At this stage in his career it’s hard to believe Aubrey Drake Graham was once a mild-mannered, mildly popular teen actor. The unassuming boy who strolled through the halls of Degrassi High became a lonely, self-absorbed and confused man with promising musical talent. Drake inarguably shook the rap game for years to come by building the navel-gazing, Auto-Tuned foundation of Kanye West’s 808s & Heartbreak into a radio-ready amalgamation of Southern rap and indie R&B music. His ambition (or really, narcissism) led to several albums diverse in sound, revealing in subject matter and frustrating in consistency. No matter the project, it seems just as Drake’s nimble flow and smooth croon starts to mesh with all the lavish beats he’s given, he drops the ball by taking a jarring stylistic turn or dragging out a weak idea far beyond its shelf life. And Nothing Was the Same is just the same in that regard.
All Drake albums begin with a breakdown of where the artist is in his career so far, and “Tuscan Leather” is appropriately representative of the album at large. Longtime producer and collaborator Noah “40” Shebib chops a nearly unrecognizable sample of Whitney Houston’s “I Have Nothing” into three separate beats, leaving Drake to spill his guts over the 6-minute track. Whitney’s chipmunk vocals screech away in the background as ominous basslines seesaw through jittery drum patterns. There are moments of greatness here—especially in the speaker-knocking second section, which will be remixed by countless rappers if there’s any justice in the world—but the track never really comes together as a whole. It’s as if the shifts in dynamic throw off even Drake himself, who raps off the beat in order to fit a clumsy reference to lead off single “Started from the Bottom”.
“Tuscan Leather” may not be the strongest way to start things off but “Furthest Thing” is a definitive track. Seamlessly blending pianos in reverse with uptempo drums, the tight fusion of styles perfectly suits Drake’s Auto-Tuned, sing-song raps. It’s a simple, gorgeous mediation on the unavoidable distance between yourself and the ones you knew before fame hit, even when you feel nothing’s really changed. Yet the beat shifts to a classic soul sample by the last verse, and “on the low” is removed from the song’s chorus so we’re left with a chopped-and-screwed “Drinkin’, smokin’, fuckin’, plottin’, schemin’, plottin’, schemin’, gettin’ money” to end the track. It’s a curious change of context emblematic of Drake’s conflicted feelings on fame. “On the low” implies guilt or shame, only to be eradicated by another appeal at hip-hop cred. He wants to celebrate because it’s what you’re supposed to do, even as the process kills a part of his conscience he once valued.
Every time Drake gets closer to exposing the root of his troubles, he rebounds with a feeble ode to one of his numerous lady friends, or worse, a party-ready club anthem. The more female-centric tracks are all over the place: “From Time” benefits greatly from a lovely Jhené Aiko feature as she consoles Drake through a sincere rumination on selfishness, true love and family matters, while the smash hit “Hold On We’re Going Home” refines Drake’s pop formula to a glossy, romantic sheen with help from Majid Jordan. Unfortunately, “Wu-Tang Forever,” “Own It” and “Connect” outstay their welcome, whether it be through repetition, tempo or length. These type of tracks live or die by track sequencing yet Drake managed to learn very little from the haphazard assembly of his last album, 2011’s Take Care.
Some things have changed, of course, and the party-ready club anthems on Nothing Was the Same sound lonelier and more jarring than ever before. “Started from the Bottom” — reviewed on Pop-Break earlier in the year — could have been a failure but its sinister piano sample is cleverly matched to Drake’s detached, hypnotic drawl. “Worst Behavior” explores repetition less successfully, as the rapper yells “Muhfuckas never loved us!” over and over and over again in response to a warbling vocal sample and little else. The way his voice echoes into the ether after each repetition of “Remember? Muhfucka?” sounds like he’s in a vast chamber filled with his personal fortune and not much else. The production is enthralling, the subject matter tiresome, and once Drake actually gets to rapping it’s in tribute to “Mo Money, Mo Problems”. It would have been nice to hear him drop an original flow with actual lyrics over such a spaz-worthy backing track, but no.
If that wasn’t frustrating enough, the transition from “The Language” into “305 to My City” is a low point for Nothing Was the Same and maybe Drake’s career altogether. The former finds Drake shamelessly stealing Migos’ “Versace” flow for a forgettable brag rap punctuated with a throwaway guest appearance by Birdman (seriously, that guy still spits?) The latter is a woozy, off-putting tribute to one of Drake’s favorite strippers. It manages to repeat the phrase “I get it, I get it” no less than 15 times, and Detail’s sloppy hook does little else but drive the point home further. We get it, Drake: you like strippers and you can relate to their hustle, but why waste an entire track on a theme you’ve explored ad nauseum already?
Especially when the following track is “Too Much,” a high point for Nothing Was the Same and maybe Drake’s career altogether. Seriously. Sampha better win a Grammy or something for his contributions because the hook is so heartbreaking, so melodic, so perfectly paired to Drake’s stress-filled confessions. This song delivers on the popularity of Drake’s earlier oversharing on So Far Gone, the type of stuff that made him so loved and hated in the first place, but with a more organic and soulful vibe. His flow is on point, too, with a breezier rhythm to contrast the emotional weight of his bars:
“Someone go tell Noel to get the Backwoods
Money got my whole family going backwards
No dinners, no holidays, no nothing
There’s issues at hand that we’re not discussing
I did not sign up for this
My uncle used to have all these things on his bucket list
And now he’s acting like, oh, well, this is life, I guess, ‘Nah, fuck that shit
Listen man, you can still do what you wanna do, you gotta trust that shit'”
The theme of communication breakdown runs rampant on Nothing Was the Same. It’s lurking around corners on “Connect”, front and center on “From Time” and defended as a life choice on album closer “Paris Morton Music 2”. Yet communication breakdown is most evident in what this album has to say about Drake as an artist. There is precious little cohesion to tie the varying bits of influences, sounds and subject matter together into an artistic statement. While the production is on point, the diversity intriguing and Drake still proves himself a capable rapper and singer, one can’t help but walk away from Nothing Was the Same feeling like the man himself: exhausted, eager for a change of pace and more than a little confused.
3 / 5 stars