Unless you’ve been living under a rock or in a world without Twitter – in which case, congratulations, you’re more in touch with reality than the rest of us at this point – you’ll be aware that Drake‘s third album, Nothing Was The Same, has leaked.
With more radio hits than Kanye West’s Yeezus, more relevance than Jay Z’s Magna Carta Holy Grail and less J. Cole than J. Cole’s Born Sinner, it already feels like the biggest rap record of the year and it’s not even out yet. But does it warrant that status, or is it just the most indulgent album yet by radio hip-hop’s most likely serial killer? FACT’s Tom Lea, John Twells, Joseph Morpurgo, Chal Ravens, Chris Kelly, Lauren Martin and Brad Rose discuss.
[ed’s note: Both Brad and Lauren’s Skype connections died at different points around page two, which is why they don’t contribute to the end]
Tom Lea: I think a good jumping off point would be the interview Drake gave in GQ, where he says that on the first two albums, love was the only thing he was missing, and that on this album he’s okay with that and enjoying it. To me that doesn’t add up, especially considering the album’s second half – it seems like a less content record than Take Care.
John Twells: That [what Drake says] is patently untrue. This record sounds more contented in a way than Take Care – he’s clearly got more money, which is a big part of it – but the plastic-y, slightly surreal serial killer aspect to his music which has been present since the very first record is really highlighted here more than on anything he’s ever done. It’s the focus of the record, more so than the mopey, sad boy kind of thing.
Joseph Morpurgo: I’d say that his persona on this record is the opposite of the serial killer, which is the jock. This is the album where it becomes transparent that rather than this excoriating truth-teller giving us a glimpse into the wranglings of his soul, the sad boy moping is a strategy and a ruse rather than any an actual insight into a twisted mind or a broken heart.
Brad Rose: I think that’s true. To me, he’s not sensitive, he’s just an asshole. And it’s really coming through on this album.
Lauren Martin: I think it’s telling that this album came out very close to Kiss Land. There’s so many overlaps, even in the tone of their voice. It’s this beta male complex that’s going on, and it’s starting to get really creepy.
JT: Let’s be fair, Kiss Land is way creepier.
TL: Even in terms of the production they’re similar though, both are very lurid and high-res compared to what came before them, which brings that whole aspect of it to life. It makes it seem more real and more sinister.
Chal Ravens: The first track on NWTS is the one with the Whitney sample, right? How serial killer is that?
LM: What do you actually mean by the serial killer persona, though? Not just the fact that it’s creepy – what makes it serial killer creepy?
JT: Since day one, listening to Drake’s music has felt like leafing through a catalogue. Everything’s posed for the camera, and that probably comes from being a child actor – you can’t shake that very easily, I would have thought. Everything has been manipulated so carefully, it’s so pristine, there are no missteps. I mean, it links back to the rumours about him having a contract that girls sign before they go back to his pad – everything is really stage-managed, and that comes across as being sociopathic. You start listening to it in the context of everything being a move, which he actually does allude to. People don’t act like that, they fuck up and make mistakes all the time, and although Drake does talk about that it feels like a ruse – it’s like a chess game.
LM: I was thinking about the hooks on this record, and they’re nothing like the hooks on other records. I’m starting to question how good a hook-writer he is – like Kanye is far superior, I keep thinking of this in terms of Yeezus. The hooks on Drake’s previous records, particularly Take Care, were almost meme bait, they were so constructed and all the tracks centred around them. This album feels like he’s deliberately not trying to write hooks, and I think it’s fallen on its ass. Something’s not working for me with this record, and I need to figure it out.
JT: I think it’s on ‘Furthest Thing’, he’s really starting to sound like Kevin Gates. Kevin Gates was clearly very influenced by Drake, and now it seems like Drake… Well, I don’t know if he has a team that plays him music that’s relevant, it wouldn’t surprise me.
LM: You seen his blog? Obviously he does.
CK: That’s how he got Sampha on the record.
LM: That’s a beautiful track.
TL: I think it’s the only one saving the second half of the album, without that it’s a bit of a disaster.
JT: Well ‘Pound Cake’ is ruined by the worst verse that Jay Z has ever done, which is saying something.
LM: The way Jay Z smacks his lips on it makes me want to die.
