On Tuesday, the Canadian rapper, singer, actor, and owl enthusiast Aubrey “Drake” Graham will officially release his third album, Nothing Was the Same. The album comes out on Drake’s own OVO Sound imprint (short for October’s Very Own, which sounds like a World Series commercial) and boasts a garish cover that suggests Ready to Die reimagined through a Lisa Frank Instagram filter. The music within is a brooding suite of piano-soaked beats, sure-footed flows, and auto-tuned feelings, and barring some sort of intergalactic disturbance, Nothing Was the Same will debut at No. 1 on the Billboard charts and begin an ascent into the upper echelons of many critics’ Album of the Year Lists. None of this will be unexpected and much of it will be deserved, because Drake has an undeniable knack for making very good music. He also has a knack for raising one of the great questions of our time, one that Nothing Was the Same leaves unanswered: Is it possible to love Drake’s music without actually liking Drake?
Drake is one of contemporary music’s most outsized figures, the saddest and funniest rapper in the game, beloved and despised in equal measure and sometimes in the same breath. His pouty, cuddly approachability has made him the subject of more memes than Grumpy Cat and Cocaine Bear combined. “Drake-ing Bad,” in which artist Shea Serrano draws Drake into scenes from Breaking Bad, is one of the best Tumblrs on the Internet, Drake’s agreeable visage relentlessly thrust into some of the most traumatic images of recent popular culture. His enormous success has also brought an uncomfortable cognitive dissonance to hip-hop, his singing, shoegazing vulnerability seemingly more Ian Curtis than Curtis Jackson or Kurtis Blow. Drake’s previous album, 2011’s Take Care, garnered Grammy Awards and critical raves but its best-remembered review was a rambling, savage, and hilariously profane screed by an Internet parody of Ghostface Killah. Last week a track from Nothing Was the Same called “Wu-Tang Forever” leaked online; it refashioned the Wu’s “It’s Yourz” into pillow talk and seemed equal parts tribute and high-concept troll. Twitter took the bait and responded with an #OVOTangClan hashtag, with entries including “Jimmy Jimmy Ya,” “Shaolin Gift Boxing,” and “Da Mystery of Drunk Texting.”
Hating Drake has become a fertile genre unto itself, a curious state of things given that he’s one of the most unique and probably significant musicians of his generation. He is a biracial Jewish Torontonian with a penchant for shooting music videos at re-bar mitzvahs and Canadian drugstore chains, and in his best moments he’s a gratuitously talented artist. “Hold On, We’re Going Home,” the second single off Nothing Was the Same that was produced by a previously unknown duo called Majid Jordan and released last month, is a hypnotic bit of throwback R&B that’s almost unrecognizably Drake. The list of other mainstream hip-hop stars capable of such genre-smashing starts and ends with Kanye West.
Of course, Drake is also definitively overexposed. Since being “discovered” by Lil Wayne after starring for seven seasons in the Canadian after-school drama Degrassi: The Next Generation, he’s appeared in Sprite commercials, Ice Age movies, much-discussed nightclub incidents, and LeBron James’ mom’s boyfriend’s iPhone camera. This wouldn’t be quite so objectionable except that Drake has mined considerable fame from his own bottomless zeal for complaining about how difficult it is to be famous, which in turn makes him more famous, and, well, you can see how this can get tiresome. It’s easy to picture the kid on the cover of Nothing Was the Same watching Winnie-the-Pooh cartoons, wishing Eeyore had a solo career.
The world is Drake’s; the world is Drake’s burden. The world is also Drake’s collective confidant, a condition that some find burdensome. The self-effacing confessional has long had a place in rap but rarely as an end in itself: For Biggie it was chiaroscuro shading in his sprawling noir, for Eminem the underside of cartoonish psychosis, for Kanye the straw figure against which to reassert his own greatness. As Hua Hsu noted in reviewing Take Care, real sadness creeps into hip-hop only fleetingly, and usually as an already-remedied condition (birthdays was the worst days …). Drake’s grievances are ever-present, and often mundane: There really are numerous lines on Nothing Was the Same about romantic misunderstandings via text message. Drake is a man of expensive discontents who also covets relatability, in ways that are both compelling and unseemly. No rapper has ever seemed so hungry for sympathy.
Much Drake hatred manifests in accusations that he and his music are soft, toothless, fake, and other less printable epithets that generally connote “inauthentic.” Drake comes from nothing resembling a traditional hip-hop background; just five years ago the most famous MC to come out of Ontario was still probably Tom Green. His history as a child star gives ammo to those who view him as a prefab celebutant, a hard-knock life in the warm embrace of The Industry.
And of course there’s a pronounced discomfort with male vulnerability—and its imagined, dreaded partner, female appeal—that comes from places far worse, and more vicious dismissals of Drake’s real-hip-hop gravitas are often barely concealed misogyny and homophobia. Last year Common accused Drake on record of being “sweet,” making “ho music” and “cling[ing] like a bitch” (to which Ghostface himself might respond: son). The implication that Drake’s music sucks because women might like it—and this incisive essay by Katherine St. Asaph puts strong emphasis on the “might”—is steeped in noxious gender paradigms that are admittedly softening but still have a ways to go (as the recent flare-up around Hot 97 DJ Mister Cee demonstrated). Drake has proved deft at deflecting these charges, albeit in terms that aren’t exactly dismantling gender authenticity constructs: “When my album drops, bitches’ll buy it for the picture / And n*ggas will buy it too and claim they got it for their sister,” he rapped on “Best I Ever Had,” the 2009 smash that marked his arrival as a superstar.
The irony of all these authenticity squabbles is that the last thing Drake seems to be is fake—my own problems with Drake don’t arise from doubting his realness or sincerity—they arise from not caring. As an artist Drake’s biggest problem remains his tendency toward a vain, dull literalness; in other words, an excess of “real.” Gruesome relationship autopsies like “Furthest Thing” (“girl don’t treat me like a stranger / girl you know I’ve seen you naked”) and “From Time” (“passive-aggressive when we’re texting / I feel the distance”) have a heavy-handed specificity that reflects poorly on Drake, and his opinion of his audience: How bored does he think we are? The standout tracks on Nothing Was the Same, on the other hand—and there are plenty, including “Tuscan Leather,” “Started From the Bottom,” “Hold On, We’re Going Home,” the sumptuous “Too Much”—boast a creative swagger and confidence that allow them to speak for themselves as great songs, as opposed to just impeccably scored episodes of Famous Drake Ponders The Mysteries of Female Agency. Aubrey Graham has some seriously remarkable music in him when he’s not busy converting his journal to audiobook.
There are really no bad tracks on Nothing Was the Same, and even in grating moments the album’s consistently gorgeous musical backdrops—offered up by Noah “40” Shebib, Boi-1da, Hudson Mohawke, and a host of other top-flight producers—are strong enough to stand on their own. But that’s a backhanded compliment. Three records into his career, Drake still seems invested in our knowing that he’s a better musician than he is a person, which as revelations go was never interesting in the first place. It’s a shame, since so much else about him is pretty revelatory, and if he spent a little less time pondering his own half-empty glass, he might find himself hanging out at his table with his candle and his owl and a few more friends. In the meantime, everyone who loves Drake and everyone who loves to hate him can take comfort knowing that Nothing Was the Same never quite follows through on its title.