Album Review: Drake – Take Care

[Young Money / Cash Money; 2011]

‘Thank Me Later,’ he said, and with that, Drake had a problem. The Canadian star’s rise to fame — even to his detractors — is undeniably unparalleled. In the rarest of instances, all the pieces simply fell perfectly in place: Drake hopped on the Kanye bandwagon when it was still cool, caught the eye of Lil’ Wayne just before he toppled from his peak, collaborated with Marshall Mathers as he arose from the ashes of the old Shady into the new Eminem marketing juggernaut. It all just seemed to work out for Drizzy. Then, of course, came the fallout. The new star had absorbed the most hype the rap game had seen since Get Rich or Die Tryin’, with a soap-opera background rather than the benefit of nine bullet wounds. In other words, the hip-hop community had no idea what to do with this guy. The time of beef had come and gone, but how did one reconcile the days when a picture ruined a career with, well, this?

The truth, of course, is that rap has entirely left behind its birthrights. Much of the music being made today under the name of “rap” attracts an entirely new audience, and the old demographic stubbornly — and futilely — resists the invaders, leaving rappers to entertain a bickering, divided audience. People considered So Far Gone either the future or completely offensive, and it was both of those strong reactions that helped catapult Drake to the forefront of the rap game. Then things got confusing: Thank Me Later simply wasn’t very good, whichever way you looked at it. Drake seemed afraid of his potential power, caught between a hunger for genuine respect he at least claims to seek and the massive audience he had created with “Best I Ever Had.” The result was a muted, half-hearted attempt at a “Drake sound”, smothered by polish and dull punchlines. Even Drake himself recently came out against the record.

So, Take Care was supposed to be it. The “real” Drake album. He began by creating goodwill with a series of self-leaks. He even took it to his label for taking down the links. The best thing was, for the most part, they were good songs. “Marvin’s Room,” still a highlight on the finished product, presented a Drake we hadn’t seen before, at least since he signed with Young Money. Rather than the trite, “Shooting stars all around her, fire, comets” class of lines from the last album, the listener is faced with a drunk, pampered star desperately slithering words out on the phone, trying to woo the girl he wants from another man. She’s just a fascination, Drake desires her, but that’s where it stops. “Fuck that nigga you love so much,” he sings, and unlike the usual Drake quip, it meant something: he wants what he wants, and he’ll harm those he intends to care about to get it. In other words, true substance seemed to have entered his music once again. The mission statement for album #2 was clear: to create an actual piece of music, rather than simply entertainment.

Yet, fear struck again with the release of the first official single, “Headlines,” and only rose with the second, “Make Me Proud.” The former was as dull an “I’m Drake and I’m really cool” song as he’s made, while the Nicki Minaj collab couldn’t have been a more obvious pander to his female audience, right down to its silly hook. Aubrey Graham seems to think anything nearing a good song will ruin his chart chances. There’s nothing wrong with a, err, cutesy verse. “Best I Ever Had” nearly topped the charts for a reason, after all. It was a successfully sexual song, but Drake seems to have tired of them, because all his efforts in that direction in 2011 turn out tepid.

In short, a great mystery was created: just how the hell would Take Care sound? The leaks were promising, the singles far from it. In the end, both shed more light on the album than one ever would have guessed. Take Care is a record unsure of itself, certainly more focused and interesting than its predecessor, but still far from the classic Drake had hinted at. At every turn, Drizzy seems unsure of what he wants: to be the squeaky-clean lady’s man that Bieber fans can love, or the unraveling, confused young man he is. He spends half the album bemoaning his shallowness (something the fantastic Kendrick Lamar and Andre 3000 brilliantly, unintentionally underscore), wishing he were a better man, and then turns around and snarls, “Know that I don’t make music for niggas who don’t get pussy / so those are the ones I count on to diss me or overlook me,” on “Lord Knows.” Drake apparently felt he needed to match the bravado of guest Rick Ross, and felt powerful with that jab, but only stabbed himself. Drake’s long battled his detractors, and in finally responding on record, he’s conceded his music to be just what his haters declare it to be.

Does this take away from the music? Well, you’re getting two voices on one album. When done intentionally, sure, it’s interesting. Drake, however, is partially a walking facade, and another part an attempt to address those some fallacies. Being caught between the two is a muddling experience. On his standards, Drake is hardly present, simply droning across perfectly composed music. Which is worth mentioning: by and large, Take Care is quite nice musically. One has to raise an eyebrow to Drake suddenly occupying House of Balloons like it was his dwelling to begin with, but the music still sounds pleasant. While he’s scattered throughout the album, The Weeknd only prominently appears on “Crew Love,” which is, unsurprisingly, a highlight.

As for Drake’s own crooning, that notion is more suppressed this go-round. It’s not the sing-song nature of his raps that are irksome, but the way he sleepwalks through them. More recently, he’d found a better balance, such as his appearance on DJ Khaled’s “I’m On One.” Here, yet again, he seems caught between the two poles. He snores through the pointless “Doing it Wrong” (a total waste of Stevie Wonder) and the painfully obvious, “You got that shit somebody will look for, but won’t find / you must’ve done this before this can’t be your first time,” on “The Real Her” before Andre 3000 sleepily walks circles around him and Weezy. Then, on tracks such as the aforementioned “Marvin’s Room” and “Good Ones Go Interlude” his voice couldn’t pack any more regret or meaning. The rapping is no different. The whole affair opens to a beautiful 40 beat that’s lost among the clouds, but rather than smoothly top it, Drake fights the beat with a choppy flow and the painfully dumb “I think I killed everybody in the game last year, man fuck it I was on though.” Then on tracks such as “Underground Kings” and “HYFR” (just wait till he surprises you with that speed) he couldn’t be more alive.

This is ultimately the issue with Take Care. Drake’s made it clear from the beginning that he’s in it for the riches, and who can blame him? Yet he now seems trapped between the desire to create a product and a piece of music. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to be the pop star, but Drake no longer seems certain it’s even this he desires. If it is, he’d benefit from going back to the Prince and Michael Jackson playbooks: if you’re going to craft chart toppers, make them genuinely fun. There’s a difference between a groove that can make it up Billboard, and one that genuinely stays stuck in the head. Isn’t it the latter that all pop stars should aim for? The simple, “How you mean, how you mean, thought you knew about the team” hook from “Cameras” goes a longer way than much of the pop material on the album, simply because Drake decides to deliver it with some sense of making it easy on the ears. Take Care drops at an interesting time: Drake is now undeniably a superstar, here to stay. The rap world is gradually, and somewhat begrudgingly, making room, and all will eventually settle. The most spiteful hate has largely come and gone, and this album is certainly a step in the right direction. Yet, before Drake wins over his foes, and truly can lay claim to true rap dominance — altogether separate from chart success — he must figure out just what it is he wants.