TL: This is the thing with Jay now, it’s not just the awful lyrics, there are these little things he does, these smug little gesticulations that you can sense, and they’re awful. Magna Carta’s full of them.
JT: Well would you want to hear Donald Trump rapping on a track? No, but that is exactly what we’ve got.
LM: This is the fascinating thing though, NWTS’s big two rap features are Jay Z and Birdman, and they’re both so throwaway. In terms of lyrical content and the tone that it sets, they’re completely pointless. But I think he’s making a point about trying to build a legacy with this album; I think that’s what he’s trying to do. He says on the first track that he’s not trying to make radio hits but they’ll play them anyway – this is his first shot at trying to build a legacy with an album, and that’s why he has Birdman and Jay Z on there, because of their legacies. He’s flexing his muscles, like ‘I can get them, their verses will be shit but you’ll still love this record’. Half the album is a total muscle flex, seriously.
TL: He did that on Take Care to an extent, he had Stevie Wonder on the album just to play harmonica. There’s always been an ego thing there.
LM: Well we can’t say that rappers don’t have their egos in mind when they make records. But I feel that in this album he’s particularly flexing that legacy aspect of it.
JT: He mentions it on the record, the line about I’ll see you in a decade. He’s clearly saying, not necessarily that he is one of those guys, but that he’s going to be one.
JM: I think that’s an important part of why this album, in some aspects, can be seen as a failure. We’ve talked already about how much the appeal of Drake’s early work depends on him being the kid coming up, and trying, and striving, and being a semi-avatar for the listener, who relates to his awkwardness. But on this record, because he’s become Drake the conglomerate… I’m not sure he ever had an underdog quality, but he had something that’s rooted in the realms of man, whereas here he tries to push himself as a celestial being, or more likely, a brand. A free-floating, spiritless brand, and he becomes bland in the process.
TL: With both the Drake as brand thing, and also the stage-managed aspect that we talked about, I’m just not sure he’s smart enough to pull it off for a whole album. On ‘Own It’, he wails about “next time we fuck I don’t wanna fuck, I wanna make love”, and then less than a minute later he’s saying “niggas talk more than bitches these days”, apparently with no sense of irony or self-awareness, and it just doesn’t work together. Whereas Kanye, with Yeezus… There are still contradictions there, but it’s because he’s mad and he’s got no filter, so you root for him in a way that you just don’t with Drake on this album.
JM: When Drake gets it right, he’s exceptionally good at ambiguity, pulling in two directions at the same time. The best example of that on this album is ‘Started from the Bottom’, which is an endlessly catchy club banger that feels utterly terrified and isolated and alone. When he nails that Janus-faced thing of being vulnerable and world-conquering at the same time, he is really good, but that deft pulling in two directions that he used to do so well, 90% of the time that gets away from him here.
JT: 90% of the time?
JM: I’d say so. I obviously haven’t statistically broken this down, minute by minute, but in my opinion there are two strong songs on this album and the rest is a grayscale wash. ‘Started from the Bottom’ and ‘Hold On, We’re Going Home’, they’re the only two that feel like that have texture and colour, the rest of them just feel like a heavily-watered watercolour.
JT: What?! ‘Wu Tang Forever’ is genius.
CR: OK, no one’s really said anything about why NWTS is good but now people are getting defensive about it. What’s good about it?
JT: I think it’s good. Comparing it to the other records, I don’t necessarily think it’s as good as Take Care, but Take Care took a while to grab me in the way that it did. It took a fair few listens. But this does lull really significantly, both in the middle before ‘Hold On, We’re Coming Home’ and then it really, really falls into the dirt towards the end. Those are negatives, but there’s more than enough high points to make it a good record – I really enjoy listening to this record, and it’s got a lot of really, really strong tracks. A couple of tracks here are maybe better than anything on Take Care. And I like the fact it’s not full of hooks – I like the fact that a lot of these tracks are just musings. And as for the production, 40 sounds better than ever.
TL: I completely agree with John. When I first listened to Take Care, I thought that you could easily cut six or seven tracks off it, but as time’s gone on that’s down to two or three. I think the first half of this album’s very good, then it falls off, but ‘Tuscan Leather’ is one of the best things he’s ever done. And you’re right, 40 sounds unreal on it. It’s funny that you’ll get a bunch of dance music fans who’ll turn their noses up at this album, but 40 does low-end better than any of their favourite producers.
