By Randy Wagstaff
“What is happiness? It’s a moment before you need more happiness.” — Don Draper
This may seem like a bit of a stretch, but Drake and Don have a lot in common, not because of their alliterative pairing, but because of their constructed identities. Both men once underwent a fundamental change necessary for their future success. On So Far Gone and Thank Me Later, Drake struggles with this change, wondering if it’s worth it or if he’ll ever get all the success he’s been chasing; on Take Care, he finally begins to embrace it: “And really, I think I like who I’m becoming.” His newest album Nothing Was The Same is the completion of this metamorphosis, the shedding of the final layer: the past.
Listening to the album is a struggle, not just in terms of trying not to call up past loves and write poems about ruined relationships, but a struggle to do what comes most natural while listening to Drake: drape yourself in a snuggie, sip a half-empty glass of Courvoisier and watch the rain hit the pavement. There is enjoyment to be had on songs like “Hold On We’re Going Home,” but most of the album is filled with a double-Drake dose of untamed anxiety and cringe worthy honesty. The album is so cynical and passive-aggressive (maybe just aggressive), that if you listen closely, you can actually hear yourself writing an ill-spirited Facebook status about your family. If Take Care’s nostalgia called for a tall glass of Chardonnay and an old yearbook, NWTS’s calls for a box of wine and all your old diaries, the contents of which are to be published on your Tumblr just to get them all off your chest.
The album’s cover is innocent, too innocent, as if to say, after this album, that boy is gone forever. Like Jerry Seinfeld retiring his long-time act with his “I’m Telling You For The Last Time” special, Nothing Was The Same is Drake’s way of putting the past behind him; here, he is finally unburdening himself of his Dick Whitman. He is airing laundry, naming names, and burning bridges.
“I’m ‘bout to roll one and light it and fuck it, man, no one’s invited,” Drake raps on “The Language,” setting the scene for the stony isolation of NWTS. Calling this album pensive would be like saying Miley Cyrus’ persona has subtly transformed over the last five years. On Take Care, Drake was pensive; on NWTS, he is determined, unfeeling, and detached, calling out family members and past girlfriends as matter-of-factly as introducing another act to the stage. “I’ve been dealing with my dad, speaking of lack of patience/Just me and my old man getting back to basics/We’ve been talking ‘bout the future and time that was wasted/When he put the bottle down, girl, that nigga’s amazing,” he raps on “From Time,” a song where the entire second verse is dedicated to “muses that inspired the music,” from Porscha to Summer to Bria to the woman Drake says he’s always wanted, Courtney from the Hooters on Peachtree.
“Tuscan Leather,” the over six minutes long intro, is beautifully produced by Noah “40” Shebib, Drake’s long-time producer, who flips a sample of Whitney Houston’s “I Have Nothing,” which, paired with Drake confessing “I dropped the ball on some personal shit, I need to embrace it,” is particularly affecting. But the complexity of the production more or less ends where it started, as the rest of the album sees 40 at his most minimalist. The album has a grand isolation to it, like it was recorded in Jay Gatsby’s manor, with 40 playing the part of the live-in piano player: He’s there, but not to be noticed. The detached aesthetic is even reflected in the fact that there are almost no features on the record apart from Jay-Z’s appearance on “Pound Cake.” “You know it’s real when your latest nights are your greatest nights,” Drake boasts on Take Care‘s last track, but on NWTS, late nights are spent walking through an empty house filled with “no new friends.” The past is broken; the present is lonely; the future is uncertain.
Drake wants to burn the past with NWTS, and like one of the song titles suggests, he’s on his “Worst Behaviour.” This is the song equivalent to crying on your bathroom floor, holding a bottle of Hennessy in one hand, and your cell phone in the other. Drake curses repeatedly, obsessing over the same lines like drunken mantras and ranting to what seems like no one in particular as if this cleanse has been years in the making. “Wu-Tang Forever” and “Own It,” which could very well have been released as one long song, sample Wu-Tang’s “It’s Yourz” nostalgically, as if to remind Drake of his emotional state in the late 90s. “Own It” sounds like it could just as well have been recorded on the answering machine in “Marvin’s Room,” but, unlike on Take Care, Drake doesn’t come off as vulnerable, but as pitiless and resigned.
The most affecting song is perhaps “Too Much,” which features a haunting hook from Sympha, who sounds like he’s in actual agony by the time he hits his falsetto. This is NWTS’s version of “Look What You’ve Done,” but instead of thanking his family, Drake is calling them out (so much so that he pre-emptively apologized before performing this on Jimmy Fallon). The “it’s lonely at the top” feeling is never more prominent than on “Too Much,” where Drake admits to being “stuck in the house” and to feeling isolated from his family: “And all my family from the M-town that I’ve been ‘round started treating me like I’m ‘him’ now/Like we don’t know each other, we ain’t grow together, we just friends now/Shit got me feeling pinned down, pick the pen up or put the pen down/I’m writing to you from a distance like a pen pal.” It’s songs like these that put party anthems like “Started From The Bottom” and “Hold On We‘re Going Home” into perspective and make you wonder if Drake is either reminiscing fondly about “the bottom” or if he’s looking to shed those memories for good by publicizing them on NWTS.
NWTS is as Drake-y as an album can get, there’s no denying that, and no one can make a Drake record better than the man himself. Some listeners might find the gloomy synthesizers of Drake’s hush-pop too familiar by this point in his career, expecting instead an album filled with Versace verses and a Molly-laced Bar Mitzvah cake. Those listeners will be disappointed, because NWTS is only interested in “new” in the context of burning the “old.” This record is Drake throwing his photo-albums in the trash, using up his material so that he can never use it again. If he does, it will be boring and predictable; for now, it’s exactly what we wanted to hear.