It’s been reported that Drake used the word “I” 410 times on his debut album, “Thank Me Later.” This was almost twice the number of times Kanye West, the previous industry leader in blinkered self-absorption, had used the word on his “College Dropout.” So this was a lot.
Drake wouldn’t exist without Kanye, who paved a road for confessional, self-obsessed, defiantly middle-class rappers. Lately, the two have taken vastly different paths. Kanye has become a high-handed chronicler of First World irritants, intent on emphasizing the gulf between his audience and himself. Drake has stayed the same: personable, gloomy (but not unreasonably so) and infinitely relatable, able to make audiences believe that his concerns are concerns they might have if they were rich Canadian former child stars with eight-figure bank accounts and a collection of Huxtable sweaters.
Drake is an able rapper, a fine singer and a shrewd collector of beat-making talent, but his greatest gift may be making you care about Drake. Worry about him, almost. This is something best achieved by creating pathos where none might rightly exist.
“Nothing Was the Same” is a taking-stock album, in which Drake, 26, looks at his life and career and decides he likes the view. For all its moments of pure celebration, it’s still freighted with overshared sadness and an unbearable tug of loneliness, delivered in perfectly tweet-sized doses. Who else can make the VIP room in a strip club seem like a pit of existential despair? Drake can get away with anything.
“Nothing Was the Same” is undeniably great — and undeniably familiar. It may represent Peak Drake, the moment when the themes and sounds the rapper has been shaping since his debut come together in the best way they ever will. These are pillowy songs, often slow and bleary-eyed on the surface but complicated underneath — partly rapped, partly sung, underpinned by delicate piano figures and omnipresent synths supplied by longtime producer, Noah “40” Shebib, about whom enough good things cannot be said.
In other words, everything is mostly the same: The beats are tremendous, so subtle in places that they’re practically subliminal, encompassing everything from R&B to deep house to “Off the Wall”-era pop. There are a few modestly scaled bangers, but, for a mainstream release by a crossover pop star, “Nothing” is low on obvious hooks. Drowsy jam “Wu-Tang Forever” is the least Wu-Tangy track in the history of man, so dramatically removed from its source inspiration that Clan member Inspectah Deck complained on Twitter.
Intro track “Tuscan Leather,” a lengthy ode to Tom Ford’s cologne of the same name and the general pleasures of being Drake, offers so much lord-of-the-manor self-regard that it practically levitates. “Hold On, We’re Going Home” is dreamy, ’80s style emo-disco. It’s ephemeral, but it works; other tracks are so mild they barely register. “From Time” is a too-limpid duet with Jhené Aiko, who, if the rest of the disc is a reliable indicator, may be the only woman Drake knows who isn’t (1) a stripper, (2) Rihanna or (3) Courtney from the Hooters on Peachtree Street in Atlanta.
The best songs on “Nothing” are complicated structures that are soft in the middle. Drake ventures further into hard-edged baller territory than he usually does, but he’s not very good at the tougher stuff and he doesn’t need to be: He’s a moper, not a fighter.
Like any Drake album, “Nothing” is preoccupied with fame — how to get it, how to keep it, its corrosive effects on loved ones. “Say I was never hungry / Never struggled / Yeah I doubt it,” he harrumphs on the great “Started From the Bottom.” Drake isn’t the only hip-hop megastar to be born on third base and act as if he legged out a triple, but, for more than perhaps any other rapper, his relatability is his greatest asset. Drake has now been famous for almost half his life, and the more miles that open up between the regular person he was and the celebrity he is, the greater the risk.
Tellingly, Drake seems to be running out of ideas for referring to his pre-fame life, resorting to familiar details: fighting with his mom, worrying about his uncle, that time he borrowed a car from a relative and didn’t bring it back right away. “Pound Cake/Paris Morton Music 2,” a collaboration with Jay-Z, weaves together Drake’s past and present with glee — and a decided lack of sentiment (“My high school reunion might be worth an appearance / Make everybody have to go through security clearance”).
It’s Jay-Z’s highest-profile feature since “Magna Carta . . . Holy Grail” made him mortal, and he seems terrifyingly out of touch for the first time (“International Hov, that’s my handle”). This creates an opening, and Drake isn’t too polite to seize it: “I’m not doing the same man / I’m doing it better.” He doesn’t just sound happy; he sounds like he won.
Drake performs at the Verizon Center on Oct. 31.
Stewart is a freelance writer.