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LM: The thing that struck me about the production is that it’s really spooky, and really cagey, and really disorientating. Apart from low-end or whatever, what do people think about the production overall, compared to past Drake records? I think that he’s tried so hard to build an album, from start to finish, and the fact that it lulls is quite telling… But is it the production that causes that, or Drake on his own, or a combination? What are people’s takes on 40 and Drake as a team?
TL: I think it lulls because of Drake – I don’t think he has the hooks to carry it through here. I think 40’s production is almost more hooky than it’s ever been; as you say, it’s quite eerie, but there are also these almost Just Blaze-esque moments to it, which are quite buried but they’re there. And if it was carried by someone with better hooks, which traditionally Drake has been, then I think it could work. You mentioned meme bait before, and one thing Drake’s always been incredibly good at, whether it’s YOLO or No New Friends or whatever, is having these throwaway lines that stick around and take on a life of their own. I don’t even see what could do that from this album.
CK: Flexible? Plus, ‘Started from the Bottom’ is on the record, and has dominated the conversation for the last however many months. I think Drake still has it, whether it’s in hooks or not I don’t know.
LM: This is the thing though, YOLO’s the biggest fucking thing ever, right, and that was just a throwaway line. I’m listening to this record and I’m not trying to find a hook, but I can’t even see a smaller, lesser equivalent to something like that. I’m struggling with this record to find the few lines, or few moments, that could define it. I feel like there are a lot of choices, but no clear winner or two.
CK: I think that’s how it works – I know it’s stage-managed and controlled on his part, but is he actually in the studio going ‘ok, this is the line that Twitter’s going to make into a hashtag’? It is a little organic, at least.
JM: It definitely doesn’t have the pained sloganeering that Jay-Z had on his last record. The earworms do at least feel like they’ve been raised on organic soil rather than grown in an earworm factory.
CK: Jay-Z is this close to having a song with a hashtag in the title, and Drake is staying away from that. That’s good at least.
TL: Does anyone else find the Wu-Tang thing really put on?
JT: No! I wanted to reference that specifically, because we were talking about the production and the mood of the record, and I think the mood of the record is perhaps a lot more important than the things he’s saying. The mood, for me, seems most influenced by Wu-Tang – you’re right, he mentions it a lot and it’s pretty trite, but the usage of this spooky, off-key piano stuff, and the way that the samples are chopped, it seems like him and 40 have spent the last year sitting around listening to a lot of Wu-Tang, and letting it influence the mood of the entire album.
LM: Elements of the Wu-Tang thing seem incredibly forced to me, I mean this is the guy who has a tattoo of Aaliyah’s face on his back. And he was a child when she was releasing her records. I’m struggling a little bit with the sincerity of his hero worship.
TL: It feels like he’s rewriting his own history. I can’t remember him ever really referencing Wu-Tang before, and now he’s got all these lines about being a kid listening to Cappadonna or whatever.
LM: This is my point about him trying so hard to build a legacy with this album, he’s referencing legacy rap artists here.
JT: Is anything he says genuine though? Him or 40 have clearly been listening to a lot of Wu-Tang around the making of this record – are we questioning the authenticity of him saying that he’s into it, or are we questioning the fact that he’s saying he’s always been into it?
LM: I don’t think it’s that he’s into it, he’s allowed to like what he likes and I’m sure he likes a ton of music that doesn’t get anywhere near this album. But by labouring the Wu-Tang point and by labouring the legacy point, it feels a little bit trite. Something I really want to talk about with this album is the way that Drake talks about relationships. Listening to this record, the way he talks about women, and what they do post-Drake, is really messing with me. The way he says like, ‘oh well, after me you got married and had kids – poor you’. Drake, just because a women has had sex with you doesn’t mean she owes you anything. It seems like he can’t complete a relationship narrative, everything eventually falls by the wayside.
JT: You’re right to link it to The Weeknd, because that narrative is very similar across the two albums.
