Drake this summer in Los Angeles.
Toronto's Aubrey Drake Graham released his second major label album Tuesday. The Record's critic, Ann Powers, and editor Frannie Kelley listened and came back with very different opinions. You can listen on Spotify, or sign up for the free service.
I'm pretty much obsessed with this new Drake album. Drove to Atlanta this past weekend, a three-and-a-half-hour trip from my house, and Take Care was my soundtrack the whole way. Maybe it's the memory-foam blend of '90s-nodding R&B and downtempo electronica cultivated by the Canadian rapper's mostly homegrown production team. Maybe it's his stated theme, being lost in love, central to many of my own most beloved listens, from Richard and Linda Thompson's I Want To See the Bright Lights Tonight to the Afghan Whigs' Gentlemen. Or maybe it's just that Drake is so endlessly quotable. I've even taking to invoking his callow wisdom in family situations. "Jealousy is just love and hate at the same time," I advised my daughter when she reported a conflict in her grade school lunchroom, stealing the line from this album's opening track. Who said hip-hop wasn't edifying?
Plenty, of people, of course, and Drake certainly has his haters. Since he stormed the underground in 2006 with his first mixtape and the pop charts with 2010's debut album Thank Me Later, the former teen actor has been criticized for being self-indulgent and mopey, for making R&B-diluted pseudo rap, and for copping Big Sean's Supa Dupa Flow. Even the critics wholeheartedly embracing Take Care slip backhanded complements into their four-star reviews: Jon Dolan at Rolling Stone calls his lament about drunken spending sprees and wrongly abandoned girlfriends "squish-souled," while Ryan Dombal at Pitchfork throws in the phrase "sometimes embarrassing."
Drake makes even his advocates sometimes cringe, I think, for the same reason I find his music so fascinating. This biracial upper middle-class kid speaks from a position of privilege that few rappers would occupy, even if it were their birthright. His melancholia is that of the overly sated: much is being made of Take Care's album cover photograph, in which Drake sits like a lonely Corleone in a gilded corner-table cage. But Drake's relentless focus on the point where money empties out happiness isn't merely autobiographical. It's emblematic of our moment of crashed markets and occupied streets, and it speaks to a generation beginning to question whether the All-American, celebrity-endorsed credit card lifestyle will make them anything but bankrupt.
"I can tell that money's got you working," Drake intones over a chilly synth adagio in "Practice," one of several tracks on Take Care produced to sound like it's drifting out of a Virginia Beach car radio by Aaliyah superfan Noah "40" Shebib. The song's interpolation of Juvenile's "Back That Azz Up," an early milestone in the the rap subgenre of strip club narratives, locates our loverboy's conquest in a realm where love is always on the clock. "Those other men were just practice," he insists, but this encounter's not genuine, either. Drake's voice droops toward a monotone; the music drags him into a quagmire. What's in his lover's sweat? Only pain and regret.
I know Drake's not the first to ponder such dim realities. Sad is a good look for most players, whether they're pondering their own isolation (Kanye West's favorite game) or gently lecturing the women in their lives (thanks, Lil Wayne, for teaching us how to love). Take Care, however, raises the stakes by fully dwelling in that discomfort zone where not just sex, but every personal exchange — with admirers, among friends, within a family — starts to feel like a financial transaction. Extending the mood of his self-doubt takes Drake beyond the realm of self-pity, offering a critique of the very culture that's created him as an artist.
That's one reading of what Drake is up to on Take Care. There's much more to say, though. I know you're a fan of his musical collaborators, especially the mysterious R&B artistes Abel Tesfaye, AKA The Weeknd. Do you think what he does with Drake throughout Take Care works? What's your take on Rihanna and Nicki Minaj's guest turns? Can you forgive Drake's use of typically misogynist rapper lingo in light of the deeper agenda I'm identifying? Or do you think I've just been dazzled by his burnished bling?
I hear what you're saying about privilege. Listening to this album is like getting trapped in Drake's head — in this world it's almost like he never speaks to anyone, like everything is happening silently, like nothing else matters except the way he feels about what's happening around him. But I'm having a hard time figuring out how his sleepless nights are emblematic of the 21st century's everyday struggles.
A friend of mine has worked at girls' rock n roll camps for years, and she told me that during every session, the counselors ask the campers who they are when they're listening to the song. In their imagination, are they the person singing the song? Or the person the song is about?
