On "The Calm" we get further into Drake's inability to fully enjoy himself: He describes visiting a Western Union to wire money to his father, who has apparently fallen on hard times, even as Drake's stable of luxury cars expands. To be sure, driving a Range Rover to a nightclub stocked with "pretty, light-skinned models" isn't the easiest predicament to sympathize with, but it's to Drake's credit that throughout So Far Gone he isn't asking for sympathy, exactly, so much as sliding bitter notes of alienation into what would otherwise be routine tales of hedonism—sometimes, in fact, these laments do double-duty as boasts: Oh, Drake seems to be saying, you woke up next to three girls, couldn't remember their names and thought it was really cool? Well, I do the same thing except it fills me with a profound malaise. He's a post-playa.
But this can be a game of diminishing returns. Go back to the party-pooper well too often and a) you come off as one-note and b) your listeners will soon tire of hearing you whine about all the great times they weren't invited to in the first place. This is Drake's challenge on Thank Me Later and, as the album demonstrates, he hasn't quite figured out how best to tackle it.
Thank Me Later is full of songs that revisit the same terrain Drake navigated with more verve and insight on So Far Gone. 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?" Throughout, Drake's breath-of-fresh-air sensitivity campaign congeals into shtick—on "Cece's Interlude" he actually sings, "I wish I! Wasn't famous!" Too frequently, the album is the story of a dynamic artist reducing himself to a type.
There are some flashes of greatness. "Shut It Down," which features the effortlessly entertaining R&B singer The-Dream, lives in the moment where desire becomes excruciating, expanding a passing ripple of across-the-party longing into a seven-minute, minor-key epic. "Light Up" is an indignant kiss-off to haters, though it derives most of its power from a brutal Jay-Z cameo. And in the context of Drake's hand-wringing, it's refreshing to hear him at his most bluntly boastful. On "Up All Night," Drake puns on the word stunt, roughly hip-hop slang for flaunt: "I'm busy getting rich, I don't want trouble/ I made enough for two niggas, boy: stunt double."
The problem is that throughout the album Drake drains his palette of virtually any color besides gray. There is a great, unlikely rhyme to be written about Canadian child stardom, or Yom Kippur, or about any of the other anomalies on Drake's C.V., but he doesn't go there. Perhaps the commercial expectations that attach to an official debut pushed him in more conventional directions. But after spending an hour in the company of Thank Me Later, you might be surprised at how little you've learned about him. A first album is a strange place to run out of ideas.