My feelings about this are complicated, although I found the record to be a languorous epic that rewarded dividends upon repeat listens. It’s certainly a winsome, good album — probably even a great one — but for reasons ascribed to Aubrey Drake Graham’s sense as a producer more so than his voice or rapping.
The source of this conflict concerns Drake’s skill as a rapper, which I find subpar, and even occasionally woeful. There are times on “Take Care” where he demonstrates serious improvement from last year’s “Thank Me Later” though, which regularly fell into the sort of rote, ABAB rhyme-scheme verses that are the hip-hop equivalent of a connect-the-dots drawing of basic shapes.
Your enjoyment of the subject matter of Drake’s raps hinges completely on how long you’re willing to listen to his general indifference to fame and struggles with isolation (which he discusses to no end, hamstringing much of his claims at superiority), but his cadences and flows leave very much to be desired.
When he does try to actualize his star status in a rap — as on the Rick Ross track, “Lord Knows” — it just seems implausible: “A lot of niggas came up on a style that I made up / But if all I hear is me / Who should I be afraid of?” It would work if he were talking about his style of production, but the track is the record’s rare shot of bombast.
Drake knows this. As I noted earlier, he’s improving, but he’s also recruited a pack of skilled technical rappers that includes André 3000 (who throws down an absolutely breathtaking verse on “The Real Her,” his best in years); his Young Money boss, Lil’ Wayne; Rick Ross; and Kendrick Lamar, whose recent “Section.80” serves proof that he’s the best technical rapper his age. Also, Nicki Minaj brings to “Make Me Proud” what she brought for Kanye on “Monster” last year: a show-stopping moment of excitement, albeit on a considerably smaller scale.
All right, that’s (mostly) it for criticism. Best to get it out of the way, so I can start talking about why this is a potentially terrific disc. The first is the Toronto thing, how tracks like “Marvin’s Room” and “Over My Dead Body” seem to literally breathe, accompanied by sanguine, hearty beats that we haven’t heard since Kanye’s “808s and Heartbreak.” It’s no coincidence that the title track, which features a slightly out-of-character, but still effective Rihanna and guest production spot from Jamie xx, thumps with a tribal, “Lost in the World” drumbeat before clearing the way for a hypnotic, heavily rhythmic Gil Scott-Heron sample. Drake’s listening to what the best producers are doing, then incorporating it into his own sensibilities.
Also, his command of the neo-soul and R&B genres is stunning, and stems from his singing voice, which hangs high and melodic above his contrastingly nasal rap delivery. “We live in a generation of / Not bein’ in love / And not bein’ together / But we sure make it feel like we’re together / ’Cause we’re scared to see each other with somebody else,” he sings on “Doing It Wrong,” amid drippy guitars and a Stevie Wonder harmonica solo. Recall that this is a pop album. It’s sure a sharp juxtaposition against the sort of relationships on “Songs in the Key of Life.” Drake might just be one our generation’s great bards.
Lastly, the former “Degrassi” star can write a pop hook like Kevin Durant can sink a three. It’s what he does. They glide through your head for days, whether on a deep cut or a single. A sampling:
• from the single “Headlines”: “I guess it really is just me, myself and all my millions.”
• “Over My Dead Body”: “Jealousy is just love and hate at the same time.”
• “Under Ground Kings”: “It’s been two years since somebody asked me who I was.”
• “We’ll Be Fine”: “She says I’m such a dog / I say you’re such a bone,” “These days, women give it to me like they owe me one” and “Girl, you ain’t the only who’s tryin’ to be the only one.”
My fear is for the future of the practice of rapping, not for hip-hop or R&B. If Drake’s capable of massive success in the field of pop music without quality raps, it indicates a shift in primacy of the core of hip-hop artistry. But at least we get a terrific album for this trouble.