(Young Money; 2011)
By Calum Marsh | 26 November 2011
Aubrey Drake Graham and I were born exactly one month apart, on the 24th day of September and October, respectively, in the fall of 1986. I mention this not because I believe I share some sort of special bond with Drake, nor because I believe we’re even particularly similar people. I don’t even really know the guy; all I know of Drake are a few press pictures, a sun-baked summer festival gig, the occasional half-seen Degrassi rerun, and at least three mixtapes’ and two albums’ worth of his music, which I unabashedly love. But being an ardent Drake fan makes you first and foremost a Drake defender, and nobody feels comfortable being backed into a critical corner. You scramble for reasons to explain it. It makes you indignant, or hesitant, or maybe embarrassed.
And I know that Drake can be embarrassing, in a way. Colin writes that when we talk about Drake we “talk about bath salts, S&M pornos, and club drugs,” or about “restrained sobbing into one’s champagne bucket.” You can feel the cool disdain in that analysis, and I can hardly blame Colin for his disposition. Take Care invites glib dismissals, as both Thank Me Later (2010) and So Far Gone (2009) did before it. I get that. It just makes me struggle a little harder to explain why something which elicits ridicule from so many of my friends and colleagues has come to mean so much to me personally, and to justify why I believe an album flippantly laughed off by staffers whose opinions I respect more than anyone deserves the highest numerical rating I’ve given in nearly three years of writing for this publication.
Drake’s hardly infallible, but I somehow knew he’d pull this off: I’ve been in thrall to his music for years now, and since I became a fan he’s only gotten better. The degree to which Drake has improved and developed as an artist in the five-odd years he’s been recording—not only as a rapper, mind you, but as a writer, arranger, and executive producer, the role for which he’s the most well-suited—is staggering, though few of his detractors seem willing to grant him this. He’s accused of being one-note and predictable, and Take Care is waved off as more of the same. It is, in Colin’s words, “the Drakest record in existence,” which is a statement I actually agree with, in so far as it means that Take Care is more of the same but better. Because this, ultimately, is what I want from artists I like: I want them to retain those qualities which drew them to me in the first place while improving upon their execution. I want them to be the same but better. And in the same way that Thank Me Later was So Far Gone but better, Take Care is Thank Me Later but better still. It is the ultimate Drake album, the epitome of his form. It is the Drakest record in existence.
I don’t disagree with the contention that Drake has carved out an immediately identifiable stylistic niche; there are legions of imitators begging to prove it. But this niche has expanded over the years, if perhaps gradually, so that five releases on it encompasses a range much wider than his detractors are willing to permit. Yes, in-house producer Noah “40” Shebib’s beats still lean toward the sonambulant and ephemeral, and the likes of “Marvin’s Room” and “Shot for Me,” all forlorn horn samples and half-drowned toms, hit entirely expected sweet spots. But the titanic Just Blaze beat that dominates “Lord Knows”? The perfectly copped We’re New Here (2010) instrumental that stands tall as the title track? Even lead single “Headlines,” radio-played to death for months now, is a new trick for Drake: he’s no stranger to pulsating synths, but Glass by way of Vangelis? This is, in its own way, maturation. If it still sounds, at its core, like the Drake we’ve always known, that’s just a testament to how efficiently he assimilates foreign styles. Drake and 40 have an invaluable knack for drawing disparate sounds into their orbit, reappropriating them wherever possible. Nobody would have detected the Drake-like sound at the core of a song as blunt and abrasive as Juvenile’s “Back That Azz Up,” but when you hear what Drake and 40 have honed in on and extracted—it’s more that they’ve taken the essence of the song rather than sampled it—you can’t believe you didn’t pick up on it earlier.
Taste is a difficult quality to measure, but it’s one of Drake’s best features. Unlike Lil Wayne, whose raw talent behind the mic is often severely undercut by his poor choice in collaborators, Drake understands that an album is only as successful as the calibre of each contribution to it. There’s no doubt in my mind that in terms of sheer technical proficiency, Weezy is a vastly superior rapper to his most prominent disciple, and yet Take Care outshines the disappointing Tha Carter IV in almost every respect. In terms of beat selection, guest placement, sequencing, and even the basic ebb and flow of each individual track, Take Care embodies Drake’s minted reputation as rap’s premier executive producer.
