Room For Improvement / Comeback Season / Born Successful / Born Successful Vol. 2

(Self-released / Self-released / Tapemasters Inc / Tapemasters Inc; 2006 / 2007 / 2009 / 2009)

By Calum Marsh | 20 January 2010

I began paying attention to Drake a little over a month ago, when downloading So Far Gone confirmed for me Clay’s assertion that one of the year’s best hip hop albums was the product of one of its least likely superstars, and yet I’ve already developed an obsession. What began as surprise that Drake could be so good has become disbelief that I could have doubted him; I now regret only that I dismissed this for so long. Because this isn’t a “guilty pleasure,” at least not in the traditional sense. Yes, Drake is outwardly embarrassing, insofar as he is, in Clay’s words, “sorta pretty, long-coat-wearing, sub-Ne-Yo looking in a prepackaged sort of disgusting way,” and because his most popular singles, “Best I Ever Had” and the star-laden “Forever,” are also the least indicative of what makes Drake so otherwise appealing. But these pleasures aren’t guilty because guilt implies an admission of some essential badness; ascribing the term to something you like is just an easy way of excusing your critical faculties from having to defend it. Here badness is superficial and vapidity is misleading—“Forever” as a one-off is dumb, sure, like a lot of great pop music can be, but So Far Gone itself is smart. Both sides of Drake are good, one just seems to require fewer excuses.

I’d heard “Forever” before I discovered the mixtape, and what quickly endeared me to So Far Gone was how unlike that single it was: I’d anticipated the horns and hollers of pop-rap, but what I got sounded more like Third (2008) than anything mainstream. Though a mixtape, it felt like an album, which is to say that it was a cohesive, cogent whole that was about something. In short, it seemed to posit itself as the thinking-man’s pop music. And it was immensely satisfying: the upbeat stuff hit hard, the more contemplative material resonated, and when it wrapped up it just felt good to hit play again.

Such ravenous fandom requires further satisfaction, and so after three straight weeks of living with So Far Gone, it was time to explore Drake’s back catalog. Released in early 2006, his debut Room For Improvement seems to evoke Justin Timberlake’s Justified (2002) and, in certain respects, anticipate the forthcoming Futuresex/Lovesounds (2007), though he falls considerably short of both. It’s a rough, wildly inconsistent effort that shows considerable promise, but it suffers from a shortage of solid beats and original ideas. “City is Mine” and “Do What You Do,” the two strongest cuts, make clear Drake’s competency as a straight-up rapper, but what’s sorely missing is So Far Gone‘s most important quality: Drake doesn’t yet have anything interesting to say. Room is rewarding primarily as biography, as a snapshot of still-gestating talent—it’s of interest to fans, but it’s unlikely to convert any.

Comeback Season (2007), by contrast, preaches to more than the already converted. It’s a considerably livelier affair than So Far Gone, likely because that record’s disillusionment is the product of a success he’d only just begun to reach, and though considered melancholy suits him better than earnest enthusiasm, Drake wears his yet-untainted swagger well. The bulk of this material sees Drake anticipating his future stardom, which might smack of hubris except that, hey, he’s right, and he has such a knack for one-liners that even the smarmiest punchlines work. Though the beats lack the distinctiveness of So Far Gone‘s post-808s & Heartbreak (2008) minimalism—there he works on “Say You Will”; here he deigns for “Barry Bonds”—they mostly land on the fun side of garish. Room For Improvement‘s “City is Mine” and “Do What You Do” both return here in beefed-up form. The latter now boasts a verse from Malice, a gesture that seems to hint, in hindsight, at the kinds of presumptuous, high-profile guestspots Drake now rolls out wherever possible. And that’s what this is all about, yet again: Comeback Season is leagues better than its predecessor, but through the lens of Drake fandom it’s just another satisfying chapter in the history of So Far Gone.

What does one do when the official history has been exhausted? Fortunately, in response to what I can only assume is an overwhelming demand on the part of Drake’s ever-growing fanbase, two unofficial and entirely unauthorized mixtapes, Born Successful and a sequel, Born Successful Vol. 2, leaked out from some obscure internet orifice late last year. As sprawling, spotty collections of non-album singles, remixes, and other oddities of dubious origin, it should be made clear that the Born Successful mixtapes are made with only Drake completists in mind. I suppose their draw is in bringing the biggest singles on which Drake is prominently featured—from Mary J Blige’s “The One” to Jamie Foxx’s “Digital Girl”—together in one place, though the value of doing so seems largely undermined by the obnoxious “signature” interjections which book-end nearly every track. Of marginally more interest are some of the Tapemasters Inc’s original remixes and alternate cuts, which typically see older Drake verses cut up, reorganized, and grafted atop another popular beat. These experiments can be pretty hit or miss: “Run This Town” sounds great spliced with Drake’s “Swagga Like Us” freestyle, but their use of Young Jeezy’s “Put On” just doesn’t mesh.

Thank Me Later is still a few months away, and the Tapemasters mixes, though inconsistent, offer more new Drake material than the avid fan is liable to find anywhere else. That’s enough for me. It’s never clear exactly how long these sorts of pop obsessions are going to last, but while they do they’re terrific fun. And pop stars make it so easy: easy to engage with, easy to hum and to make your ring tone and to make silly references to. I’ve had many of these little obsessions and I’ll surely have many more. But right now Drake seems like the best I’ve ever had.

:: myspace.com/thisisdrake