Kanye and Jay went to England and Paris to record Watch the Throne. Pitbull, Mr. 305 himself, found international love with a team of producers including Afrojack (Netherlands), David Guetta (again, France), Soulshock (Denmark), and RedOne (Sweden via Morocco). Drake, meanwhile, toured through America, jumping seamlessly from place to place and style to style, the way only an outsider can. On “The Motto,” a Take Care bonus track and the album’s second single, the Toronto rapper takes a victory lap, surveying the land that’s now his and reporting back to the folks in Canada. In New York, Spanish girls love him like bachata legends Aventura; he goes down to Miami and says what’s up to bass OG Uncle Luke; he catches a red-eye to Oakland and quotes Mac Dre, the departed rapper whose mother gives her blessing to rap’s new golden boy in the song’s attendant video.
But that’s Drake: In 2011, he acted as rap’s “connective tissue,” as The New York Times‘s Jon Caramanica put it, tying together an increasingly fragmenting genre. Were you bickin’ back, bein’ bool to Waka Flocka Flame’s DuFlocka Rant (10 Toes Down)? Then you probably heard Drake join its head-banging hero on “Round of Applause.” Finally come around on L.A.’s left-field Black Hippy crew? Drake recruited their Kendrick Lamar for Take Care‘s breathtaking interlude “Buried Alive,” the track that sets the stage for Drake’s memorable account of entering the rap game, “Look What You’ve Done.”
And he wasn’t only connecting the hip-hop dots. More into house? Try Take Care‘s title track. Indie? I hope you didn’t sleep on his remix of Lykke Li’s “Little Bit.” Still listening to those old Gil Scott-Heron LPs? Again, the title track. OK, he doesn’t seem to have given the Jason Aldean album too many spins, but based on the record’s zero votes, he surely wasn’t the only one.
Still, with this convergence of genres and styles, Take Care is a great album, rather than a merely good or interesting one, because it manages to be something other than the sum of its many parts. Rather than the master auteur carefully picking from this and that to create his beautiful, dark, twisted whole, Take Care is the work of a rapper who will always be a fan first, still unable to get over that time Wayne called, less drawing from his influences than drawn to them.
At times, the results startle (see the aforementioned Jamie xx–produced Rihanna duet “Take Care,” a track that weaves 50-year-old blues lyrics spoken by a 60-year-old man, through verses sung by two performers in their early twenties and a descending, four-chord piano riff), but they can also be painfully awkward. “Practice,” for instance, finds the Cash Money heir rapping over a slowed sample of Juvenile’s irresistible “Back That Azz Up.” He’s seduced by its uptempo bounce rhythm and promise of consequence-free good times but too self-conscious to go all the way with it, cooing the hook in a way that’s as creepy as it is compelling.
And yet, if we’re talking creeps, few in 2011 outdid the Weeknd’s Abel Tesfaye, the Toronto singer who rose from obscurity, if not his drugged-out, reverb-embedded haze, with a trilogy of increasingly uncomfortable mixtapes: House of Balloons, Thursday, and Echoes of Silence. The best remains the first, its nine self- and world-loathing tracks hitting with an immediacy that the more atmospheric follow-ups lacked.
To this listener, the Weeknd immediately recalled Mark Fisher’s notion of “depressive hedonia,” a condition characterized not by “an inability to get pleasure so much as an ability to do anything else except pursue pleasure.” Only here, depressive hedonia had been carried to its only possible outcome: bare depression. Thursday‘s title track is the negative of Cherrelle’s joyous “Saturday Love”; Tesfaye is on a seven-day loop-the-loop, pursuing pleasure with a different sexual partner for each night of the week and no happier for it.
Of course, this music—occurring in the space between rap and R&B, self-reflexive and no less narcissistic for it, bummed out—is not without antecedents. Kanye West’s 2008 808s & Heartbreak provides an obvious touchstone in particular for Drake, who shares West’s desire for what TV therapists call personal growth. Further, “Pinocchio Story,” the live, rambling meditation on fame and happiness that closes 808s, sets the stage for the live recording of the Drake-featuring “Successful” that closes Trey Songz’s 2009 Anticipation mixtape, its similarly bleak juxtaposition of the desire for fame and notoriety’s diminishing returns ultimately providing the template for much of Take Care. Then again, it’s often tempting to view both artists’ entire body of work as a single extended riff on the Miracles’ “The Tracks of My Tears.” (Compare, for instance, Smokey Robinson’s “Although she may be cute/She’s just a substitute/Because you’re the permanent one” to Drake’s more frank “I’ve had sex four times this week/I’ll explain.”)
Yet I remain unable to shake the idea that these two artists are in fact doing something new, something inseparable from and crucial to our current cultural moment. The problems they articulate—the struggle for authentic human relationships; the ultimately fruitless search for pleasure through money, drugs, and women; the way that the women in this world they so carefully present rarely exist as more than a means for achieving that pleasure; Kendrick Lamar’s obscurity—loom large for the generation that Drake speaks for on tracks like “Doing It Wrong.”
Drake and the Weeknd don’t solve these problems, all of which extend far beyond Billboard and MediaFire. They do, however, treat them as catalysts for both themselves and their music, refusing—perhaps unable—to remove themselves from the spectacle and critique safely from the sidelines. In doing so, they make few pretenses about the contradictions on which their music is based—in fact, they revel in them, creating a new starting point from which that generation (of both artists and listeners) might proceed.