To be fair, it was always going to be close to impossible for Drake to top Take Care, a heartbreak handbook that’s grown to become one of my favorite albums of all time. Everything from its minor-key melodies and smoky atmosphere to its highly parodied sad-sack King Midas artwork so thoroughly captured Drake’s aesthetic that it was hard to imagine the Canadian rapper-singer would ever have anything relevant to say again.
And honestly, that would have been okay. As his nearly flawless run of appearances this year has shown, an aimless Drake is still reliably quotable and entertaining. He could have released another album or four in the exact same mood of Take Care—lingering pianos, lost-love generational laments, Lil Wayne cameos—and most, if not all, of his fan base would have been perfectly content with the diminishing returns.
Whatever else, that’s not what happened here. Filled with bravado and bursting at the seams with different sonic ideas, Drake’s third LP Nothing Was The Same pushes his best and worst tendencies in new directions. When Drake claims that he’s “on a mission trying to shift the culture forward” on the relentless album opener “Tuscan Leather”, you actually tend to believe him. Maybe he’s taking another page from Kanye West’s musical handbook or maybe he would’ve just been bored hanging out with The Weeknd for another couple of weekends, but the album’s musical and lyrical left turns push Nothing Was The Same into entirely new territory.
It’s a testament to both the immaculate production work from longtime collaborator Noah “40” Shebib and Drake’s own personality that the album works as often as it does. 40’s beats are drenched in reverb and run through so many filters that I’m often not sure how he possibly made these sounds. From the triple-flipped Whitney Houston sample on the aforementioned “Tuscan Leather” to the actual Houston undulations on the emotionally stark “Connect” (a spiritual sequel of sorts to his So Far Gone cut “November 18th”), every song has a distinct texture and sound.
Nothing Was The Same‘s diverse production also serves to underscore how Drake-centric the album is as a whole. While Drake’s past work has been absolutely loaded with guests from both inside and outside his Young Money/OVOXO family, there are only about five other artists showing up on this record, mostly minor talents like Detail and recent OVO Sound signees Majid Jordan. Previous albums have featured the rap skills of genre heavyweights like Andre 3000, Rick Ross, and Kendrick Lamar. The only guest verse on Nothing Was The Same comes from Jay Z, a greying icon who Drake brings out on the last song “Pound Cake” seemingly just so he can rap circles around him.
It all makes for an increasingly insular experience: even as this album’s sonic template strays wider than ever from Drake’s typical comfort zone, he manages to make almost all of the varying beats, rap cadences, and hooks his own. (One notable exception is on “The Language”, where he tries and fails—yet again—to co-opt the Versace flow.) This homologizing extends to the track sequencing itself, as songs are connected more thematically than sonically—”Wu Tang Forever” and “Own It” couldn’t be more dissimilar, yet the sequencing renders them inseparable.
Most impressive, though, is how thoroughly Drake owns the proceedings without trying. In fact, full songs go by without the rapper saying anything that even resembles a verse. Album standout “Hold On, We’re Going Home” is pure 80s R&B, and although the song has less than 50 words in it, I’ve kept it on loop for hours. Its trancelike rhythm and inescapable melody fixes everything that was formulaic and methodical about Thank Me Later single “Find Your Love”. The formless cut “305 To My City” is a pastiche of random brags (“tonight was your night, go get you some lobsters and shrimp”) culminating in Drake vamping on one of his familiar melodies to the words “oh Lord, we’re not in Kansas anymore”. It would be laughable if the bass didn’t make my whole car shake.
When he does rap, Drake displays the same smooth flows and flair for wordplay that’s marked all of his songs, though his voice carries more of an edge than it has in the past. As soon as “Started From The Bottom” crawled up the charts, the critical consensus already began shifting towards Nothing Was The Same being his “hard” album, the one where he plays at being more aggressive. It’s not an incorrect assessment. On songs like “Furthest Thing”, “The Language”, and “Worst Behaviour” (which Pitchfork already ripped apart better than I ever could) Drake shoots his verses through with so much venom that a sung line that may have been a come-on on a previous album (“Girl don’t treat me like a stranger./ Girl, you know I’ve seen you naked”) rings cold in this context. The traditional rap boasting on here is uglier somehow, as if Drake is rubbing his good fortune in your face more than usual. Part of that ugliness stems from his almost-scowling voice, part of it is the production, and part of it is the dichotomy between the Drake we’re used to hearing and the one that’s speaking on this record. It’s a toughness we’re not prepared for, and it discolors the entire album.
But to fully adopt this hardened view of Nothing Was The Same would sidestep some of the absolutely beautiful and personal songs that also exist here. In the album’s emotional climax, “Too Much” finds Drake unburdening himself more than ever before, getting anxieties off his chest about how fame has affected his close and extended family. Another introspective song, the airy piano and Jhene Aiko-assisted “From Time”, has some lines relating to his parents that are some of the most heartbreaking I’ve ever heard in music.
It’s no surprise that Drake’s best material comes directly from his chest—it’s why so many listeners (myself included) gravitated to him in the first place. And it’s why the flagrant bravado on this album, the chest-thumping, is so important to his music’s future: it expands his range. Though Nothing Was The Same often suffers from its scattered feel, Drake’s ability to find new places in his music is much better off in the long run. There’s a lot of time for Drake to make more of the same, but for now I’m glad that he’s trying to go somewhere else.