The Newly Poised and Ambitiously Authentic Drake

Published at the Toronto Standard

It’s not easy to love Drake. Spoken from his hometown, that’ll go over two ways: obvious or super-bitchy. But upon graduating from local fame to pop star ubiquity, there was—to paraphrase the boy himself—way too much Drake here we didn’t know last year to really take him seriously. He came up as a rapper, then started singing, then started singing about really emotionally messy and even embarrassing stuff. Aaaand before all of that, he played a dorky kid on a dorky Canadian TV show. Of course he’s cool and famous and pretty, which feeds much of his sizable fan base, but there’s a stronghold of tetchy and unsure naysayers and that’s who Take Care, out today, is for.

To me, Take Care plays as a refinement of 2008 mixtape Comeback Season, a local favourite (so favourited that a bunch of Toronto party kids collectivize under its banner). Listen to it now and, on the surface, it’s quite aesthetically and technically different. Maybe even the inverse. Comeback Season is unequivocally rappier, with just loose threads of R&B poking through. There are more local features and, per mixtape custom, Drake borrows beats from a choice group of artists like J Dilla, Goapele, Robin Thicke. What it lacks in, well, a budget, is offset by the passion and premeditation that went into it.“Replacement Girl” featuring Trey Songz was good enough to land Drake on BET, and so Comeback Season was Drake’s last truly local, pre-wattage project.

Follow-ups So Far Gone and Thank Me Later were slick and sales-buoyed, each boasting massive pop hits like “Best I Ever Had” and “Successful,” “Over” and “Fancy,” respectively. But these two records, particularly the official debut Thank Me Later, heightened the dissonance. In all the dizzying, ruse-like bombast of expensive production, Drake looked lost, like a kid in big man’s clothing. Out came the reluctant pop-star trope (lyrically, he mastered the humble brag), but it only felt quick-draw, bratty and insincere. Worse, he sang feathery, ambiguous missives while guest stars like Jay-Z and T.I took over the rapping he rode to fame on. TML wasn’t bad, as sales and general sentiments dictate: business-y people would say he made the right “moves.” A mom might say it was “disappointing.” I’d say—am saying—it was humourless, maudlin, terribly uneven, overcompensatingly virile, and worst of all, pandering. (Drake would probably agree with some of this assessment.)

It seemed the pressure had him shook.

Like a hard-breathing comedown after spinning out on black ice: that’s what Take Care is. Drake seems thankful to have regained control. From the opening song, “Over My Dead Body,” which features a watery, wraithlike hook from Chantal Kreviazuk (!!) and stone-skipping piano ripples from Chilly Gonzales (a key member of Feist’s team), the tone is set. His opening words sit brightly atop the mix, so you can hear him when he not only says it, but means it: “I think I killed everybody in the game last year.”

On single “Headlines,” part of the video for which was shot in the Rogers Centre, he addresses his blip and a refreshed contemplative resolve: “And they sayin’ I’m back, I’d agree with that/I just take my time with all this shit, I still believe in that/I had someone tell me I fell off, ooh I needed that/And they wanna see me pick back up, well where’d I leave it at/I know I exaggerated things, now I got it like that.” And amidst the icy, pitch-shifted drums and atmospheric contortions of the Weeknd on “Crew Love,” he concludes, “And really, I think I like who I’m becoming.”

This resurgent wave of confessional honesty (sonically embodied by the fucking morose, drunk-dialer anthem, “Marvin’s Room”) doesn’t subsume his goofs; rather, it embodies the dichotomy. It’s the source of confusion caused by TML – who is Drake really and what is he trying to say? – and a return to the poise and ambitious authenticity hinted at on Comeback Season.

Much of Take Care pays heed to antecedents and contemporaries, and Drake and his genius engineer/right-hand man Noah “40” Shebib cull these together in the form of features and samples, borrowed flows and technical wizardry: Lil Wayne and Andre 3000, ’90s R&B icons like Aaliyah and Playa, Fader-approved new stuff like Jamie XX, A STEVIE WONDER HARMONICA SOLO!, and mass-market (but still excellent) features by Rihanna and Rick Ross. Canadian pride also runs deep here. In fact, it might be one of the most culturally and temporally relevant pieces of music to come out of this country to date. These people deserve a shout out: Kreviazuk, Gonzales and Shebib join Divine Brown, Illangelo, Doc McKinney, the Weeknd, Boi-1da and T-Minus.

Clear songwriting, an aesthetic mandate and calculated risks makes Take Care a cohesive, experiential game changer. He’s laid his hand flat and you can see he was never bluffing.