*** (1/2) out of 4
Aubrey, Aubrey, Aubrey. What now? You've gone from "Degrassi" to Cash Money to stardom. "Nothing Was The Same" is a showcase of a man who has legit traveled the road from the screen to the stage to the ... well, still a stage. His mammoth smash, "Started From The Bottom" (and it's BS to say he didn't really come "from the bottom," like being a former child actor from a middle-class upbringing is an opulent lifestyle worthy of jealousy,) has brought us to this, his third-full length album.
Drake has carved himself an interesting lane in the current music business by providing an open look at what most pop artists (ESPECIALLY rappers) fear most: relatability. For all his success and materialism, Drake is maybe one failed mixtape from having been one of those guys at the club every weekend, using bottle service as a fill-in for a personality. You find glimpses of this on songs like "305 to the World," where he morphs into a chest-thumping, [bleep]-talking rapper archetype that just doesn't fit. Drake has the ability for balance between passion and anthems all over his catalog, but hasn't quite fit this into his own work.
On a positive note, "NWTS" cements the fact that Drake probably is the best curator of differing rap styles since Jay-Z circa `98, and that versatility gives him a Teflon-like ability to avoid being confined to one style and flow. Taking cues from the Atlanta group Migos (whose "Versace" he brought to the mainstream) on "The Language" and using "Wu-Tang Forever" (not a song about the 1997 double disc, sadly) as a stage for his best Raekwon impression, you get the sense that Drake is a bit of a rap nerd. There's a sprinkling of random Houston rap style here, appreciation of the history of Cash Money Records there -- like Easter eggs hidden in a comic-book movie.
We can't speak about Drake without mentioning how he talks about relationships. Drake loves him some love, and it can be argued that his greatest work is created when he rhymes/croons/whines about it. It's in this arena, one of vulnerable honesty supplicated with faux braggadocio, that he stands above his peers -- for better or worse. We may call him softer than a loaf of Wonder Bread at the bottom of the ocean, but whose lyrics are you tweeting and texting when longing for a past love or trying to initiate a new one?
Production-wise, this is a "smaller" record than "Take Care." It's as if Drake and 40 (his chief creative cohort) moved into a new place and went for a minimalist approach to avoid attracting attention from the neighbors. Usual contributors like Boi-1da provide great work, if less gaudy than previous efforts. No complaints on this end.
As far as features, the album follows a loose tradition of having little to no backup as far as co-stars are concerned. Besides Jhene Aiko's heavenly interpretation as Drake's love interest on "From Time," there isn't much to show for a return investment on the time Drake spent on everyone else's songs the past few years.
(I'd be remiss if I didn't mention Birdman's atrocious work on "The Language." The guy isn't going to drop a lyrical masterpiece, but it sounds like he had to turn in a verse in 20 minutes and just named a bunch of things he saw on the ride to the studio. Here's the entirety of Birdman's feature: "Showtime, headlines/Big time, sunshine, tote nines/Bust mines, flatline, hard grind/High life, stay fly as jet time." Yuuup.)
So what's the final word on this album? Expect to be bummed out. Expect to get inspired. Expect to long for the days of AIM (this album has no fewer than 40 G.O.A.T. away message contenders) All in all, expect to be entertained. That, at least, is the same.
In concert: Oct. 9 at the United Center
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