JM: With the parallels between this and Kiss Land, what’s interesting about both these records is that Kiss Land really relies on context to work or not work. The fact that Abel Tesfaye went from being this enigmatic, half-shadowy figure that we never quite got a read on gave so much to Trilogy, and after he was outed, Kiss Land feels so meagre by comparison. If you’re going to try and create a very personal, personalised, emotionally wrought aesthetic, then people have to believe in it. People stopped believing in The Weeknd, and I wonder if Drake will undergo that process in the coming months.
CR: It’s a classic problem, but now he’s a few records in it feels like he doesn’t have anything to say – nothing that he hasn’t said before in slightly different ways.
CK: But how many stories has Drake had his entire career? No one respects me, he’s got a chip on his shoulder, he’s got his friends who he’ll hang out with and he’ll never forget, and he has problems with relationships – even before he had money from music that’s been his narrative. The relationship thing is troubling, but I don’t think it’s any more or less troubling than it has been on previous Drake albums.
LM: But the way he talked about relationships beforehand, I feel was very much… about groupies, or whatever, but on this album it’s so fucking bitter, some of the things he talks about. This unnamed, unmentionable slew of women who he sleeps with, apparently, and he’s so bitter about the fact that they have their own lives post-Drake.
JT: It’s bitter in a way that, say, 808s & Heartbreak isn’t. 808s had similar stories, but filled with regret for the fact that these people went and had their own lives while Kanye was still stuck in this cycle of fame. This comes across as the absolute opposite of that, it isn’t regret but resent. It’s interesting that it’s two similarly meteoritic characters who have quite similar personalities, but Kanye has the bad guy character for whatever reason, whereas Drake has this soft, nice guy image. But if you listen closely to the way that they talk about relationships and talk about their lives, it’s closer to the opposite of their public persona.
JM: There’s a surprising amount of crossover in the way that they talk about relationships, but where Yeezus came out with this kind of wham bam, endlessly brutal succession of digs, with Drake I find it as offensive but it’s the insidiousness of it that makes it worse. You know in American Pie, the one who joins the choir in order to get off with Mila Suvari? This feels like that but without the redemptive ending.
CR: Is there a redemptive ending to American Pie? I guess Drake just needs to get laid, then he’ll have his redemption.
JM: This feels like the album where the virulent, if not misogyny, then certainly objectification and one-track mindedness that he’s got… it’s where the sensitivity becomes crocodile tears.
LM: Another thing that I’m really struggling with is his flow? I know that sounds like a boring thing to talk about, but I can’t decide whether he’s trying so hard to sound like he’s trying hard, or whether he’s trying so hard to sound effortless, but I feel that there’s not as much cadence and melody and intrigue in his flow as he had on previous records. I think he’s trying so hard to prove that he’s now a rapper who made amazing r’n’b records and now he’s making the rap record, that his flow’s become really try-hard. It’s almost devoid of melody. It’s quite dull and forced.
JT: It sounds like he’s responding to critics who say he’s not a good rapper. On those early albums he wasn’t one, in a technical sense, but it’s kind of what made them good, and so addictive.
TL: He sounded so natural on them, too, whereas something like ‘Worst Behaviour’ here just feels really forced.
JM: I think some of that is a product of the fact that for the last year, in the public eye at least, he’s been having a succession of fairly regular guest spots – he’s been working as a short-form guest verse writer, and doing quite well at it, but now he’s come back to writing long-form – three, four minute structured songs – he’s struggling at it.
JT: Well in that case he’s part of a long lineage of rappers who study the craft so much that they become totally unlistenable, like Yelawolf. It seems like the more time he’s put into perfecting his craft, the less natural it’s become. You can hear rap tropes much more here, like ‘oh, I know where he picked that up from’, whereas on past albums even if something didn’t work it was more like ‘oh, well that’s Drake’s thing, that’s what he does’. Now it sounds like very specific, learned elements from the rap sphere are raising their head. I don’t know if you can criticise his flow – I mean he’s nailed those guest verses in the past year, he’s made them his own, ‘No New Friends’ may as well be a Drake track…
CK: There’s that line about “working like I have a twin”, and it’s true – him and 2 Chainz seem to have guested on every track released between their albums. But as Drake’s become more workmanlike and his flow’s become more laboured, it’s losing its emotion and its personality. He’s the opposite of Kanye again in that sense.
