Review: Drake – Thank Me Later.

My fifteen minutes started an hour ago. – Drake, “Fireworks”

The first time Drake appeared on my radar was early in 2008 when Meka posted a link to the Comeback Season mixtape over at 2dopeboyz. After seeing the cover art, which looked more like a Gap advertisement than anything hip-hop related, I nearly took a pass on the download in favor of porn something else more in my lane. Features from long-time favourites like Little Brother, Wayne, and The Clipse, however, convinced me that the download was worth the 15 bucks 100 megs.

At the risk of blowing wind, Drizzy’s widespread appeal was painfully evident from my first listen. The ability to effortlessly transition from braggadocios punchlines to buttery crooning within the same verse was, without exaggeration, groundbreaking. Sure, there have been other rapper-slash-singers in the past. But young Mr. Graham obviously possessed top-shelf skills in each discipline and the finished product, if only a mixtape, seemed blessed with all the polish of a major label release.

After doing a little research, however, it seemed there were plenty of differences between Drake and your typical hip-hop alpha dog: Besides the Twinkie-fillin’-soft appearance (pause), Drizzy grew up with his Jewish mother and grandmother in Forest Hill, an affluent Toronto suburb, starred as a wheelchair-bound shooting victim in a low-budget teen television drama north of the border, and his name was Aubrey. I know.

Turns out I had previously seen his first video on Canada’s national music network, and like many continue to do today, dismissed him as another of the many disposable Canadian urban artists. But there were also several factors working in his favour. He spent summers in Memphis under the influence of his father and a pair of uncles, all accomplished musicians in their own right. His vocal stylings were clearly suited for a wider audience than that traditionally reserved for hip-hop artist, including a hefty contingent of female fans, a demographic that makes up a large percentage of the record-buying public. And perhaps most importantly, Drizzy had the full support of the hottest name in the music industry and the man who would later become his boss, Mr. Dwayne Carter.

When the So Far Gone mixtape dropped online in February 2009, led by the massively successful single “Best I Ever Had,” Drake proved beyond any remaining doubt that he was a game changer. Not since Curtis Jackson had an unsigned artist (and perhaps any artist) garnered such a buzz, and soon that buzz grew into more of a shout, nearly impossible to ignore. Once the tape’s second single “Successful” hit radio, Drake became just the second artist in history to have two singles simultaneously charted in the top ten on Billboard’s Hot 100. And all this from a free mixtape.

It was the soundtrack to the summer of 2009 for many, myself included. Even after seven months of availability online for $0.00, So Far Gone sold nearly half a million copies when it was released to stores as an EP in September. For an industry that was, by all indications, in flux, these numbers were fucking mind-blowing. And beyond the numbers, the product was excellent. Aubrey invited us to grow with him, and accurately forecasted the meteoric rise that followed. There was never a second when I doubted that it was his time.

More than a year later, after dominating urban radio as the unrivalled go-to guest star for an astonishing string of hits, as well as an intense bidding war that ended in dry ink on a seven-figure contract with Young Money/Universal, Drake’s major label debut Thank Me Later officially hit record store shelves on June 9. I can’t recall the last time I felt this much anticipation for a release. Call me a Stan. I can take it. Just know that it’s not only me: dude had people camping out for a chance to win a wristband for a meet-and-greet and damn near caused a riot when he was instructed by NYPD not to show up for a free concert in The Apple. I feel like this album might be a good indication of the direction the genre is headed and could be remembered as a seminal moment for not only hip-hop, but Canadian music as well.

Though many of the tracks had leaked well before the full album was set free a week before the official release, I chose to ignore most in favour of listening to the complete package. Perhaps I’m being idealistic, but most of my all-time favourite releases hold that status due to a certain unexpected greatness. I felt like Thank Me Later at least had this potential. I’ve given the album a couple of weeks and numerous cycles to form my judgement. Not like anyone really gives a fuck about my opinion, but being a fledgling failing hip-hop blogger with too much time on my hands, I’ve decided to share some impressions.

Though I’m glad I avoided some of the leaks, I noticed that on my first spin, I felt familiar with many of the album’s standout tracks. I’m completely in support of free music, whether it gained that label with the artist’s consent or by thievery, but the Internet has basically killed the idea of creating a cohesive, album listening experience. Even so, Thank Me Later clearly benefits from Drake’s desire to keep the project largely in-house. Production work from Toronto-based producers Noah “40” Shebib and Boi-1da dominates and holds up favourably well next to offerings from grizzled legends Kanye West, Swizz Beatz, and Timbaland.

