“That was back in the days, Acura days,” Drake raps at the end of both verses of “Under Ground Kings.” It’s half of one of the most revealing couplets of Take Care, his masterful second album, and it’s a callback to his come-up, a transition in roles from Degrassi‘s Jimmy Brooks to a promising rookie rapper from Toronto.
You can see some of that in a segment from the MTV Cribs-style Degrassi Unscripted from 2004, which features a skinny, then-18-year-old Aubrey Graham tooling around in an Acura (“It’s a nice first car, for, like, a teenager, I guess”), sneaking forbidden chocolate to his grandmother, and putting his massive music collection, his many dog-eared rhyme books, and his nascent rap talents on display for the world to see. It’s goofy, sure, but it’s one of the formative documents of Drake’s stardom: He may seem like a silver spoon-fed product of entertainment industry nepotism, but he dreamed of rap stardom, and worked to be good enough to deserve it.
Take Care is more than proof that he is; it’s as good a rap album as 2011 has had.
Here, Drake has new flows (double-timed snippets throughout, a breathless delivery on “HYFR,” and a deliberately choppy three-bar stretch at the beginning of “We’ll Be Fine” that will be purloined by many a lesser rapper), ones that make his “I run that” declaration about flow a lot more believable. And he’s ditched the obvious hashtag-rap punchlines, more or less, which will get bylined and Twitter-based critics off his back. His best trick continues to be his understanding of melody, and his willingness to sound a little more sing-songy than most rappers to make a bar more indelible.
That strength also ties into his biggest limitation as a rapper—his over-reliance on multisyllabic end rhymes that usually run together a bunch of single-syllable words, which can be distracting. But while the battle rap aficionado knows that saying things he’s expected to say would be fatal in that arena, he subverts his tendency to avoid the predictable and makes accessibly rapped pop music for listeners to put on repeat. A slew of hooks that literally repeat phrases may not be a creative stretch, but they’ll be embedded in the collective consciousness of the young music-loving population by Thanksgiving.
There’s nothing on Take Care that would render an 18-year-old in an Acura unable to rap or sing along, but there’s quite a bit of sonic variety. Drake, who gets most of his production from fellow Torontonians, wisely uses longtime collaborator Noah “40” Shebib for watery, contemplative, downtempo tracks like “The Real Her” and “Over My Dead Body,” leans on T-Minus for “We’ll Be Fine” and “HYFR,” deploys The Weeknd as a wraith-like complement to his deeper thoughts, and gets one of the finest productions of the year out of Just Blaze on the bombastic “Lord Knows.”
Drake feat. Rihanna, “Take Care”
Drake’s something-for-everyone approach would seem like revolting pandering from a less self-assured artist—and, to be sure, there’s plenty to rankle purists, rockists, and authenticity experts here: the obscure samples for obscurity’s sake; the shout-outs to regionally significant artists that seem obligatory; the Rihanna-featuring, Jamie xx-produced title track that boils Gil Scott-Heron down to mumbling and will surely be a hit; and, perhaps most indefensibly, a comparison to late Oakland legend Mac Dre that completely misunderstands both his psychic value to the Bay and Drake’s own to Toronto. But this is Drake, an upper-middle-class rapper by choice who is full of contradictions and seemingly loved and loathed in equal measure: Someone probably considers those mentions paying tribute to heroes and touchstones, right?
Drake can make rappity-rap fans mad with elementary rhyming about skeletons over the glorious “Lord Knows” and toss kibble to them with stunning features from both Kendrick Lamar (who gets “Buried Alive” for himself, perhaps as informal compensation for Drake’s liberal borrowing from his cadences) and Andre 3000 (who laces “The Real Her” with one of the year’s best verses). Drake can infuriate feminist listeners with the savage relationship sabotage of “Marvins Room” and patronizing “Make Me Proud” while giving Nicki Minaj a platform for her own fierce feminism on “Proud” and sounding like a mature, regretful lover on the Stevie Wonder-assisted “Doing It Wrong,” a strikingly honest and mournful breakup song that is also remarkable because it is seemingly aimed at men.
Drake can insist that “showin’ emotion don’t ever mean I’m a pussy,” a remarkably progressive statement for a guy whose masculinity is constantly under assault because he has the audacity to consider women while making music, and then, in the next bar, undo some of that with the spiteful “Know that I don’t make music for niggas who don’t get pussy.” Drake can talk about putting on for his city, paying the legal bills for friends who would “catch a body” for him (Drake as gangsta/mafioso is authenticity trolling of the highest grade), and blowing millions on himself (“The Ride”) in the interest of sounding like a rapper, then rap over Chase N. Cashe’s mind-blowing sample of rehearsal footage from the late Static Major on “Look What You’ve Done,” include a voicemail from that same grandmother to whom he gave chocolate, and make it clear, with two narratives that are by turns beautiful and funny, that Take Care is named Take Care in part because Drake does that for those around him.
Drake is good, bad, up, down, in, out: Take Care is a carefully crafted bundle of contradictory sentiments from a conflicted rapper who explores his own neuroses in as compelling a manner as anyone not named Kanye West. (A couple of subliminal shots at Kanye indicate that Drake is well aware that he’s followed some of those footsteps.) But Drake is younger, more expansive, and less exhausted, and he has delivered an album that justifies his more blatant “I’m just feelin’ like the throne is for the takin’, watch me take it” boast from his summer smash “I’m On One.”
The second half of that “back in the days” bit? “I was a cold dude, I’m gettin’ back to my ways,” with the “ways” lilted to sound almost like a question. It’s rhetorical. Take Care is about answers, and no one in rap is surer of his positioning than Drake.