Drake tends to bring out the best in everyone around him, from the producers he hires for one-offs to the rappers he brings in for a spare verse (Andre 3000 brings his A-game to “The Real Her”; Rick Ross is surprisingly adequate on “Lord Knows”; Stevie Wonder plays the goddamn harmonica on “Doing It Wrong,” etc.). And he makes impeccably structured records—which isn’t to say that they are slight and breezy. At just under 80 minutes, Take Care is longer than the already substantial So Far Gone (70 minutes) and Thank Me Later (60 minutes) by no small margin, and its length is a recurring complaint among detractors with no shortage of them. But Drake’s gifts as an executive producer guide the pace and structure of the album, and in the end not a track feels out of place. I believe it’s possible to be given too much of a good thing, but I can name a dozen shorter records which feel longer than Take Care by virtue of how they’re paced. Maybe it’s a simple consideration, but it makes the difference between an arbitrarily grouped selection of songs and an album proper.
So many minor creative decisions speak to the care that was put into the overall structure of this album: the fleeting instrumental outro that links “Shot for Me” to “Headlines”; the inclusion of “Buried Alive” after “Marvin’s Room” to better move into the more intense rap suite starting with “Underground Kings”; the spoken-word interlude that “Crew Love” quickly obliterates. And although Colin has expressed his frustration with the one-two pairing of “Practice” and “The Ride” as the record’s extended denouement, I think it’s important to point out that how the songs are linked—the former’s lightly plucked strings fading slightly before being overtaken, rather jarringly, by the latter’s oohs and ahs—is a big part of why they work so well together as an ending. (I’d note, too, that the lines which finally close out the album—”My sophomore they was all for it, they all saw it / My junior and senior’s about to get meaner / Take care, nigga”—is, like the “Thank Me Now” that ended Thank Me Later, the ideal way to finish this record.)
Let me return again, briefly, to age. Drake and I both just turned 25, a quarter of a century. It’s not very old, but it can feel like it is when you’re faded, calling old girlfriends in the middle of the night, wondering what you’re doing with yourself. Drake’s infinitely richer and more famous than I am, and our personal and professional anxieties are far from overlapping. But his music has a strange way of feeling relatable. He’s considered superficial, but while people often joke about the narrowness of his thematic range (as was the case with Thank Me Later, much of Take Care revolves around debauchery and its inevitably messy aftermath), his reflections read more like memoir than LiveJournal. It makes sense to me, emotionally, that someone could indulge in luxury and licentiousness while working through a resulting sense of guilt, and as the central narrative of Take Care this makes good dramatic sense, too. Though as a character he can sometimes seem at odds with himself—the crestfallen romantic of “Shot for Me” and “Take Care” is difficult to reconcile with the swagged-out hustler leading “Underground Kings” and “We’ll Be Fine”—each acts as a counterpoint to the other, the wild night out and the sobering morning after. His sense of balance keeps things three-dimensional rather than simply contradictory, and the result is exhaustive.
His best moment, though, is his most stunningly personal: on “Look What You’ve Done,” Drake raps about his uncle and his grandmother and how their love and support are manifested in his success. For an artist so often accused of narcissism, its refrain is remarkably deferential: “You knew that I was gonna be something / We stressed out, and you need some, I got you / Look what you’ve done.” What they’ve done is make him who he is, and he’s less proud of himself than he is of them. And his accomplishments aren’t shallow at all: “You get the operation you dreamed of / and I finally sent you to Rome”. This isn’t exactly Drake’s “coming up” story, because it’s never played for credibility. The whole thing feels very…genuine, in a way that’s incredibly endearing and, frankly, quite moving. “And you tell me I’m just like my father,” Drake rails; “My one button, you push it.” Boo hoo, sad story, but you can tell that this hurts for him, and that’s commendable. The track closes with a tape recording of a message from Drake’s elderly grandmother, which is a beautiful moment. And this, remember, is on the same album that features the line “Shout out to Asian girls / Let the lights dim sum.” One note this is not.
I think, ultimately, that this is all I really want an album to be: an immense, five-star production fronted by a compelling, three-dimensional character with an unrivaled faculty for craft. Maybe what trips people up is the man at the centre of it all, who is by turns charming, insightful, and repulsive, sometimes simultaneously. That’s a reasonable hurdle. But I guess for me, it’s when I see myself in Drake—even, or perhaps especially, in his worst qualities—that I’m most hooked. I don’t think it’s just Drake who’s called somebody, drunk, at three in the morning, and felt what that feels like to think back on the next morning (spoiler: awful), and I don’t think you need to be a platinum superstar to know what it’s like to feel alienated, or frustrated, or alone. And I don’t think it’s just Drake who’s felt all of that and still gone out the next weekend, drinking Patrón and getting faded again, ready to rinse and repeat. You’re welcome to say this is superficial, or corny, or too Drake-like. But then remember that old line: “He’s some kind of man. What does it matter what you say about people?”