You only get one chance to make a first impression. Err…sort of. Despite its debut status, Aubrey “Drake” Graham’s Thank Me Later is no introductory effort. Since the release of the Toronto native’s free mixtape, So Far Gone, in February 2009, Drizzy’s been able to rattle off a veritable checklist of career highlights in just over a year. The project’s success earned him a reported multimillion-dollar deal with his mentor Lil Wayne’s Young Money label, it spawned two hit singles (“Best I Ever Had” and “Successful”), and the shortened EP version went on to sell over 470,000 copies. With his newfound celebrity status, Drake’s been embraced by hip-hop’s greats, lending a hook to Jay-Z’s Blueprint 3 (“Off That”) and collaborating with Eminem on “Forever.” He’s also been party to a bevy of Cash Money–affiliated projects (Young Money’s We Are Young Money LP and Birdman’s Pricele$$), headlined awards shows, graced magazine covers and appeared in a Sprite commercial. A year makes a world of difference, and things definitely done changed for the former star of the popular teen TV series, Degrassi: The Next Generation. So now what?
When an artist delivers a critically acclaimed project—be it a mixtape or an album—they’ll always be measured against it. Such is the case here, as it’s difficult not to compare Thank Me Later with So Far Gone. Luckily, Drake largely sticks to what’s worked for him in the past—which is to say a healthy mix of singing and rapping, elaborate arrangements that find whole new songs almost tacked on to others, and deeply reflective subject matter. Perhaps the best example of this is “The Resistance,” where Drizzy laments, “What am I afraid of?/This is supposed to be what dreams are made of/But people I don’t have the time to hang with/Always look at me and say the same shit/‘You promised me you’d never change.’” He’s equally revealing on “Fireworks,” where he alludes to his brief fling with Rihanna, and “Unforgettable,” which finds him celebrating his carpe-diem ethos as he experiences his meteoric rise.
The project has a bunch of surefire hits. The Kanye West–produced “Find Your Love” is all lo-fi drums and rich piano chords, not unlike something that might have appeared on ’Ye’s 808s & Heartbreak. But with Drake, who has a better command of his voice, it’s a straight-up summertime R&B smash. Similar R&B territory is explored on the slow-jam-ish “Shut It Down,” a duet with The-Dream that finds Drake imploring, “Put those fucking heels on and work it, girl/Let that mirror show you what you’re doing.” He’s equally encouraging on the Swizz Beatz–produced “Fancy,” which, for the better part, is just a nod to beautiful women, but then veers off into an experimental, ambient mix, which Drake just raps over. Very cool. And if there’s any doubt the kid can flat out spit, there are the obligatory Young Money collabs “Up All Night” (with Nicki Minaj) and “Miss Me” (with Lil Wayne).
Perhaps the only thing that takes away from what is essentially a stellar debut LP is that, much like the fact that he both rhymes and sings, Drake sometimes sounds kind of confused about what he wants. “Light Up,” with Jay-Z, is all about not getting caught up in the Hollywood lifestyle, but then “Karaoke” finds him reflecting about a past relationship gone sour under the flashing lights. Luckily, instances of this confusion are few and far between.
Drake initially endeared himself to fans by combining lyrical skill with infectious melodies, all while maintaining an everyman’s sensibility. Just an upper-middle-class kid—yeah, perhaps a little well off, so what?—trying to make it. On Thank Me Later, he explores what it’s like to have done that—to have become successful. Turns out, it’s not exactly what he thought it would be. But it still sounds pretty damn remarkable.
For that, you should thank him now. —Paul Cantor
Review taken from the upcoming July/Aug. issue of XXL, which hits stands July 6th.