Drake - Nothing Was The Same
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"Don't think about it too much," sings Sampha on the crestfallen hook of "Too Much," one of the many highlights on Drake's Nothing Was The Same, and though it's a nice sentiment, it's not exactly easy to do when it comes to Drake. Few artists have inspired as much hand-wringing, head-scratching and face-palming as the ascendant Canadian rapper and XXL cover star. His lyrics, his beats, his videos and even his sweater choices are subject to in-depth breakdowns and analysis that's typically reserved for sporting events or political debates. And yet, the question remains: How does Drake keep winning? What's the secret to his success?

And he is winning, as he loves to remind you. With the release of Nothing Was The Same, Drake will have delivered four distinct projects in the span of five years, each collection of songs showing a clear progression and growth while still spawning chart-topping hits, boundary-pushing collaborations and an infinite supply of memes. It's a run that's almost unparalleled in hip-hop. If we're going to count So Far Gone as an album—which it practically was in many respects—then Drake's four album dominance of rap is almost incomparable to any other artist. Who else has stayed this hot for so long?

To figure out the secrets that make Drake's music tick, XXL dove deep into Drizzy's discography, taking a closer look at how each of his albums helped him transition from being a child actor with a nice voice to a "voice of a generation" style hip-hop prophet. So Far Gone, Thank Me Later, Take Care and Nothing Was The Same combine to form a portrait of an artist drawing from outside hip-hop to refashion the genre in his own image. Nothing would be the same. --Written by Dan Jackson and Eric Diep, with additional research from Miranda Johnson



So Far Gone
Singles: "Best I Ever Had," "Successful"
Guests: Trey Songz, Lil Wayne, Peter Bjorn And John, Lloyd, Lykke Li, Santigold, Bun B, Omarion
Opening Week Sales: EP version sold 73,000
Awards: Rap Recording Of The Year (Juno Awards)

“Dropped a mixtape, that shit sounded like an album/Who’d a thought a country wide tour be the outcome.” – Drake, “Forever”

It’s crazy to hear Drake reflect on So Far Gone like that. For those keeping track of Drizzy, So Far Gone marked a pivotal moment for the hype surrounding him. Here’s an artist who started from a very odd version of the bottom, playing Jimmy Brooks in the teen drama Degrassi: The Next Generation. The jump from actor to rapper was smoother than most, especially during those early mixtapes—2006’s Room For Improvement and 2007’s Comeback Season—that revealed a rap star taking form. All eyes were on him. Could he craft something that could take his career to the next level?

That’s the question Drake tried to answer with So Far Gone. The blueprint of Drake’s thought process was laid out throughout the tape’s 18 tracks. Plenty of rappers have boasted that they’ve broken new ground with their music, but So Far Gone was an obvious step forward, finding Drake and his frequent collaborator Noah "40" Shebib establishing their minimal sound. There was still a range of tracks on display: Young Money bangers (“Ignant Shit,” “Uptown”), self-reflective songs (“Bria’s Interlude”, “Successful”), introspective cuts (“The Calm”) and the breakout hit (“Best I Ever Had”). This was the mixtape that introduced the many layers, mysteries and contradictions of Drizzy Drake.

The most important thing to note is Drake’s perception of chasing money and fame.On revealing tracks such as “Say What’s Real,” where we see specific details of his life play out on wax. “Watchin’ Hov’s show, embarrassed to pull my camera out," he raps. "And my mother embarrassed, to pull my Phantom out/So I park about five houses down/She say I shouldn’t have it until I have the crown.” Numbers don’t lie and So Far Gone had a lot of them. With stellar guest spots (Lil Wayne, Bun B, Omarion, indie acts like Peter Bjorn & John) and unexpected success on the Billboard charts, Drizzy was already above the rest. Everybody gotta deal, he did it without one.

ThankMeLater
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Thank Me Later
Singles: "Over"
, "Find Your Love"
,"Miss Me"
, "Fancy"
Guests: Timbaland, Nicki Minaj, Lil Wayne, The-Dream, T.I, Young Jeezy, Alicia Keys, Jay-Z
Opening Week Sales: 447,000
Awards: N/A

"But I really can't complain, everything is kosher/Two thumbs up, Ebert and Roeper/I really can't see the end getting any closer" - Drake, "Over"

If So Far Gone was the little indie movie that turned into a box office sensation, then Thank Me Later is the blockbuster remake. Taking the template of So Far Gone—Trey Songz style singing, rudimentary raps and chilly synths—Drake makes a run at the mainstream here, grabbing production work from proven veterans like Timbaland, Kanye West, No I.D. and Swizz Beatz while reaching out for guest verses from all the big names willing to throw him a co-sign (T.I, Jeezy, Jay Z). Like most blockbusters, there's a lumbering quality to it: It's a little too long and too many of the album's big moments feel overcooked.

