I’m Just Saying, You Could Do Better

Published on November 14th, 2011

Alex takes a look at Drake’s new album Take Care, his place in hip-hop, and his collection of Cosby sweaters.

2011 has quietly been a pretty good year for hip-hop records. Saigon finally released his debut album (and it was mostly good!), Big K.R.I.T. became the rapper I am most likely to get in a fight over, Kendrick Lamar did the same for a lot of others, Phonte’s solo album was appropriately Phonte-esque, and there’s still a concept album by The Roots scheduled to hit your download queue in the first week of December. The biggest release of the year was (and will remain) the mostly stellar Watch The Throne, but Drake’s new album Take Care is probably second on that list*.

*Lil Wayne’s Tha Carter IV is the only other option, but it loses points because almost everybody hates it.

Drake’s major label debut Thank Me Later was a decent but mostly forgettable album. Aside from the good opener Fireworks, the strings on Over, the Inception-esque beat on Up All Night, and Jay-Z’s confusing grasp on grammar rules in Light Up, there was nothing that really stood out. The whole album seemed rushed, something that is all but confirmed by the fact that it was recorded in as many different recording studios as Chinese Democracy. Drake himself has said more or less the same thing, and vowed to take more time with his follow-up, a fact that is evident through one listen of Take Care.

The first time through the record, one thing was abundantly clear: this album is BIG. The production sounds like the album is to be listened to exclusively on the largest, loudest speakers you can get your hands on. (If you’re not pissing off the Portuguese family that lives below you, your Take Care sound setup is insufficient.) There are a lot of musical subtleties going on behind Drake: the Gil Scott Heron sample stabs in the second half of the title track* are glorious, as is everything that happens on Marvin’s Room and Over My Dead Body. And when it comes time to ditch the light percussion in favour of something that makes your ears ring, the production is just as good; the bass on Lord Knows knocked hard enough to make my bookshelf look like it was in the opening scene of Ghostbusters. Obviously, not everything is perfect, but musically this album is rarely anything less than interesting.

*Produced by Jamie xx, who produced the best hip-hop instrumental that almost nobody recognizes as a hip-hop song. Also, this glorious remix of Rolling in the Deep.

Drake’s producer/engineer Noah “40” Shebib is one of the more intriguing producers in hip-hop right now, and his sparse, ‘play this only at night,’ style of beats is important to the most unique elements of Drake’s aesthetic. According to Drake, everything on his music goes through Shebib, a fact that is evident on pretty much every track on Take Care, even on songs that don’t list him as the primary producer. The Lex Luger beat on the album is the least Lex Luger-y thing I’ve heard by him (although Luger says he has been trying to branch out recently), and the aforementioned Just Blaze track clearly has some Shebib stylings present during Rick Ross’ verse.

Any argument for or against Drake tends to come back to a question of authenticity, something hip-hop musicians (and fans) are comically obsessed with. Whenever Drake tries to sound tough, people just remember he’s a Jewish kid from Forest Hill whose first name is Aubrey. Whenever somebody thinks about this and listens to his faux Southern rap twang, they cringe. But when he’s not being embarrassing, he’s not bad at his job. He may not be a particularly good singer or rapper, but his flows are fun when he mixes a touch of singing in his bars, and musically he has a pretty unique ear for beats. He’s an embarrassingly bad lyricist more often than he’s not, and I won’t be surprised if he ever spits out a line so bad that it makes me vomit, but until that happens, I can stomach it.

A lot of older hip-hop fans don’t love Drake, and it’s generally for reasons that are (of course) related to authenticity. Since we all know his accent is put on, we don’t take anything seriously. And since we know he’s a kid from the suburbs, we don’t believe anything he says when he is trying to sound even vaguely tough. His extremely odd verse on Lil Wayne’s Jay-Z diss It’s Good doesn’t make anybody worried, it just highlights the things we hate about Drake. When he responded to an alleged jab from Pusha T, Drake’s response of, “I get it, so if it was directed at me just make it a [little] more direct next time. You know, I’m up for whatever, man,” just makes the people who know better laugh*. When he states in Lord Knows that when he buy the bar drinks, stating “That’s why all the real soldiers salute me,” we all know his ‘real soldiers’ are actually probably just people who spend their days on Hype Machine and Tumblr. The reason people who have been avid rap fans for a decade or more tend to not care for Drake is simply because Drake isn’t really a rapper at all. He raps, sure, but he’s primarily a pop star. People shouldn’t see Drake as particularly different from Katy Perry; they’re in the same arena, it’s just that Drake has better production and smaller breasts. Drake is the first real personification of what Nelly**, Kanye West, and probably Lil’ Wayne have been building to for some time: a rapper with a ridiculous accent who isn’t afraid to sing or be seen as emotional. One who wears their heart on the sleeve of their young man’s Cosby sweater. However, if Drake embraced his actual image instead of trying to cultivate another image that he’ll never be able to attain, perhaps he would be even more widely accepted.

