You’ve already heard the story, but let’s pause a moment to consider the craziness. A Canadian-born rapper (the best/only since Snow), who until 16 months ago was known for starring in high school soap opera called Degrassi, is releasing this year’s most anticipated album. The hype for this can only be described as nuclear. Eminem, inarguably the biggest pop star of the last 10 years, has an album out next week and a single in the top 10, and I haven’t even heard anyone mention it since it was announced two months ago. Not even radio DJs. The message is clear: It’s Drake’s world, and we’re all just wasting space.
What’s even more remarkable, in an age when young rappers see their debuts watered down to something unrecognizable (B.o.B) or killed by their major-label handlers (Wale), Aubrey Drake Graham’s debut, Thank Me Later, arrives with the same hard-to-copy style as his 450,000 copy-selling EP, So Far Gone. This is an album full of goose feather-soft synths, sung-rapped vocals and songs about being hated with more Top 10-ready singles per square inch than any rap album in recent memory. It may have all the rap debut signifiers — features from Lil Wayne, Young Jeezy, The-Dream and Jay-Z, production from Timbaland, Swizz Beatz and Kanye — but instead of those guys imposing their will on Drake, it’s the other way around. For all its faults, Thank Me Later is at least unique to Drake’s vision, something you can’t say about many hip-hop albums any more.
Because of his relatively privileged upbringing (he’s from a wealthy part of Toronto), Thank Me Later is less about chronicling and rising up out of his environment (like basically every rap debut since Illmatic) and more about how Drake is uncomfortable being famous. It takes all of 25 seconds for him to claim, “Money just changed everything/ I wonder how life without it would go.” That sentiment rings pretty false — dude did help blow up a bidding war for his services, landing a seven-figure deal with Young Money/Universal — but it’s in this sense that Drake connects with his only obvious stylistic forefather, Kanye West. But where Kanye was a famous producer before he started rapping and wondering whether or not he’d fit in, with Drake, it’s like he only became famous in order to have something to sing about. This is, after all, a guy who worried that men would refuse to acknowledge his music at a time when no one even knew of his music.
So, if there’s one thing you have to accept with Thank Me Later, it’s that a 23-year-old who has spent his entire life trying to be the best and brightest is now bummed out. Majorly. To the point where he’s paranoid about haters who might “load a clip and shoot.” To the point where he basically pioneers hip-hop for elevators, rhyming most milquetoast over milquetoast beats on “Fireworks” (which features a bored Alicia Keys), the Phil Collins toss-off “Karaoke,” the “I can’t believe my girl left me” yawn of “The Resistance,” the mercifully short “CeCe’s Interlude” and current single, “Find Your Love.”
But here’s the rub: For all those serious clunkers, Drake is still capable of wilding out on hip-pop jams like “Over” (easily his best song yet) and “Miss Me,” which features an energized Lil Wayne. And maybe that’s what the best part of Thank Me Later is: Drake’s ability to pull the best out of the guests around him. He gets one of Swizz Beatz’s better creations in recent years (and a slashing T.I.) with the for-the-ladies jam “Fancy.” He exposes a tender side of Young Jeezy, which is a Herculean task, on “Unforgettable,” getting Jeezy to admit he loves hip-hop like a lover. He trades blown-out lover-man platitudes with The-Dream and gets Kanye to lend the great beat for “Show Me a Good Time.” But most important to the heads in attendance, he awakens the slumbering giant named Jay-Z, who on “Light Up” drops the best bars he’s had in close to a decade. “I’m not as cool with niggas as I once was/ I once was, cool as the Fonz was/ but these bright lights turned me to a monster,” says an uncharacteristically wistful Jay, warning Drake of the travails of fame. It’s a lights-out performance that more than pays back Drake for his work on The Blueprint 3.
Granted, those songs do come with the stuffing of “Up All Night,” a song where Drake and Nicki Minaj trade cringe-worthy lines so hard, you’ll get a concussion (“Famous like a drug/ I’ve taken to much of,” “I look like yes/ you look like no”). But Drake deserves a lot of credit for Thank Me Later; it’s one of the few hip-hop albums, ever, really, without much precedence. Its only analogs are a two-year-old Kanye West album (808s and Heartbreak) and a year-old Drake mixtape. Yet somehow this has become this year’s time capsule album; for better or worse this is almost certainly going to be the one that connects with the most people. It’ll also probably ensure that Drake gets at least another two albums’ worth of material.