Listening to Drake’s “Nothing Was the Same” in the context of the rapper/singer’s other albums is a far richer experience than taking it in alone. The Young Money star is continually earning his stripes after two acclaimed, chart-topping albums that made his money off similarly dark and hungry productions, emo lyrics and electrifying bluster. Drake’s a better rapper now, and his multiple personalities – each in orbit around the same, central “I’m famous and I’m lonely” hangups – are more keenly expressed, sometimes in shameless pop gems like “Hold On, We’re Going Home” and others like gnashing, bitchy “Own It.”
Drake’s combo with longtime producer Noah "40" Shebib has been a fruitful one. On “Nothing Was the Same,” the sequencing of these 16 songs show a mastery of facing Drake off with other versions of Drake, synth for synth, beat for beat. (Part of the problem is 16 full songs is a lot coming from Drake.)
Songs like “Worst Behavior,” a hating haters anthem, competes against stronger beats and rhymes from this album, though it offers up classic Drake-onian cognitive dissonance. “This ain't the son you raised who used to take the Acura / 5 a.m. then go and shoot Degrassi up on Morningside / For all the stuntin', I'll forever be immortalized” runs in direct contrast with the album’s first single “Started from the Bottom” plus “All Me” which has the former television child-actor bowing to the fantasy that he started from the most modest of means in his rise to rap fame.
There, that’s part of why Drake has become not just a successful name in hip-hop, but became an idea in hip-hop, or “Somewhere between psychotic and iconic” as he says in the second track. “I wear every single chain, even when I'm in the house” he raps in “Bottom,” like he even needs to convince himself sometimes of his making-of mythos when he’s alone in his jammies. Psychotic he’s not, but self-awareness can be its own mental curse.
His insecurities worn plainly on his sleeves, he’s proclaims his imperfections “on the low” in “Furthest Thing,” “…just like everyone I know.” Everyone he knows is imperfect, so at least all of you (the audience) can relate. He does the petty naming-of-ex-lovers again all over “Nothing Was the Same” including “Courtney from Hooters on Peachtree” in “From Time,” intentionally inflicting his exes and with the same spotlight that so alienates him. The slow-grinding trap of “305 to My City” has Drake sympathizing with his stripper, from one performer to another. Again, Drake is not as alone as he thinks.
For every “good girl” (“Hold On…”) and sexytime passer-by (“Come Thru”), there are women he rejects with the same toss-offs, like in “The Language.” “Come get your girl, she been here for three days and she way too attached to me,” he sing-raps over a melody that sounds like a horror film interstitial. “She just want to smoke and fuck / I said ‘Girl, that's all that we do’… it could all be so simple.” He demands conformity to his romantic longings, and when they’re fulfilled, he can’t even nut up to throw her out himself.
Women as a commodity is no new concept in hip-hop, but the boredom and loathing by which Drake casts off and puts on his ladies all plays into that whole “icon” status. I – the listener – may not like his “realness” IRL, but those fantastical flaws are interesting, especially when the music is oh-so-chilly, his delivery so moody, the humble-brags so ballsy up next to his most bombastic indulgences (see chorus-less “Tuscan Leather”). He and his bros can fill their Benzes with bad bitches but he’s still the guy who’s panting all over “Marvins Room”: emotional crookedness is an elegant selling point. Jay Z’s verse in lumpy “Pound Cake/Paris Morton Music 2” is almost like a betrayal of that realness, what with all that joy Hov expels. Fun has no place next to stunner “Too Much” featuring melancholy Sampha, Drake waxing that being the best in the rap game means “No dinners, no holidays, no nothing.” Is Drake asking for pity? Is he asking for understanding? Hey, Drake, do you want some company?
Not all rap records invite these questions, and not many have the listener assenting to that latter question. That’s in part why “Nothing Was the Same” works, because by exposing his vulnerabilities, you’re invited in (while Kanye West’s "Yeezus" victory is in kicking you out). The-Dream made a whole album this year of screaming out for pussy like Dennis Hopper in “Blue Velvet,” while Drake’s pinings are an exposure of self and worth, elements of a truly successful rapper and this mostly successful album.