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Sat September 28, 2013
Drizzy Sings The Blues
Originally published on Sun November 16, 2014 11:37 am
Toronto hip-hop/R&B superstar Drake feels no shame in admitting that his chief inspiration, next to Marvin Gaye, is felled pop-soul vixen Aaliyah. He and producing partner Noah "40" Shebib were scheduled to executive produce a posthumous Aaliyah album; he samples her on "Unforgettable" from 2010's Thank Me Later; he even has multiple tattoos relating to her on his body, including her famous face on his back. And he has no problem blurting out loud that the artist with whom he most wants to collaborate is sensual Nigerian-British chanteuse Sade (she's not interested).
After listening to his hotly anticipated and seriously dour third studio album, Nothing Was the Same, I continue to admire Drake's technical skills as a rapper. His monotone flow sometimes grates, but he can sound cocksure and confrontational ("Started From the Bottom," "The Language"), pensive and introspective ("From Time") and libinidal and furious ("Tuscan Leather"). He's a genuine wordsmith who's meticulous and studied about his word choices and his syntax. But I've never thought much of Drake's icky fantasies and neuroses about women, fortune and fame — more on that shortly — and I've never been able to understand why critics and fans choose to parse every other one-liner or rhyming couplet that comes out of his mouth as it if it was a lost aphorism from Confucius. For every transcendent bar on Nothing Was the Same ("My mother is 66 and her favorite line to hit me with is / Who the f--- wants to be 70 and alone?"), there's a clunker to spare ("Connections are heavy, every real n---- they fuck with you / Now s--- down in diamonds, you sparkle but f---, man, is sparklin' enough for you?").
Still, I can't think of any other mainstream male MC, especially one perched at the top of hip-hop's food chain, who'd dare to admit that his main stylistic influences are black female soul singers (save for maybe Wyclef). It's like imagining Rakim, back in hip-hop's heyday, confessing to The Source that his main inspiration for Paid In Full was Diana Ross' The Boss. Drake does less singing and more rapping on Nothing Was the Same than on previous albums, but he still pulls off a daffy, barely-congruous mix of hip-hop, soul, pop and electronica. The only thread keeping this loose-stitched garment together is Drake himself.
Unsalvageable homophobes point to Drizzy's love jones for Aaliyah and Sade as proof that he's a wuss, and if they were alive in the '70s they would have given the middle finger to Alan Alda and James Taylor, too. Survey the twitter feeds and the avalanche of Drake hateration over the years will make you laugh or weep or maybe both: no mainstream hip-hop star has ever been treated with so much derision simply because he deploys his art and his life to upend the charade of hyper-machismo (though true to his incongruity, Drake sometimes wallows in it as well, especially given his playa persona). Widespread antipathy to Drake's so-called "softness" (some of it warranted, most of it not) ultimately amounts to a collective failure to acknowledge the diversity of ways to express and embody masculinity. Why can't a rapper adore Sade or launch a fragrance line? Does doing so really make him any less of a man? The conspiracy approach doesn't fare much better: it paints Drake as a scheming playboy who cunningly portrays himself as being in touch with his feminine side just to get women to jump in the sack with him. Not an impossible scenario to imagine, as it is livewire Drake we're talking about. But as Whitney would've said, show me the receipts.
Whatever the case, Drake's matrilinear skilling makes him all but singular in mainstream male hip-hop. The Toronto rapper's public image is hyper-hetero (clearly, he's psychologically consumed with women), but you can rightfully place his music in a genealogy of queer icons like Freddie Mercury and Luther Vandross who crafted their respective sounds by listening early on to female performers like Shirley Bassey and Dionne Warwick.
What is it exactly that Drake idealizes in Aaliyah and takes from her? We know he's fond of her melodic singing and her fashion sense, passion and composure. He's also fantasized that Aaliyah would have been his ideal romantic partner: if he gets to heaven, he claims, he'll have dinner waiting for her. OK. I'm no psychoanalyst, but you might argue that in his impossible-to-realize desire for Aalyiah, Drake also wants to become her — or at least sound like her. Even though Aaliyah's premature death in 2001 elevated her to a deity status she might not yet have earned, there was always a robotic blandess at the core of her alluring street-but-sweet brand image. That's in no way a slight against her: her wispy soprano was an asset in that it added tonal color to the productions of R. Kelly, Missy Elliot and Timbaland without overwhelming them. Her replicant blankness meant that visionary studio producers could mold her any which way they wanted to.
Warbler Drake is a lot more programmed Aaliyah than unpredictable Al Green. Like his female idol, he has a limited range and ambiguous improvisational abilities (he won't be trading melismas with baroque gospel singer Kim Burrell anytime soon; also, let's forgive but not forget the 2009 Hot 97 incident in which he ran out of freestyle juice on the air).
