Notions is a weekly column that delves into what did, what should, what could, or what needs to happen in the world of technology and pop culture.
There are only a handful of hip-hop artists who can dominate the social landscape when their album leaks. There are less that can make Twitter weep. There are only two that have the talent, vision, and respect of their peers to expand an art form that is highly adverse to change. The first dropped an excellent album earlier this year entitled Yeezus; the second only raps part-time.
With a legendary mixtape in So Far Gone, two well-received and commercially successful albums in Thank Me Later and Take Care, a record 12 number-one singles on Billboard’s Hot Rap Songs and 10 more number-ones on Billboard’s Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs (also a record), a Grammy, and co-signs from Lil Wayne, Jay Z, Kanye West, and Eminem, Aubrey “Drake” Graham has positioned himself as the first new hip-hop superstar since his label boss grabbed the title after releasing Tha Carter III in 2008. Now on his third studio album, Nothing Was The Same, which leaked on September 15, Drake has returned to put his influential touch on music and pop culture (see: YOLO). There is no question that Nothing Was The Same is Drake’s best and most complete work yet, and in a year of exceptional releases from a plethora of legends, it may be the best album of the year
Let’s get one thing clear; there is no one else that can do this. On the planet. There is no one else that can rap with the lyrical skills to outshine Jay Z on the outro track “Pound Cake,” while having the vocal capabilities to perform a song that has been played as first dance songs at weddings in “Hold On, We’re Going Home,” on the same album. Infusing the emotionality of R&B with the lyrical prowess of a hip-hop veteran, Nothing Was The Same forces the rap industry to reconsider the longstanding belief that rappers can only show so much emotion in their songs. As much as Kanye West pushed the genre forward with the industrial and dancehall-imbued beats on Yeezus, Drake has done equally as much with his open and honest lyrics on Nothing Was The Same.
A concise and perfectly ordered 13 tracks fill out Nothing Was The Same (15 on the deluxe version), and coalesce so well that it comes close to a concept album. The intro, “Tuscan Leather” is one of the few pure rap songs on the album, with a Whitney Houston sample blended into an amazing soulful beat crafted by the now super-producer Noah “40” Shebib. A six-minute intro track is somewhat of a rarity in hip-hop, but Drake conquers the track, boasting with lines like, “This is nothin’ for the radio, but they’ll still play it though / Cause it’s that new Drizzy Drake, that’s just the way it go,” while simultaneously rapping about falling out of contact with friend and label mate Nicki Minaj.
“Own It” is another of those blended tracks, and one of the best songs on the album. Playing like the prequel to “Marvin’s Room,” Drake speaks to an unspecified girl telling her that his feelings are hers, before transitioning into a verse that criticizes his ex for not calling during his time of need. Five years ago, a track this emotional and introspective would have been laughed at, and the artist would have been heavily criticized for being “soft.” This isn’t the case anymore, and Drake is the primary reason.
The track that everyone will take notice of is “From Time” which features Jhene Aiko, who delivers a fantastic hook. It’s one of the only radio-friendly songs on Nothing Was The Same. Rapping about his father’s alcoholism, his mother being alone, and how he wants to “influence a generation that’s lacking in patience,” Drake’s first verse is one of the best on the album.
“I like when money makes a difference but don’t make you different / Started realizing a couple places I can take it / I want to get back to when I was that kid in the basement / I want to take it deeper than money, pussy, vacation / And influence a generation that’s lacking in patience”
“Connect,” another of the “Drake featuring Drake” tracks is produced by Hudson Mohawke, with a sample of “Swang” by Houston rappers Trae and Fat Pat. “Connect” shows the growth of Drake as a songwriter.
“She used to say “You can be whoever you want, even yourself” / Yeah, I show up / Knowin’ exactly who I was and never leave as myself / But when it falls apart, I’m always still down / To pick a million tiny little pieces off the ground / Wish you would learn to love people and use things / And not the other way around”
The most personal song on Nothing Was The Same is “Too Much” featuring British crooner Sampha, one half of SBTRKT. No one showing up to his shows, his extended family only wanting him for his money, and his ill mother not wanting to leave the house are all topics Drake touches on, while Sampha plays devil’s advocate, singing, “Don’t think about it too much, too much, too much, too much / There’s no need for us to rush it through.” Drake’s most intimate recording to date is backed by a bare bones beat laced with a piano and a thumping 808, allowing “Too Much” to be all about the lyrical content. While many rappers have laid verses about family trials and tribulations, few are wont to expose their vulnerabilities or are willing to detail them to the level that Drake reaches on “Too Much.”
Easily the most anticipated song on Nothing Was The Same is “Pound Cake/Paris Morton Music 2,” the collaboration with Jay Z, produced by Boi-1da. Drake and Jay Z have collaborated twice in the past, on Thank Me Later and The Blueprint 3, and both times, Mr. Carter outshined Mr. Graham. No this time. Not to say that Jay Z’s two verses were subpar, but Drake is in his wheelhouse on the minimalistic beat, unleashing some serious wordplay on “Pound Cake,” before continuing on “Paris Mortin Music 2,” after Hova’s two verses:
Pound Cake — “Overly focused, it’s far from the time to rest now / Debates growing ’bout who they think is the best now? / Took a while, got the jokers out of the deck now / I’m holding all the cards and niggas wanna play chess now”
Paris Mortin Music 2 — Like I didn’t study the game to the letter / And understand that I’m not doing it the same, man, / I’m doing it better / Like I didn’t make that clearer this year / Like I should feel, I don’t know, guilty for saying that / They should put a couple more mirrors in here so I can stare at myself / These are usually just some thoughts that I would share with myself / But I thought “Fuck it”
Nothing Was The Same is nothing if not cohesive. It was not designed to be listened to separately. It is an album in the truest sense of the word, and in that sense, it is the best of the year. It doesn’t have the best songs, “Wu-Tang Forever” could have been better, and it doesn’t have the best beats, “The Language” sounds very conventional, but when joined together into one piece, the Nothing Was The Same flows like nothing else released this year. The consistency of 40’s production is felt throughout the album, and the spirit of Drake’s emotions permeate through each track, even in the boastful anthem, “Started From The Bottom.”
More important than being this year’s best album is the change that Nothing Was The Same will force on hip-hop. An album this emotional from an artist of Drake’s caliber is all but impossible to write off. The gangster rap that dominated the industry 10 years ago as 50 Cent arrived on the scene is no longer leading the genre. As recently as five years ago, this kind of album couldn’t sustain enough support to shift the industry. In 2008, Kanye West released an emotional album about love and loneliness, 808’s & Heartbreaks, which was loved by critics, but panned by hardcore rap fans. This isn’t the case with Nothing Was The Same. Kanye’s first attempt to shift the genre was rebuffed, so he went the opposite way with Yeezus. With Nothing Was The Same, Drake’s first endeavor with a genre-altering album has succeeded. Nothing Was The Same is the best work of art in Drake’s catalogue, and every album he has released has exceeded its predecessor. With his latest album, the half-black, half-jewish Canadian kid from a middle-class neighborhood is upending decades of emotional ignorance in a field that sorely needed it, while cementing himself as the leader of the new era of hip-hop. In stores September 24.