Thank Me Later
Publications as disparate as XXL, Pitchfork and the New York Times preemptively anointed Drake the next hip-hop superstar, always pointing out how odd it seems that a Jewish-Canadian biracial former child actor should be poised for rap stardom, but that's hardly the weirdest thing about this success story. Drake is missing a couple constitutive traits of the paradigmatic rap star: irrepressible charisma and tirelessly inventive wordplay. Drake's confounding lack of bravado is a relief and a problem: it's nice not having a whole album of boasts, but how should we evaluate the new kid if not by the standards that his forbears set? Most MCs constantly build on their own mythology, but Drake's persona is so unassuming and ephemeral that he forgets himself on the chorus of his lead single. Generous listeners may construe this as brilliant generic subversion, but emotional sincerity, so rare in rap, can't in itself sustain a whole record. Jay-Z says as much during his upstaging appearance on "Light Up": "Sorry momma I promised it wouldn't change me/but I would've went insane had I remained the same me." Drake's greatest challenge becomes how to make his earnest whining sound interesting, or at least not annoying and entitled.
Drake's debut, Thank Me Later, building on his massively successful 2009 mixtape So Far Gone, presupposes his inexplicable, apparently inevitable success. He strips himself of all pretense before even articulating any pretensions. When the soft-voiced 23-year-old isn't singing in a warm and often auto-tuned cry, he raps with a perfectly generic inflection and cadence, favoring love songs and mopey confessionals. The record resembles Kanye West's 808s and Heartbreak more than any conventional rap album, with slow jams, synthetic soundscapes and a couple upbeat songs. The outline of a performer that emerges is infinitely more relatable and subdued than what you get from Kanye, but it's hard to shake the feeling that Drake's disillusionment with fame lacks substance, like on "Cece's Interlude": "I wish I/wasn't famous/I wish I/was still in school." The lead single, "Over," stands out as the only track not shrouded in a synth-y fog; Drake relishes success over Boi-1da's string section-heavy, military drum-powered beat. But he remains chimerical even at his most boisterous. And this comes after the most subdued opening suite on any rap album in years, beginning with the misfiring first track "Fireworks," with its barely-there Alicia Keys assist and verses packed to bursting with cliches: "From the concrete, who knew that a flower would grow/looking down from the top and it's crowded below/my fifteen minutes started an hour ago."
Drake writes rhymes like he's double-parking, lazily pulling one term alongside the next and fleeing the scene. Before mentor Lil Wayne takes over on "Miss Me," Drake says embarrassing things like, "Nothing ever changes so tonight is like tomorrow night" and "Every time you see me I look like I hit the lotto twice." Thank Me Later doesn’t explain why Drake should be thanked, unless it's for rounding up a stellar group of producers. He continually proves he can't rap particularly well and only sings nice with studio help, and the sometimes-affecting weary superstar act loses traction long before the hourlong album closes with the subdued Timbaland-produced about-face "Thank Me Now." Mellow, textured beats like that one improve with multiple listens, and as more next generation MCs continue to push rap in new directions, maybe Drake will even start to sound better. Maybe his rise to fame will eventually make sense, and we'll end up thanking him later.