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JM: It feels a little bit like this is Drake’s Macbeth album. This is what happens when someone spends their life wanting power and trying to get there and not being qualified to do so or having a birthright to do so finally finds themself in the position of being the biggest star in the world and needing to live up to that. And I think this will potentially open cans of worms for other artists, it’s like the guy who shouldn’t be in charge is.
CR: He’s the Thane of Toronto?
TL: It’s all gone Breaking Bad.
JT: The Breaking Bad reference is pretty astute, we’ve seen his rise from famous to more famous – you know, started from the middle – and the façade has become more and more his persona, to the point where he’s actually living this disgusting, shiny, diamond-encrusted dream and he doesn’t know what to with it.
CK: I think there’s a self-awareness to it, though. We were talking earlier about him putting himself in the lineage of other rappers, and of hip-hop – does have any opinion on the ‘Mo Money, Mo Problems’ verse [which Drake appropriates on ‘Worst Behaviour’]?
TL: It’s probably most explicit on the Mase verse, but it feels like he’s got the hip-hop canon in the back of his mind throughout the album. Even in the album’s sequencing, it’s like he’s desperately trying to make a classic – it starts off seeming immaculately sequenced but then it just sinks under its own weight. He makes the Martin Scorsese comparison early on, which is actually quite apt in terms of what 40 does, but for an album that’s trying to be cinematic, and openly trying to be something you’ll remember a decade from now, it really does finish with a whimper. Not just the Jay Z verse, the whole thing kind of tails off.
CR: Content-wise, it’s pretty thin. We’ve said his flow’s improved but become less interesting, and he’s struggling for things to say – he can’t just talk about nothing and make it sound interesting, he’s not got that kind of lyrical ability. It’s too long, and it disappears without you even feeling like he’s said what he’s come to say. You’re not sure what it’s even about, in the way that you could say what Take Care was about.
TL: It’s also not that long – it just feels really long. That’s probably the most damning thing you could ever say about an album.
JT: It feels longer than Take Care, but it isn’t. The tracks feel more laboured as it goes on, which tends to make you want to go back to the beginning of the album rather than play the whole thing through, which is a really bad look for an album that purports to be very narrative-driven.
CK: Ending with ‘Pound Cake’ just leaves such a bad taste in your mouth, and then tacking on ‘Paris Morton Music 2’ at the end… they start to feel like bonus tracks that don’t need to be there.
CR: I think he’s chosen that as the closer because… you know, constantly having tracks that turn into other tracks, it’s this big cinematic idea – The Weeknd did it, Kendrick does it – but I don’t feel that he’s saying anything that ties one track to the next that’s particularly interesting.
CK: There’s that impressionist thing to it where from afar it has that tone, and that cinematic quality, but it doesn’t have the detail to back them up.
TL: Kendrick’s an interesting comparison that we’ve not talked about, because the way Drake approaches this album is a lot like Kendrick approached Good Kid, m.A.A.d. City. There’s a lot of that album which, on paper, could be a slog, but he’s interesting enough and fills the tracks with enough twists and enough detail to keep you listening.
JT: The difference with Kendrick’s record is that he had something very specific to say. He approached that album with a definite concept and a narrative, and throughout you find yourself listening to the lyrics because you’re interested in what he has to say. Whether or not what he was saying was true or not, that’s for a different conversation, but they were interesting stories and they were interestingly padded out. Whatever Drake’s narrative is here, he feels like he’s manipulated it for his own means, and it’s not interesting. It’s not gripping. It’s not interesting for anyone who isn’t there with him, that’s the problem.
CR: Compared to Kendrick, I mean I can’t relate to anything on Good Kid, m.A.A.d. City, it’s set in Compton, but I feel like I can relate to him, and the way he reacts to things, and I feel like I can get into his mind-space. With Drake, despite the fact that he’s from outside that traditional hip-hop background, I can’t relate to anything he’s saying.
TL: It’s telling that with the Kendrick album, he can start it with what’s on paper quite an down-beat track, with no hook, followed by a two minute skit before ‘Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe’ and you’re still listening. Drake starts this album with ‘Tuscan Leather’, which is a great track, but it sets a tone and a pace that he can’t keep up.
