In 2009, Aubrey "Drake" Graham emerged as the biggest new star hip-hop had seen in years, breaking cultural precedent with his background (a Canadian, mixed race, former child star) while wearing his influences on his sleeve. His now-signature sound began as an almost exact 50/50 amalgam of rap's two dominant figures of the time: Lil Wayne's nasal barrage of punchlines, and
808s & Heartbreak
-era Kanye West's AutoTune melodies and introspective, post-gangsta approach to rap stardom. His secret weapon was that he sang (slightly) better than either, but even his singing voice was born of mimicry of someone else, frequent collaborator Trey Songz. Drake was the rap game cronut, stirring up enormous excitement simply by combining elements of two staples that people had come to take for granted. Four years later, Drake's third album
Nothing Was The Same
arrives to cement him as the defining rap star of his time. He's still shamelessly derivative of his predecessors, but he's mined that early 2009 zeitgeist so thoroughly and successfully that the sound now effectively belongs to him, and continues to influence almost every new star in his wake. For 212 of the last 222 weeks, at least one song by or featuring Drake has been in the top 10 of Billboard's R&B/Hip-Hop airplay charts – he has literally never left heavy rotation on rap radio once since becoming a star, a level of sustained market saturation that virtually no act has ever enjoyed in any major radio format ever. Drake's ubiquity is the kind that all but guarantees either that you're already sick of him, or that you already know that you can never get enough of him. His second album, 2011's
, nearly doubled the sales of his debut, with a run of singles that lasted on the charts for a year and a half, including songs like the catchphrase-spawning "The Motto" and the pop crossover title track. Drake has fewer skeptics than ever, but if the holdouts were unconvinced by
Nothing Was The Same
probably won't change that. It's less eager to please than his previous albums, as if Drake his so assured of his place in the world that the catchy hooks and superstar features and bombastic beats he used to pack albums with don't seem so necessary. So
Nothing Was The Same
essentially feels like 59 minutes alone with Drake, with longtime producer and mixer Noah "40" Shebib drawing his and other producers' beats together into a placid lake of ticking drums and humming synths. "Tuscan Leather" and "Furthest Thing" both feature wobbly, backmasked textures, the former including an unnervingly sped up Whitney Houston sample. The first two songs both feature mid-song tempo changes, but neither is a dramatic or jarring transition, just a listless switch from one mellow groove to another. Even one of the album's more straightforward rapping showcases, "The Language," features a faint, threadbare synth pattern over drums that are indistinguishable from a hundred better songs. As a rapper, Drake is still stiff and rehearsed – his lyrics always sound like they're written before they're applied to music, every syllable counted out and coldly gridded onto the beat. Some of Drake's heroes, like Jay-Z and Lil Wayne, are famous for not writing lyrics down, something that often allows a loose, spontaneous delivery as their flow locks in with the drums. But after years in the major leagues, Drake still sounds like he's staring at his Blackberry, putting so much concentration into meter and rhythm that the subtleties of phrasing and inflection elude him.
Nothing Was The Same
does find Drake occasionally exploring the lower registers of his voice, rapping in a strange, guttural tone on "Worst Behavior" and the lead single "Started From The Bottom," but they sound like self-conscious pastiches of rowdier rappers. As a substitute for lively, conversational rapping, Drake uses melody. On songs like "Furthest Thing" and "The Language," the mid-verse shift from rapping to a sing-song delivery arrives at the exact same point it has in a hundred Drake songs before it. But he's never actually been a gifted singer or songwriter in the conventional sense, something brought into stark relief on the album's token full-on R&B track, the current single "Hold On, We're Going Home." So transparently modeled on a recent hit by Miguel (an opening act on Drake's next tour) that it could be called "'Adorn,' I Want My Own," the underwritten song only features one verse, repeated a couple times. In an unintentionally amusing moment, Drake croons "It's hard to do these things alone," while backup vocals from the production duo Majid Jordan hit the high notes he wouldn't be able to on his own (not that Drake always leans on more capable vocalists – Sampha's hook on "Too Much" is so poorly sung it's nearly unlistenable). If Drake isn't really much of a rapper and isn't really much of a singer, one supposes he deserves some credit for fusing both skills together so inseperably – the way Kevin Smith can pad out his resume as "actor/director" when putting Silent Bob in his movies. Early in his career, Drake popularized "hashtag" punchlines, in which hip-hop's tradition of wordplay was reduced to mere word association, synonyms and related phrases strung together with no logic or sentence structure (an example: "Swimming in the money, come find me…Nemo!"). He's mostly abandoned that style, but there's still something stilted and rudimentary about his new and improved flow, and he still pulls lazy stunts like rhyming "vent more" with "temp-or." But Drake's appeal has never been in technique – instead it's his obsessively inward-looking meditations on his career and his relationships that have made him an unusually vulnerable and emotional hip-hop star. But Drake is only a sensitive, woman-friendly artist in the context of a peer group that includes Lil Wayne and Rick Ross, both of whom lost endorsement deals over vile sex-themed lyrics. Throughout
Nothing Was The Same
, he makes passive-aggressive references to women passing through his life, sometimes giving them names and enough details that fans could probably find their Facebook pages. But it mostly feels like he's just furrowing his formidable eyebrows and trying to look wounded and thoughtful in order to win over the girl that he'll call out on the next album. Throughout the album, Drake congratulates himself for being honest about his uncool background and embracing a hometown as far off the hip-hop map as Toronto. But he's always nursed an obsession with the slow, codeine-influenced Houston rap scene, and continues to shout out Texas throughout the album, even as his own sleepy aesthetic drifts further and further from DJ Screw. On "Too Much" he swears "I know that place like I come from it," and on "Connect," he says he's "swangin'" over and over in his always awkward attempt at a Houston twang, mixing sizzurp with his syrupy sentiments. But where he once paid tribute to UGK while discussing romance on "Under Ground Kings," Drake's now also got his mind on New York, naming one particularly limp song "Wu Tang Forever" and referencing the Wu on a couple other tracks. In his recent guest verse on "I Do" by 2 Chainz, Drake rapped "I have no imagination, everything I do for real," which is essentially the ultimate boast: that his success is so intrinsically impressive that there's no need to boast, but simply state the facts. It's an approach that Jay-Z perfected ages ago and continues to coast on as his life increasingly becomes far more fascinating than the music he's making. If these men lead remarkable, one-of-a-kind lives, the thinking seems to go, surely they're doing all of us a favor simply by providing the rest of us a window into it? Rappers have long engaged in wealth porn, but Drake makes significance porn, reminding us over and over about how much hip-hop needs him. And it may continue to for the foreseeable future, unless a new rapper comes along that effortlessly combines the appeal of Drake and one of his contemporaries.