By now it’s clear that Drake’s Thank Me Later, which comes out today, is pretty much the most polarizing record in rap since Kanye West’s 808s & Heartbreaks–more so, even, since Kanye was a well-established and loved artist making his fourth record, where Drake, at 23, is a relative newcomer whose debut was presaging by an excellent mixtape, a Lil Wayne co-sign, and very little else. This, in fact, plays into the narrative his detractors have been steadily building for him–here’s a guy who is young, rich, and famous, who was so even before he turned to rapping, and yet all he does is complain. The sentiment–how can the record be interesting when he just moans about being rich and having sex with models?–shows up pretty much everywhere:
Our pal Jonah Weiner, in Slate:
In light of Drake’s background, the apparent smoothness and speed of his ascent is surprising. By contrast, Eminem spent years struggling for acceptance in the hip-hop clubs of Detroit, and Kanye West worked hard to convince label executives to sign a middle-class Midwesterner: “We all grew up street guys who had to do whatever we had to do to get by,” Jay-Z told Time in 2005, recalling his hesitation in signing West to Roc-A-Fella Records. “Then there’s Kanye, who to my knowledge has never hustled a day in his life. I didn’t see how it could work.”
And then later:
The music, by turns morose, frostbitten, and smoldering, sounds great, but the guy at the center of it all can be a tremendous bore. His central thesis remains the same–fame is a warping, isolating, addictive force–only instead of pushing past that (familiar) conceit and diving deeper into what it means to be a hip-hop star alienated from his own pleasure, Drake stays at surface level. Moments like the Western Union trip from “The Calm” are replaced with meaningless clichés, starting with the album’s very first lines: “Money just changed everything/ I wonder how life without it would go/ From the concrete, who knew that a flower would grow?”
Jeff Weiss, in the L.A. Times:
For most of the last decade, major-label rappers extolled the virtues of the “good life,” a sentiment best expressed by the Champagne-sipping Kanye West single of the same name. The vanguards of the next generation seem determined to convey the exact opposite: the perils of being young, gifted and miserable. This is the conflict at the core of 23-year-old Drake’s debut album, “Thank Me Later” — how to reconcile fame and fortune with the aggravations of living in the public eye… Unfortunately, the emotionally charged lyrics rarely evolve beyond platitudes, exposing a profound emptiness at its core.
Amos Barshad, Vulture:
For the album’s middle section, the question is still, “What is it like to suddenly and unexpectedly become a famous rap star?” but the answer goes from “it’s kind of weird” to “it’s awesome!” That’s not necessarily a bad thing — especially as T.I., Nicki Minaj (“Which bitch you know made a million off a mixtape”), Young Jeezy, and The-Dream (on standout, almost completely R&B track “Shut It Down”) all show up to help Drake party. But it’s not — at first listen, and definitely grading on a scale — an interesting thing, either.
You get the idea. Drake pushes the unconsciously rockist button inside critics–the one that puts an emphasis on authenticity, struggle, and unpolished talent. As Weiner quotes Jay-Z as saying about Kanye: “We all grew up street guys who had to do whatever we had to do to get by. Then there’s Kanye, who to my knowledge has never hustled a day in his life. I didn’t see how it could work.” Neither do a lot of rap fans, who hear a lot of ungrateful talk about the good life and are appalled that someone so lucky could be so ungracious about the whole thing.
Plus Drake’s signature style–he’s a better singer than a rapper, probably, and he does the former as much or more as the latter–signals an old-fashioned showman’s ability (the fact that he was a successful teenage actor doesn’t help with this impression) that jibes real badly with rap values that privilege the raw, the untrained, and the spontaneous (see also: the hue and cry that arose after Drake “freestyled” a verse he cribbed off of his Blackberry). Thus the Clipse can rap with the same singleminded fixation about selling coke that Drake applies to the vagaries of fame, and be lauded by the same audience that criticizes Drake for having only one subject.
And before someone counters by saying that it’s Drake’s narcissism–and not his singlemindedness–that’s really the problem, allow us to recollect that Jay-Z and Kanye have always been their own best subjects as well. But where both of those two rap about overcoming odds in order to attain success–even Ye, who ultimately didn’t have to go that far, except to convince the rap world that he wasn’t a total nerd–Drake raps about having made it and not wanting it anymore.
At stake is who’s realer. As Robert Christgau once wrote about another unconventional rap success, Eminem: “When hip-hoppers embrace this tired trope, the tendency is to throw up one’s hands–it’s a philosophical survival mechanism, who can blame them? But when cultural arbiters deploy it, keep your eye on the queen. The ninth-grade dropout is acceptable when he pulls himself up by his bootstraps, faces his demons, expresses himself, and so forth. But should he become a teen idol by mastering postmodern media theory and African trickster tradition at the same time–not that they’re so different–he’s a menace. That stuff is for the university certified, who can be trusted to keep kids away from it.” Similarly, you could say that when a rapper overcomes and writes “Juicy,” critics fall over themselves to fawn over him; when he makes it and writes “Fireworks,” or “The Resistance,” he’s fucking up the game.
Part of this is the pathological, back-of-the-classroom envy that has been the lot of the rock critic since there were rock critics. The only thing music nerds hate more than the popular kids, it turns out, are the popular kids who have the bad manners to not totally enjoy being popular. But let’s not pretend there is no artistic merit to Drake wandering into a fraternity–rap royalty–that only a few hundred people have attained, ever, and returning with dispatches that, in their honesty and feel for the texture of what that rarified life is like, are pretty much without precedent–a point Ryan Dombal gets at in his excellent Drake review at Pitchfork today. (And let’s admit, while we’re at it, that there are in fact major downsides to being 23 and famous and having your every move scrutinized, criticized, and dissected.) Like the similarly loathed Wes Anderson and Sofia Coppola, who have eloquently staked out the territory of upper-middle-class malaise in cinema, Drake’s done the same thing in rap. How much this bothers you probably depends on how much the upper-middle-class bothers you. But that’s your problem, not his.