Of course, that didn't matter to Drake's growing legion of fans, who quickly turned songs like "Over," "Miss Me" and "Fancy" into the type of inescapable hits that inspire wild chant-alongs and sighs of recognition. Still clinging to the hash-tag rap style that he and Big Sean helped turn into a phenomenon, the album is filled with morose songs about the perils of fame, a topic he'd return to again and again, but here the anguish feels unearned and even absurd at times. Isn't this supposed to be a celebration? We'd soon learn that celebratory isn't exactly a mood that comes easy to Drake.

On "Over," Drake says, "I'm doing me," but that's not exactly true yet. Drake is doing a version of Drake here that feels processed and too desperate to be accepted. Each of Drake's albums has a try-hard element to it—it's difficult to shake the feeling that Drake is the kid who turned in his homework a day early—but Thank Me Later is the only one where that over-achieving instinct works against him.

Take Care
Singles: "Marvins Room", "Headlines", "Make Me Proud", The Motto", “Take care”, “HYFR”, “Crew Love”
Guests: The Weeknd, Rihanna, Kendrick Lamar, Birdman, Nicki Minaj, Rick Ross, Andre 300, Lil Wayne
Opening Week Sales: 631,000
Awards: Best Hip-Hop Video (2012 BET Hip-Hop Awards) “HYFR”, Best Rap Album (Grammy), Rap Recording of the Year (Juno Awards), Video of the Year (Juno Awards) “HYFR”, Best Hip-Hop Video (MTV VMAs) “HYFR”

“Are these people really discussing my career again? / Asking if I’ll be going platinum in a year again?/ Don’t I got the shit the world wanna hear again? / Don’t Michael Jordan still got his hoop earring in?” – Drake, “Over My Dead Body”

Take Care is Drake’s victory lap. Following up 2010’s Platinum-selling Thank Me Later, he set out to prove that not every artist suffers from a sophomore slump, peeling away some of the more pandering elements of his debut and delivering a more focused album. However, even with all the praise he’s accumulated thus far, there’s something telling about the cover image of a solemn-looking Drizzy in front of all that opulence. He’s giving us a closer look into his life behind the money, cars and clothes.

Drake’s taking large strides and it's mostly due to the sound that he’s developed with 40. The mood is set through his confidence, telling his stories of lust and pain through key tracks. There’s the quintessential Drake joint in “Marvin’s Room,” as well as braggadocio highlighted in “HYFR” and the xx-sampling title track. On top of that, the Toronto star has fused rap, R&B and disparate elements of dance music into one cohesive LP with dramatic shifts, surprise twists and an emotionally draining finale. It's the satisfying "classic" album that Thank Me Later aspired to be and more.

Take Care stands as Drake’s most impressive effort. He showed listeners that everything does get better with time. You can thank him now.

Drake - Nothing Was The Same
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Nothing Was The Same
Singles: “Started From The Bottom”, “Hold On We’re Going Home”, “All Me”
Guests: Jhené Aiko, Majid Jordan, Detail, Sampha, Jay-Z
Opening Week Sales: N/A
Awards: Video of the Year (2013 BET Awards) "Started from the Bottom", Coca-Cola Viewer's Choice (2013 BET Awards) "Started from the Bottom"

"This is nothin' for the radio, but they'll still play it though/Cause it's that new Drizzy Drake, that's just the way it go" - Drake, "Tuscan Leather"

And then we came to the end. With Nothing Was The Same Drake casts aside some of the more baroque flourishes of Take Care—the guest verses, the Rihanna radio hit, the Just Blaze banger—and essentially makes the type of insular and minimal album he's probably wanted to make since the beginning of his career, but now he has the power and influence to do things exactly the way he wanted to do. He's still drawing from musical sources outside rap's mainstream—singers like Jhené Aiko and Sampha provide hooks and Chilly Gonzalez is still around to provide some piano flourishes—but by this point Drake is rap's mainstream, so even his and 40's more experimental production choices feel logical, even expected. Instead of shifting to rap's center, he's moved the center to him.

That doesn't mean he's abandoned his genre-hopping and his name-checking. While Drake has never been shy about his love of Houston rap, here he pledges allegiance to the mighty Wu-Tang Clan, lacing the album with all-caps references to the group in an effort to possibly puff out his chest a little bit and grab some of the clan's trademark cool factor. It's an interesting choice because he's really using the Wu-Tang Clan only as a signifier here, not as a musical touchstone. The album's actual sonic influences—the steamy ballads of Miguel, the icy minimalism of the xx, the fluttering bounce of disco—are just as pronounced but not as emphatically stated as the Wu-Tang stuff.

More than anything, NWTS is an album about wanting to be great. As is often the case with Drake, the primary topic being addressed here is Drake's Drake-ness: what it feels like to have as much money as Drake, what it feels like to date Drake and what it feels like to have deep thoughts about being Drake while being Drake. It's Drake's most interior album yet, and if you dislike his narcissism or the way he treats women, then he's not going to win you over here. When Drake claims he's, "On a mission tryna shift the culture" on the record's opening track, "Tuscan Leather," it's hard to know exactly what he means—What's his goal beyond being seen as great? What real effects does he want to have on the culture?—but there's no denying that a shift has happened.