"Hold On, We're Going Home," the current single from Nothing Was the Same that's co-produced by Majid Jordan, is a case in point: Drake sings his own melody straight with little variation, as if he were already rehearsing a karaoke version of his own track. With its synth congas and percolating synths, the clear idea was to capture vintage era Quincy Jones and Michael Jackson — but where they landed is Toto. Granted, a Toto member co-composed "Human Nature" for Michael Jackson in 1983 and similarities abound: the lyrics are just as cryptic; the drum programming is crisp and gated; and you can hear something similar to Toto's Yamaha GS1 keyboard sound on "Hold On, We're Going Home" (what soul singer Maxwell once summed up as Caribbean Ambient Soul in an interview with Elle magazine in the '90s). But the missing ingredient in Drake's 2013 retro-pop is precisely Michael Jackson's ebullient voice: soul-challenged Drake instead sounds a lot more like Toto's serviceable David Paich.
One of my friends likes to joke that Drake has the sonority of a T-Mobile phone sales rep. Still, Drake gets a pass from me because he writes memorable songs with strong hooks, and because of his sheer earnestness: he really wants to sing, and you can hear him trying very hard, and that should count for something, right? Lucky for Drake, the public was already primed for sentimental cyborg soul before his arrival on the scene in 2009. One of the dominant male R&B artists prior to Drake (in terms of digital sales) was T-Pain, a Florida trickster who somehow repurposed Zapp's '80s talkbox and Cher's digitized 1998 "Believe" to craft a string of hit singles mostly about falling in love in Southern strip clubs.
Kanye West may have taken cyborg crooning to new avant-garde heights with his brilliant 2008 808s and Heartbreak, but it was T-Pain who first made it ubiquitous in the 21st century. While Drake rarely uses the same kind of explicit post-production vocal processing we hear in T-Pain or Kanye, he somehow sings in his natural voice as if he was always already post-produced. Drake grabbed the baton from those who came before him: 2009's So Far Gone and 2010's Thank Me Later were strong first steps, but idiosyncratic, deeply personal 2011 Take Care blew the roof off the sucker and remains his masterpiece. By now, Drake has more or less bypassed labelmates Lil Wayne and other contemporaries (like Big Sean) to emerge as a pre-eminent musical visionary and a live concert cash-cow. He's currently bested only by Jay Z and Kanye West, if you subscribe to patrilinear rap narratives.
What keeps Drake at the forefront of the pack is his profound insistence on blues feeling — what most critics choose to minimize as his "sadness." Drake refuses to make happy records; instead he revels in a kind of unredeemable suffering and abject loneliness. The roots of that suffering are still pretty nebulous: is he simply playing at angst and ennui to cultivate sympathy? Given the braggadocio opening line off opener "Tuscan Leather" ("Comin' off the last record, I'm getting' 20 million off the record / Just to off these records, n---- that's a record"), some would say that multi-millionaire Drake has no conceivable reason to be unhappy — but then many of us First Worlders don't either, if we were to do some self-reflection. Certainly Drake's got fame and money in spades; and in interviews with the press he seems to have a chipper and humorous personality. But his seeming inability to lift himself out of the mire of missed emotional connections with those he cares about is both a personal choice and an industry intervention. It not only keeps him relevant in an age where severely dark records by indie pop artists like The xx and James Blake have rocketed up the charts: it vitally connects him to a genealogy of black musical geniuses — Bird, Coltrane, Miles, Marvin, Nina, Donny, Abbey, you name it — who praise and worship Deep Feeling itself as a main objective of their music. (Caveat emptor: The story rarely ends well for tortured geniuses.)
Though he's not as emotionally splayed open as he appeared to be on Take Care, Nothing Was the Same lands safely in the same wheelhouse. On tracks like "Furthest Thing" and "Too Much" he's troubled and full of regret over a random assortment of problems: lost friends, lost loves, jump-offs that got away, the fear of time slipping away, his damaged relationship with his family and labelmates. Perhaps because of, rather than in spite of, his outsider Canadian status, Drake has somehow managed to accurately capture and distill in his music the post-affluent American mood in the aftermath of the 2008 economic crash: gloomy, depressed, uncertain, unsettled, recalcitrant.