She says almost all the girls imagine themselves as the person the song is about. It seems to be gender specific. The counselors have to do work every single time to help the girls see that there are another few ways to listen.
I did some unscientific polling around my office and it held up for grown-ups(ish). I am sure there are books and multi-syllabic words to explain this phenomenon, but I don't know them.
The stories Drake tells on this album, even more so than earlier songs, are so rooted in his own experience I don't see how anyone — regardless of this whole subject-object thing — could put themselves in his shoes. We are the people Drake is singing about. We don't have a lot of power here. Which obviously makes it less OK how often dude (and guests) use the word "bitch."
Drake's problems are fully particular to his life. The events of 2009 and 2006 on "Look What You've Done," for one, and a rare concern on "Underground Kings": "It's been two years since somebody asked me who I was."
But, despite the wildly expositional nature of the album, what's really going on remains opaque. He uses SO MANY WORDS to say the same thing over and over again. On "Doing It Wrong," which features a baffling harmonica solo from Stevie Wonder, he says, "We live in a generation of not being in love, and not being together. But we sure make it feel like we're together, cause we're scared to see each other with somebody else." Take Care is heady, but is it mindful?
Is Drake unhappy about his state? Does he trust anybody? Is he a writer or a story-teller? Is he a pop star? A role model? He certainly isn't as creative or weirdly precise as Andre 3000 is on the same subject, in his verse on "The Real Her":
"N——s that are married don't want to go home.
But we look up to them, they wish they were us.
They want some new trim, we lust for some trust.
Now that both of us are colorblind cause the other side looks greener."
I think "Practice" is a jam. A worthy jam. I guess I'm just totally distracted by how much better Andre 3000 is at rapping about similar trials.
Don't you think the musical settings on Take Care — so insular, preserving Drake's voice and those of his guests in purple-syrupy amber — make the insularity you're noticing almost oppressive, and in doing so, force listeners to acknowledge that these fantasies are seriously flawed? Removed from their hyperbaric chambers, his verses can offend. But I don't think of Drake as that kind of battle rapper, whose words resonate best through crystal clear delivery. I appreciate his hybridity as a singer who rhymes and a boaster who whispers. I'm a huge Andre 3000 fan, too, but when he applies flawless diction to the pronouncement, "B——-s got the rabies" — that's when the hair on the back of my neck goes up.
Drake's invective isn't so potent. Or maybe it's just sneakier, and I'm a sucker. I'm in love with the way this music sounds; its minimalist reworkings of TLC's minor-key soul and the trancey rhythms that land somewhere between paranoid Sly Stone and smoked-out Maxwell make space, I think, for multiple interpretations. Much has been made of Drake's absorption of groove-oriented indie rock, and there's no ignoring the presence of haute R&B remixer Jamie xx on the current single, Take Care's title track. Instead of caring about Drake as a crossover to indie rock, though, I prefer to think of him, Shebib, their whole OVOXO crew as part of a movement to bring R&B's secret history to the surface — a lineage linked more to jazz than to gospel, once that's experimental and cool instead of overly melismatic and tradition-bound.
I'll give you that Drake, or the character he's playing these days, is often nasty. I'm uncomfortable about his reckless use of the "B" word, and also the "N" word, which he flings with abandon, though this son of a Yiddische mama leaves the loudest reference to Jews to Rick Ross. He's one of those irritating alpha-beta males whose inability to claim power leads to a particularly nasty kind of passive-aggressiveness. He's self-absorbed in exactly the same way Kurt Cobain was sometimes self-absorbed — trapped inside his own head, too insecure to embrace success, lashing out at those closest to him.
That predicament — the inability to locate oneself within everyday power relations — is one that's afflicted existential antiheroes throughout modernity. It's the plight of Camus's Stranger and of most of the great losers in film noir. It is a problem of masculinity, because women, traditionally denied easy agency, are usually pumped and prepped when they finally get it. (Mary Gaitskill writes about Drake-like women in her fiction — I'd love to read what she'd have to say about Take Care.) For me, the artfulness of this music allows me an in to that experience. I can make that leap and identify with Drake, or at least be intrigued by multiple characters in the little dramas he designs.
