “Degrassi: The Next Generation” alum looks and sounds unlike any major rap star before him, betting the house on nothing but himself turns out to be a wise gamble.
Drake is the guy you get drinks with who talks about himself for a few hours– if you’re lucky, he might ask you for advice on one or two things. But this is OK because Drake’s stories are better than yours. Like the one about how Lil Wayne befriended and signed him at the height of Weezy’s powers. Or how he got with Rihanna last year. Or that time he flashed from a Toronto has-been to a top-flight hit maker off the strength of a self-released mixtape. Of course, there’s the classic about sipping a few too many glasses of Ace of Spades and asking Nicki Minaj to marry him. Sounds like a sweet existence.
But there’s a problem. Even though he’s a rich and handsome 23 year old spreading his music around the world in a five-star fashion, Drake really wants to be in the bottom bunk, hooking up with a girl next to the laundry basket at Totally Normal University, as he raps, “I wish I wasn’t famous/ I wish I was still in school/ So I could have you in my dorm room/ I would put it on you crazy.” Elsewhere, the irony is not lost on him, but he’s not taking anything back: “I know that niggas would kill for this lifestyle/ I’m lookin’ forward to the memories of right now.”
Thank Me Later presents its star as a bottle-serviced hip-hop headcase tirelessly searching for love and good times while caught up in his own thoughts. “While all my closest friends out partyin’/ I’m just here makin’ the music that they party to,” he shrugs on “Light Up”. Which all seems very Boy Who Cried Penthouse Suite except that Drake manages to make his plight tugging and relatable thanks to a potent mix of empathy, candidness, and grandeur. This is mood music inspired by rap and R&B in equal measure– sensible for a guy who can match bars with Lil Wayne one second and then sing an effortlessly aching hook next to The-Dream the next. And, largely thanks to sonic co-conspirators Noah “40” Shebib and Boi-1da, Thank Me Later is held together by misty keyboards and dank drums that recall everyone from Sade to Boards of Canada to Massive Attack to the xx (who are thanked in the record’s liner notes). And, much like those artists’ music, it’s understated-yet-undeniable emotion that drives this album more than anything else. The theme is mo’ money, mo’ heartbreak, and it’s everywhere.
Simply, Drake is in love with his own lovelessness. But instead of lashing out against his would-be wifeys à la 808s and Heartbreak or falling into token misogyny, his relationship with women is more complicated. Whereas the unofficial mainstream hip-hop LP rulebook previously demanded a couple “ladies’ night” tracks that were often pandering, insulting, or both, Drake lives for such softness. The brilliant and spare “Karaoke” finds him singing about a girl who can’t deal with his newly jet-setting ways. “I was only trying to get ahead/ But the spotlight makes you nervous,” he says, sounding more committed than a host of melisma-drunk heartthrobs. His relatively progressive and gentlemanly style is contagious, too; on the soon-to-be smash “Fancy”, T.I. ditches the “superficial gold-digging bitches” he once praised on songs like “Whatever You Like”, instead opting for a single lady with her own BMW and Jaguar in the garage. As if that wasn’t enough, Mary J. Blige spiritually co-signs the sentiment by adding some subtle harmonies as the song draws to a close.
Meanwhile, Drake’s fellow Young Money upstart Nicki Minaj adds to the gender ambiguities, out-manning her host on the diabolical “Up All Night”, and the album’s steamiest pairing has him teaming with The-Dream for the uber-slow jam “Shut It Down”. That song ends with Drake shamelessly trying to get in a new acquaintance’s pants– “take those fuckin’ heels off, it’s worth it, girl,” he suggests. He’s no angel. But even when this Romeo starts tossing dollar bills at a strip club on “Miss Me”, his ogling is somehow lonely and level: “I don’t judge her but I could never love her/ ‘Cause to her I’m just a rapper and soon she’ll have met another.”
As much as rap is built on artful navel-gazing, it’s also founded in struggle. And just as Drake’s dramatically exposed selfishness is unique to hip-hop, so are his adversities. He grew up in an affluent Toronto suburb and was graced with everything but a functional pair of parents, who split when he was three. Like Kanye West before him, Drake vies for superstardom while embracing his non-drug-dealing, non-violent, non-dire history– one that connects with most rap fans in a completely reasonable way. And, suddenly, all that “I” turns into a lot of “we.”