If Drizzy sings the blues, it's a version of the blues that's commensurate with the social networking era. (Can you imagine what Howlin' Wolf would have done with a Twitter account?) Like doppleganger Chris Brown and also like Kanye, Drake likes to "cleanse his soul in public forums" (his words, not mine) and to put himself on blast before others do in a way that makes him instant meme fodder. You probably didn't really want to, or need to, know about his fling with a Hooters waitress named Courtney on "From Time" ("Girl, I felt like we had it all planned out, I guess I f---ed up the vision / Learning the true consequences of my selfish decisions.") but now you know — and everyone else does, too.
At a recent CRWN/Myspace/Loud event at New York University, Drake was interviewed live on stage about Nothing Was the Same by Rap Radar's Elliott Wilson. Nearly 800 18-22-year-old NYU superfans listened as Drake talked ... and talked. The audience listened, but mostly they screamed, yelled back at him, answered questions out loud for him before he could, shouted provocative phrases and epithets (like "Rihanna!"), chuckled and stood up en masse for the Q&A, hundreds of arms wagging in the air to get the chance to ask him the next banal question. What I gleaned from this is that Drake is basically a reality TV rapper: there's not much of a significant wall between him and his fans due to his hopeless oversharing, and both his fans and haters seem to truly feel that they own a piece of him. Though he's a massive Sade enthusiast, casual Drake has yet to cultivate much of his idol's carefully-honed mystique. Instead, he lets it all hang out all the time publicly; she's off in Islington somewhere, privately smoking a cigarette.
More than his fashionista contemporaries like Kanye and A$AP Rocky, Drake seems to have no problem deliberately exposing himself as uncool, dweebish. (In contrast Kanye is a coolhunter who lives and dies on his ability to be on the cusp of, or ahead of, global trends). Drake's magic is his unique ability to mix blues confessionalism with a take-it-or-leave it inauthenticity: he seems lifelike but you're never 100% sure. (In that way, he reminds me of Michael Fassebender's seductively cool robot David in Ridley Scott's film Prometheus).
Much, too much, has been made of Drake's Canadian upbringing and his longtime stint on the all-audiences television series Degrassi: The Next Generation, and his appearance in films like Ice Age 4, usually in an attempt to paint him into a corner as a synthetic pretender to the throne. For his part, Drake would like us to believe that he toiled for years developing his skills in the basement of his mother's townhouse in the well-to-do Forest Hill suburb of Toronto. Swizz-Beats-esque hit anthem "Started from the Bottom," a patently false regurgitation of his troubled upbringing that's produced by Mike Zombie and 40, perfectly summarizes Drake's ability to straddle autobiographical confession with fertilized horses---. Clearly, Drake's version of "bottom" is someone else's "top" (read into that what you will), but the minimalist song's "upper from the gutter" sentiment is thankfully universal and memorable enough to remain gripping. At the end of the day, Drake's background in Canadian television is not really any more relevant than that of acerbic Alanis Morrisette, and it's also worth remembering that Mos Def and Erykah Badu, among others, performed as teenagers in the theater before they refashioned themselves into hyper-real boho icons. As Drake himself says, cryptically, in "Pound Cake," "You know it's real when you are who you think you are."
There are at least five terrific songs on Nothing Was the Same: "Tuscan Leather," "Started From the Bottom," "Hold On, We're Going Home," "From Time" and domestic drama "Too Much" featuring plaintive sounds from Sampha. On the other side of the coin, there are at least three songs that I'll never return to again: "305 to My City," the clichéd stripper fantasy featuring something like submarine sounds; the sleepy "Connect" (produced by 40 and Hudson Mohawke, it's a great occasion to do some laundry) and melody-free dad rant "Worst Behavior" with its quizzical, forgettable "motherf---er never loved us" hook.
Though Drake calls himself the "furthest thing from perfect" on one of the album tracks, the music is exactly opposite: it's polished to a fine sheen. 40 and his peers have delivered chilled-out, shimmering Ambient soundscapes that Dave Stewart and Brian Eno would easily have co-signed. Bits of Pharcyde and Pete Rock & CL Smooth come to the surface here and there: there's lots of sub bass, Lalo Schifrin-style piano noodling, more than a few 808s and lots of musique concrète repetitiousness. Within the context of a single track, like "Tuscan Leather," 40 carves and re-carves up chosen samples by artists like Whitney Houston and Curtis Mayfield the way a top chef might present you with a plate of kobe beef three-ways. It's beautifully mixed and mastered as well. Unfortunately, the album's brooding atmospherics and its Ambien-inspired tempos start to grate after a while: by the time Jay Z shows up on "Pound Cake/Paris Morton Music 2" to exhaustedly phone in his verse, there's just too much that's tonally stagnant.