I'm fascinated and frankly upset about your informal poll about pop identification, by the way, because for me, the essence of being a fan of popular music arises in that act of making that identificatory leap. I've often written of the listening experience as a way to try on different identities — to strut if you're a wimp, to open up if you're closed off, and, yes, to try on aspects of the gender that's not yours.
Other feminist writers, including Ellen Willis and Lavinia Greenlaw, have made similar observations and specifically discussed identifying with male stars from Mick Jagger to Joy Division's Ian Curtis. Hearing from you that many young women aren't enacting this aspect of music fandom makes me wonder if the emphasis on visual culture and often strictly gender-bound roleplaying in today's pop scene has actually started putting a lid on our imaginations.
I'm sticking by my assertion that Take Care is not contributing to that problem. For one thing, it's definitely an immersive experience; each track flows into the next, with musical and lyrical motifs repeating. As Brandon Soderberg observed in his Spin magazine review, the least convincing tracks are the one that try for a more conventional hip hop hit. Drake may be a player, but the inability to commit that haunts his lyrics is a positive when it comes to his sound, I think. What you perceive as artistic weakness, I'm reading as a deliberate stance: a text-messaging lothario's take on what everyone from Miles Davis to Lupe Fiasco has called "the cool."
Maybe playing so cool is not a great idea for a mainstream artist in 2011. I'm not sure Take Care will give Drake the commercial success that's allowed him to so publicly bankroll his crew (and his grandma, too, as a recorded phone message makes shamelessly clear on Take Care) for the past few years. His passive aggressiveness could start to alienate his fan base. Here's an idea that might make both of us happy: Drake's next project should be a full-on duets album with Nicki Minaj, the top to his bottom, the woman he calls, with baffled affection, "Beauty and the Beast." She can easily kick him to the curb. Who knows, after a full album's worth of such tussles, what kind of Drake would get back up?
Yes, I think the hyperbaric chamber (gassed up, right?) production on some of these songs do make the lyrics seem, in context, less offensive than they sound out of it. I would agree that it's not fair to criticize lyrics divorced from the actual song for which they were constructed. And you're right, I do not appreciate the game Drake is running in those lyrics – his attempt at conflicted cool – but I also regret the ways the beats and music on this album exist only in service to it. The art is weaker as a result.
Drake and Shebib's artistic stance on Take Care effectively hamstrings the production simply so that Drake can voice his, yeah, passive-aggressive rhymes within an atmosphere that lulls us into listening, seduces us into staying with him. But this is exactly where I get off the train. The partnership of MC and DJ has been crucial to rap for 30 years because both elements push each other forward. Rap is not spoken word because an MC must contend with the track, must navigate it to make himself heard and play with it to complicate his meaning.
The only one that comes close to doing more than amplify a confession I didn't ask for is "Ride" — the one song on Take Care that's funky, finally, sitting at the very end of the non-deluxe version of the album. The Weeknd's singing on it — that's somebody putting his back into it. And the beat — damp bongo meets classic R&B baked snare. It's the one Doc McKinney track on here, and it's the slow jam Drake needs to make explicit that Maxwell/D'Angelo lineage you wrote about, though I'd argue he's more in the R. Kelly vein than people want to admit.
But Drake isn't a singer, right? He says he's a rapper. Although we haven't talked about what Drake certainly is — an actor. In fact, recently he said he wants to get back in that line of work (well, that and develop a line of fragrances). I think Drake's game is to make us believe he's a troubled everyman who needs a shoulder to cry on. Make us believe his drama is interesting.
Drake uses conversational language and rhymes about emotional ambivalence, romantic prevarication and his trust issues. I can't applaud him making a career out of laying those particular cards on the table; doing so hasn't made him treat anyone any better, at least according to him.
But that gets me back to what I was saying before — about the position Drake puts his listeners in when he acts all vulnerable sitting in a penthouse with a publicist right beside him. Despite Take Care's womblike production, I can't identify with Drake – and some of that is because I don't want to. If I did I'd have $25 million and still not be satisfied. I'd be the greatest, but I'd be lonely.
So I listen to Take Care as the person Drake's rapping about — he's going through my phone when I'm in the bathroom. He might save my voicemail and use it on a record that I will have to hear on the radio long after we broke up, and he's definitely gonna put the full weight of his drunk dial regret on me. And there's some toothless ambient music in the background the whole time. In real life, would you hang out with that guy?