Is it worse to be self-indulgent or dishonest? "I wish I/Wasn't famous/I wish I/Was still in school/So that I could have you in my dorm room/I would put it on you crazy." What a strange thing for a presumptive rap star to say. And yet here is Drake, half-singing over a Prince-like LinnDrum on "Cece's Interlude," saying the thing you're not supposed to say to a girl who isn't there anymore. It's not the only time he does this on Thank Me Later, his first official album, but it might be the most bracing.
In fact, malapropisms — emotional, grammatical, etc. — reign on this album, but it rarely matters. Not because 23-year-old Aubrey Drake Graham, an R&B-rap hybridist of the highest order, has been tapped as a bona fide star-in-waiting and maybe a savior at a time when hip-hop is frequently lapsing into funks that have downed lesser genres. Hip-hop is not saved by Thank Me Later. Nothing could be saved by an album this humbly arranged, this curiously composed, and this quietly executed.
Confidence, too, is a shifting thing. Drake is so unsure of himself at times, so neurotic about his success, so frustrated with the state of his life that he can sound sympathetic — and also like a bit of a whiner. In a way, it's understandable. Being a rich, desired rapper does sound like a great life, but then again, it also sounds sort of terrifying and exhausting. "Am I wrong for making light of my situation?" he asks on "The Resistance," mourning his success. Rap heroism is a hassle, man.
Drake: 8 p.m. Monday, September 20, and Tuesday, September 21, at James L. Knight Center, 300 SE Second Ave., Miami; 305-416-5978; jlkc.com. Tickets cost $51.75 to $94.75.
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Bait-and-switches are everywhere too: "Show Me a Good Time," a Kanye West production, begins like a classic chipmunk soul banger and then subtly reverts to cabaret piano; "Thank Me Now," the Timbaland-produced closer, threatens to wander off into MC-burying Timbo territory, but instead stays orchestral and simple. There are so few hard-hitting works of instant gratification here that it can seem slight at first glance. Only "Miss Me," the not-quite-triumphal "Over," and the incongruous but intoxicating Swizz Beatz production "Fancy" work hard. Lots of credit for the languidness goes to Drake's partner, Noah "40" Shebib, who worked on seven of the 14 songs here and, with tinkling, throbbing songs such as "Successful" and "Lust for Life," was instrumental in creating what became Drake's signature sound on his 2009 mixtape, So Far Gone.
And to his credit, Drake also seems to understand he is not a transcendent MC. His rap voice, often delivered through his nose, can grate; his singing voice, often aided by technology, is better and subtler. His flow rarely moves away from A-B-AB constructions, and the guy writes a lot of groaners ("I blew myself up, I'm on some martyr shit," "I'm a star, no spangled banner," et al.). So he does what any artist with influence should: He surrounds himself with greatness. Jay-Z, T.I., Young Jeezy, and Lil Wayne are all here. But rather than overwhelm or outdo him with bravado, technique, and fury, they all seem to come to him. Jay modulates his flow to match Drake's on "Light Up" and even addresses him by name, a relatively rare honor. Jeezy, consistently the mightiest force in rap for the past five years, slows down and coos something about "his and her firearms." Only Wayne is inadaptable — but at least he's mindful of the moment: After delivering a particularly crude punch line about sucking "the brown" off of his dick, he groans, "Ewwww, that's nasty," in turn acknowledging this is not that sort of album.
The only time Drake actually gets upstaged is when he miscalculates how good he is at everything else. The so-hot-it's-melting "Shut It Down" is a lesson in knowing your limitations: Paired with The-Dream, the high king of melters, Drake implores a woman to "put those fuckin' heels on and work it, girl." But Dream, his delicate falsetto like a lilac flower floating on the ocean, simply outclasses him. That they go back and forth, trading winsome romantic gestures, for seven minutes is nonetheless something special.
Listening to Thank Me Later, I can't help thinking about something Kanye West said last year: "I don't believe in therapy," he insisted shortly after his mother passed away. "I believe you gotta walk it out, you gotta live it out... and sometimes you have to cry it out." There is no Drake without Kanye West, his most immediate forebear; the quote applies, but this is different. Ultimately, Drake is just a guy. And he decided to make this odd little album about figuring out who he is. It is not necessarily the most artful thing that's happened in rap lately. But it is a miracle.