Where Drake loses me is his narcissistic approach to issues of fame/money and women, two of his main thematic preoccupations. Nothing Was the Same is the third in a series of intensely anticipated major-release hip-hop albums this year: the other two are Jay's limp Magna Carta Holy Grail and Kanye's bats----bold Yeezus. If there's a throughline for all three albums, it's that they've been made by famous and highly privileged black men contemplating their own status as commodities. Each of them has their head in the sand, to differing degrees, but they've all made albums that implicitly suggest what it means to have the blues as a super-rich and famous black man at a time in which America is increasingly coming to historical grips (or not) with its troubled past in which blacks were treated as commodities under the institution of slavery — not to mention a present in which blacks are sometimes still sadly treated as disposable by state institutions (think Trayvon Martin). Films like Lee Daniels' The Butler and Steve McQueen's 12 Years a Slave are cinematic attempts to contend with that past. And so it's in the context of commodification that you have to re-listen to Jay Z's "Tom Ford," a brain-dead celebration of fashion as status, and Drake's "Tuscan Leather" (itself a sly reference to Tom Ford cologne): "Yeah, Tom Ford Tuscan Leather smelling like a brick / Degenerates, but even Ellen love our s--- / Rich enough that I don't have to tell 'em I'm rich / Self-explanatory, you just here to spread the story, wassup.")
Unlike Kanye, who is 36, and Jay, who is 43 (both fathers), Drake is 26 and, as R. Kelly would say, he's feeling single. Nothing Was the Same is his Lionel Richie "Easy" moment, it's his attempt to discard "fake friends" in the effort to be alone and find solace in some semblance of privacy: you can find him drinking, mobbing and (duh) f---ing "on the low" as he claims on "Furthest Thing." But Drake gives us no reason to care that he's so challenged and damaged by fame. He never manages to connect his angst to larger communal or global concerns like Kanye does on Yeezus' confused but provocative "New Slaves" or "Black Skinhead." Nothing Was the Same is literally Drake's innervisions; it's the music of his mind and he never really leaves it.
I've been stuck on a line from the verse of "Hold On, We're Going Home" — "I want your hot love and emotion" — it's an incredibly laughable line that no man has ever said to a woman. It is, however, just the sort of line I imagine a robot might utter without blinking. I could cite many lines full of such snake oil banalities and it's these moments when Drake most feels like an actor playing a role and conning us all. Maybe he really is Michael Fassbender's David, or the male analog of Aaliyah's robot.
Nothing Was the Same is basically the tale of a single straight dude trying desperately to find meaning in in his own super-celebrity and to come to terms with the women in his life at a time of changing global mores about sexuality and gender (the recent "scandal" of Hot 97 DJ Mister Cee comes to mind), at a time when the very nature of heterosexual privilege itself is crumbling and people everywhere increasingly have to do what Obama claims he did: "evolve." Drake's way to evolve on Nothing Was the Same is to retreat into nostalgia, which explains his unending fascination with all things '90s, including Aaliyah, Jodeci and Wu-Tang. Nostalgia explains the painted Kadir Nelson cover portrait by in which adult Drake faces off with Drake, his kid self. And it explains lines like: "I want to get back to when I was that kid in the basement / I want to take it deeper than money, p----, vacation / and influence a generation that's lackin' in patience."
Nostalgia and narcissism rarely go well together if your aim is to lead your generation to transcendence. Though Drake wisely bypasses the crude objectification of women (and their body parts) that weighs down Kanye's Yeezus, he'd be the first to admit he's no saint, and he rarely appears to be able to treat women with the mutuality they deserve — except when it comes to dishing out slick pick-up lines or pillow talk. Drake makes more accomplished records than Nicki Minaj but he remains too inwardly focused to see women as anything other than fodder for his next psychoanalytic lyric. She can step outside herself; he can't. He may have a case of the blues, but he doesn't yet have the sort of wide emotional palette or the musical ferocity that once marked the music of, say, Lauryn Hill. It's a fair comparison, especially as Drake once — in a moment of extreme miseducated narcissism — erroneously deemed himself the first rapper to successfully rap and sing.
Drake remains incongruous: besides the obvious fact that he's black and Jewish, and that he spent his childhood shuttled back and forth between Toronto and Memphis, he's the only rapper that would dare call a song "Wu-Tang Forever" but pen a lyric that has precious little to do with Wu-Tang. He just doesn't care if the parts don't fit. He's self-aware ("on a mission tryna shift the culture") and self-confident but also neurotic and insecure. He's passive and aggressive; he's alpha and beta male all rolled into one. He's our culture's singular purveyor of Nebbish Swag. He somehow manages to embody contradictions that the culture is still trying to work out, which is what keeps us listening. And though he's made a gloomy new album, he'll soon be yucking it up in the film Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues in a multiplex near you. Google it if you don't believe me.