JT: I disagree with that, because I don’t think that’s the best track on the album. Drake makes a big deal about ‘Tuscan Leather’ being an amazing intro, and it is, but…
CR: He even acknowledges it during the song, you’re only two minutes into the album and he references that fact that you’re thinking ‘wow, long intro’. It’s like Drake, stop thinking about what other people are going to think about you all of the time!
JT: Isn’t that the essence of this album? His perception of other people’s perception of him. It comes back to the catalogue thing, all his characters are mannequins and he wants everything to be absolutely perfect. He wants you to walk through his rap Ikea and see everything as this motionless, lifeless void.
TL: In that sense is there more of a comparison to be made between this album and Magna Carta than there is Yeezus? He’s less obnoxious with it than Jay, but in the same way that Magna Carta is this horrific roll-call of reference points, from Picasso to Oceans Eleven, ‘Strange Fruit’ to Tom Ford, and it’s all given the same level of gravity, Drake wheels out Will Smith and Wu-Tang, this ‘90s canon that he’s now decided he’s in debt to. They might as well be Tuscan leather couches too.
CR: “Donate a million to some children, that’s just how I’m feeling”. Just any old children, Drake?
CK: There’s no detail, there’s nothing.
JT: That feels as false a statement as anything else on the album. But that’s what I love about Drake – this is an album that claims to be indebted to ‘90s rap that could never have been made in the ‘90s, when rap was 100% concerned with authenticity – you had to come from the right place, you had to know the right people, have the right background, and whether you made it up or not, it was harder to check up on. Authenticity was the key to success, whereas Drake’s inauthenticity is his own key to success, yet he’s referencing an era that he either doesn’t know about it… or at least, he can’t hold up against. And he addresses this, he’s said ‘this isn’t a hip-hop album, I don’t make real rap records’ or whatever. But here he’s made what he thinks can be construed as his most rap album yet, yet it’s also his most removed from what rap used to be. His hokey ‘90s references are even hokier when you have that in mind.
TL: There’s a lot to criticise, but it’s still half a good record.
JT: And it’s better than a hell of a lot of rap records this year. Maybe it’s not on the same level as Yeezus, which was completely unexpected where as this was entirely expected – this sounds like a Drake album, whereas Yeezus didn’t sound like a Kanye record, or much else at that. Maybe Death Grips, but that’s a conversation for another day. I think Drake is way more predictable than he would like to be seen as being.
TL: Again throughout Yeezus, despite all his obvious faults, I find myself rooting for Kanye. You get these American Psycho comparisons, but there’s no way that Kanye West could be a psychopath, even if he’d like to think he could. He can’t hold stuff back; he’s not got enough of a filter to be calculated, and that’s why I think Yeezus works. When you read about how he wrote the lyrics for the record, didn’t he do six tracks over a weekend? And some of the lines aren’t even by him, he just had this revolving cast of people throwing lyrics and suggestions into the mix.
JT: Yeah, King Louie wrote some of them.
TL: Right, this whole lyrical think tank which features fucking King Louie! But it works, they’re raw ideas that read like unfiltered thoughts, and they sound great. Drake has clearly overthought so much of this album, but it falls down in some really obvious, universal ways.
CR: I will not defend the Kanye record one inch, I think it’s ghastly, but at least it’s the sound of a guy who is ridiculously rich and ridiculously successful, and can do what the fuck he wants – so he does what the fuck he wants. Drake could do something equally weird, but he doesn’t.
JT: Drake wouldn’t do a record like Yeezus, because he always feels like he’s up against this cast of detractors. Whereas Kanye had the backpackers on his side, then he proved himself in pop – he’s got nothing to prove. He always has people talking shit about him, but they’re talking shit about his personality rather than his canon.
TL: He’s got that great combination of having nothing left to prove but also having burnt a shitload of bridges, so he just doesn’t care.
JT: Exactly, and Drake really cares – that’s the one thing that comes across here more than anything. He cares about what people think of him, and what people think about his music, and how it’s going to be remembered in the future. Kanye’s like ‘I made this in two weeks, this is punk, fuck it. If you like it you like it, if you don’t you don’t, radio’s not gonna play it – fuck you.’ Drake’s more like ‘well, radio’s not gonna play this… but they are, and sort of fuck you but I’d actually really like everyone to like this and I’d really like them to call it the greatest album ever.’
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