Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Review: Drake - Thank Me Later

Drake has a lot on his mind. He tells us all the time. I guess it's understandable when a year ago the boldest font on his curriculum vitae was playing a half-Jewish half-black paraplegic on a Canadian tween soap. It was about this time last year when he released his So Far Gone mixtape, and the fuse on his career was ignited. The free mixtape spurred 2 hit singles which his label despicably repackaged as the "So Far Gone" EP in a desperate attempt to hitch a wagon to his star. In the wave of publicity that has followed, it's hard to tell exactly where Drake lies on his career trajectory, a scary thought when you have yet to release your debut album. It is this pressure that Drake surely felt while recording this album, and is in large part responsible for the air of melancholy that hangs over the album.

Drake is a unique talent, one who with the chops to write serviceable verses and savvy enough to carry the melodies himself, making guest spots more of a luxury than a requirement. Most hip-hop artists contract out their hooks to someone like Usher, The Dream, or some other R&B Casanova to bring the swoon. The verses are for snarling and posturing. When you try and play both parts yourself, you toe a very fine line and run the risk of failing at both. With Drakes inconsistent cadence bleeding verse to chorus, the transition can make the verses sound lazy and the hooks insincere. Perhaps this is the root of Drake's frustration, trying to be everything to everyone, even on his own record.

If I'm harsh, it's only because I am as guilty as all the others anointing Drake as hip-hop's next superstar, inflating his ego but secretly hoping he remains humble enough to take criticism and improve. As Drake rhymes on the closing "Thank Me Later", "And that's about the time your idols become your rivals/You make friends with Mike but gotta AI him for your survival/ I swear sports and music are so synonymous/we wanna be them, and they wanna be us." This realization is proof positive that Drake is well aware that he could easily become the next Kwame Brown if he isn't careful. Perhaps this is why Thank Me Later is such a hip-hop Dream Team of guest spots. If we aren't going to keep Drake honest, maybe Jay-Z and Lil Wayne will.

It's no coincidence that the strongest run of songs begins with Nicki Minaj's guest verse on "Up All Night", carrying through T.I.'s ferocious verse on the exceptional "Fancy" straight into Wayne's spot on "Miss Me". All of these songs allow Drake to relax into the background a bit and catch his breath, allowing behemoths like The Dream to carry the hook for a while or letting Jay-Z round out a verse. When Drake is left to his own devices on the first and last sections of the album, he struggles to shake off his inner mope, instead opting to wade through the melancholy and the slow burn of a lonely snare drum. Drake is talented, but no one could make a good song out of the embarrassing components of Cece's interlude. Some hazy synths, a squiggly smoky guitar solo and Drake singing "I wish I wasn't famous". Oh boo-hoo Drake, something about this rings false when you were boasting about said fact two songs ago. We understand you are coming to grips with the trappings of fame, but try and meet us halfway like you do on the sensational Shut It Down, Thank Me Later's "Lovestoned" and anchor, an anthemic stroll that wends through interludes and a giant hook that Drake and The Dream take turns with.

I guess the bigger question at hand is where does Drake go from here? When you work with the biggest artists in the business on your first record, sign million dollar endorsement deals and have your pick of any 18-32 year old woman in America, what else is left? If your first piece of art was helping Michelangelo paint the Sistine Chapel, how can you go back to watercoloring? If your first at bat was a World Series walk-off home run, why go back to Spring Training? Considering that Drake is barely 23 and already plunging existential depths, who can say where the next 5 years may take him. While I can't speculate on what he will do, for now he should take a Xanax and enjoy himself. He has the rest of his life to look over his shoulder.

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