What might get lost in all of the hype surrounding Drake is the contribution of these relative newcomers. Their fresh yet radio-friendly production stylings were largely responsible for the success of So Far Gone and both have quickly become some of the game’s most sought-after beatmakers. One could argue that Boi-1da has benefited as much as anyone from Drake’s success. Of the four tracks he provides for Thank Me Later three are standouts, namely the LP’s frantic lead single “Over,” the dark, basshead anthem “Up All Night” with Young Money cohort Nicki Minaj, and the Weezy assisted “Miss Me,” which finds Drizzy delivering an impressive string of well arranged punchlines and perhaps outshining arguably the best doing it today. 40, on the other hand, works as more of an overseer for the project, clearly influencing the arrangement and overall mood of the album. Though his guidance does establish an impressive cohesiveness, I question the placement of a few tracks, including the album’s opener, “Fireworks” featuring Alicia Keys, which feels more suited to be a late album inclusion. It is a fantastic song, and lyrics, including a second verse that finds Aubrey addressing his much publicised fling with Rihanna, are a signature example of the candidness and vulnerability that allow him to leap typical genre barriers with the greatest of ease. It just seems to me that there exists a noticeable lack of energy in the early stages of the album, with all of the first three tracks coming off as So Far Gone leftovers. It’s not a terrible thing, but with the anticipation for the project as such a high level (or is it just me?), things should have kicked off with more of a celebratory feel. Still, 40’s minimal production style has influenced a trend in the industry and brilliant tracks like “The Resistance” evoke images of (backpackers, turn away) El-P with a quarter-sack in the studio moments after he finished watching Kids for the first time. Yes, I think this is a good thing.

Contributions from better known producers seem like the safer route to certifiable hits, but in the case of the Swizz Beatz helmed, T.I. featured “Fancy,” Kanye’s two contributions, “Show Me a Good Time” and the LP’s second single “Find Your Love,” and “Thank Me Now,” the Timberland-produced closer, the tracks also fit in very nicely with the record’s general disposition. “Karaoke” with New York percussion outfit Francis and the Lights, though, is perhaps the album’s low point and a prime example of the biggest issue I have with “Thank Me Later.” Drake’s versatility proves to be both a gift and a curse. While it is cool to hear Aubrey change gears to sing a hook, the R&B flavoured cuts that feature more singing than rapping tend to disrupt continuity and lead to a little too much ware on the forward skip button. “Shut It Down,” a duet featuring the prepubescent sounds of The-Dream, is entirely bloated at seven minutes, and besides a 45 second verse from Drizzy, is unlistenable, while the spacey “Cece’s Interlude” is too drastic a change of pace following two of the album’s best and most hard-driving tracks.

Ultimately, an album can’t be labelled a classic if it inspires me, and probably a good portion of the core fan base, to regularly skip three tracks. Part of the charm of undisputed classic debuts like Nas’ “Illmatic” and the late Christopher Wallace’s “Ready to Die” is that they can be enjoyed over and over from front to back. But perhaps more than that, changes in the industry brought on by the rise of the Internet and hip-hop’s infiltration of the pop charts mean that the ever-important hunger has been stripped from artists by the time their debut drops. Part of what made the aforementioned records so appealing was an element of surprise; an exceeding of expectations. In this era of free product and bloggin’, artists are forced to prove themselves well before they actually get put on by a major label. Tracks like “Light Up” with Hov clearly put on display Drizzy’s ability to make classic material and set trends, like he has with his witty, stop-short similes. But it is impossible to know how it fits into album listening experience have heard it weeks before the complete record was released. The dude was already at the top of the game before he even released his debut. And as the saying goes, there is nowhere to go but down. That simply wasn’t possible even ten years ago, let alone during the Golden Age that nostalgic Luddites so desperately cling to. I feel that it’s is naïve, bordering on foolish, to dismiss “Thank Me Later” as poppy fluff, as I have seen some early reviews suggest. The industry has changed, and it could be argued that never before has an artist had to satisfy such a mixed audience on what is, remember, a debut record. Though the LP suffers from some bizarre changes in pace, the finished product does well to display the impressive range and diversity of an artist influenced by Mary J. Blige and R. Kelly as much as Outkast and Slum Village (ears open for a tasteful homage to the late J. Dilla). It certainly isn’t traditional, but Drake is creating his own lane and still coming into his own as a musician. I have no problem with extending Aubrey’s 15 minutes.

UPDATE: The first-week sales numbers have been tabulated, and it appears Thank Me Later didn’t quite live up to the pre-release hype. Though 450,000-plus is nothing to shake a stick at, it doesn’t come close to the milli that some were predicting a while back. Could the leak be to blame? I’m sure it didn’t help and I’m not entirely sure if these figures include iTunes sales, but I think this is more evidence of my overriding point above: The game just ain’t the same. If it’s any consolation (yeah, right), Drizzy did reach platinum status in his homeland! Another big sales performance sure to come next week with Marshall’s Recovery likely flying off shelves and into trailer parks preteens’ bedrooms CD players worldwide. Let’s see if the veteran can match the rookie.

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June 2010
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