*Although, in Drake’s defense, the next sentence in that quote was, “I didn’t take offense to it, though.”

**It should be noted that it’s entirely possible that Nelly’s sing-songy stylings have made him the most influential rapper in the past decade, which only seems crazy until you think about it.

Hip-hop is perpetually stuck in the past. It seems like the most knowledgeable hip-hop fans always just want to go back to a day when a six-minute single with nine verses and no hook could lead to 619 000 record sales in a week. And, if given the choice, I would prefer that too. Drake might make some good songs, but he sure doesn’t bomb atomically in a way that even Socrates’ philosophies and hypotheses can’t define. I’m more excited about the new Roc Marciano album than I ever was for Take Care, and that’s precisely because Marciano’s music tends to sound like it was made in the middle of the 1990s. But Drake is actually in a sort of rarefied air: Eminem, Nelly, and Kanye West were all continually disrespected by hip-hop fans* when they initially came on the scene, but time has won us over. These artists were a type of step away from what popular hip-hop was doing at the time they debuted and were popular quickly but dismissed in hip-hop circles. It’s completely possible that, like with Eminem, Kanye, and Nelly, Drake will win us over a few years down the line, and we will respect him in a similar way. Of course, I hate the idea of putting Drake in with the infinitely more talented Kanye West and Eminem, but that might just be because his value hasn’t really shown itself yet. When those artists first hit the charts, I wasn’t too entrenched in my views on hip-hop to be able to accept something new. My initial apathy towards Drake might just mean that I’m now simply old enough to hate things that are.

*I recognize that all three of these guys had hit songs with their first major label singles, but most people that could rap every lyric to Ain’t No Half Steppin’ from memory hated all three of them for various reasons (Nelly was basically singing; Kanye was a shitty technical rapper; Eminem was white).

Obviously, Drake is doing something right. Thank Me Later went platinum, and assuming it’s still possible for an album to do so, I would imagine Take Care will do the same. People love Drake, and that’s fine. As much as I dislike him as a rapper, I can’t deny he makes some good music, and to give Shebib all of the credit for the interesting elements of Take Care’s production would probably be unfair to Aubrey. Drake might not fully accept it yet, but he is something new. He might be what’s wrong with popular hip-hop right now, but he might be what’s right about it five years from now.

And his sweater game is clearly advanced.

Not all of the artists I have discussed have had great careers: Nelly fully embraced his identity as a pop star, and has made more terrible music than most rappers will ever make. Eminem is so dedicated to record sales that everybody has accepted that his almost incomparable talent will never be properly utilized. Kanye West has basically become hip-hop’s version of Radiohead. The likelihood of Drake having Kanye West’s or Eminem’s level of career success is unlikely, but taking chances will be the only way he can really do something interesting. Drake has a clear formula with his albums, and that formula relies on him wanting to be taken seriously as a rapper. He can still rap – and he should – but he shouldn’t feel like he needs to appeal to the people that will never take him seriously anyway. Even Eminem and Kanye are still only respected begrudgingly in a lot of hip-hop circles.

On its own merits, Take Care is a good record, although its goodness is indeterminate. I would guess the sparse, layered production is a big part of that, although again that seems to slight Drake. But walking home last night I started listening to it again, and despite its shortcomings, it just felt right. Drake’s lyrics did nothing for me, and his voice got old on some tracks, but the feel of the album never failed to seem like something that should be playing in people’s headphones today. I might not listen to it another five times, but I won’t try to talk you out of listening to it once. You might not like what you hear, but at least you’re hearing something new. If only Drake himself could accept that, we might start hearing something that is both new and consistently exciting.

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