The day after Drake’s album leaks is like postpartum depression. After an extensively calculated nine-month rollout, Nothing Was the Same is finally here, and there’s a void now that there’s no more anticipation. The entire cycle is so poetically Drake. Our relationship with the album is like the rapper’s relationship with fame that he’s so openly wrestled with throughout his career. The album was desired and attained, and now we’re left wondering how to feel.
Two minutes into the album’s opening track, “Tuscan Leather,” Drake says he’s “on a mission trying to shift the culture,” and that’s the statement by which Nothing Was the Same will be measured. This is one of those rare moments when the critical reception of an album is determined by its cultural impact just as much as its sonic quality. “Did it meet the hype?” is as valid of a question as “Is it good?” So much stock has been placed into this record and what it means for hip-hop that “good” simply won’t suffice.
Drake has shifted the culture. The counter to hyper-masculine, aggressive machismo that began with Kanye West a decade ago has come full circle. Drake comes to us as the biggest star to build upon the emotive, anti-gangster sensibilities of West, while offering a style distinct enough that his music is more evolutionary than derivative; that’s compounded by the fact that Drake is a decade younger than West. Kanye’s “She Instagram herself like ‘bad bitch alert’” lyric on “Blood on the Leaves” is voyeuristic. Drake’s “Passive aggressive when we texting / I feel the distance” lyric on “From Time” is narrative. He’s lived a life relatable to so much of rap’s youth-skewing demographic, and by virtue of that alone, he’s put himself in a position where people are desperate to crown him the king — the new most relevant rapper.
The conversation surrounding Nothing Was the Same will be about whether or not the album warrants and rightfully earns Drake that adulation. This is an especially timely debate following a summer in which Kendrick Lamar made a strong case for his deservingness of the same high praise. There isn’t one verse on Nothing Was the Same that matches the lyrical gymnastics of Lamar’s “Control” verse; but there isn’t one that attempts to, either.
Drake’s edge is in his ability to appeal to the episodes of sadness, insecurity, and bewilderment that people experience daily. There’s no flash akin to Kendrick Lamar’s jarring description of a crashing airplane piloted by your drunk uncle; instead, there’s a transparency that, for many, resonates more than any rhyme acrobatics. Were you treated poorly in high school and dream of rubbing your newfound success in your old classmates’ faces? Drake’s got you covered. Have you ever gone on a shopping spree with your mother’s debit card? Drake has a line about it. Do you know what it’s like to get a late-night call from your ex and drive over to his or her place in a rush? Drake addresses that too. These blunt admissions are all over Nothing Was the Same, and they’re why the album transcends traditional rap parameters.
You can see Drake’s influence in the way people are communicating with each other these days. You can see Drake’s influence in the way today’s humor is crafted. Tupac and Scarface rapped about crying long before Drake picked up a microphone, but in recent years, he’s made being emotional chic. There is literally a tweet every minute about how the Drake album has induced tears, and the sole fact that he’s inverted the response to new rap music so drastically is more telling than anything.
There’s a self-awareness in Drake’s music that’s chiefly millennial. Before even listening to his record, we know that we’ll hear as many things about ourselves as we will about him, and that narcissism draws us to his music. The balance of self-deprecating sensitivity stops us short of complete hubris, but ultimately, there’s an elevated interest because this album is about us. Rather than simply observing another person’s lifestyle, lyrics like “Next time we fuck / I don’t wanna fuck / I wanna make love” from “Own It” force us into our own feelings. We are not spectators when listening to a Drake album; we are active participants.
On “From Time,” Drake raps, “I like when money makes a difference / But don’t make you different,” and that’s how he frames his entire approach to music. In fact, it’s become his trump card. He revisits so many moments from his past that he knows will connect with a modern, similarly aged audience. Criticism may be levied against “Wu-Tang Forever” because its content is reminiscent of nothing on Wu-Tang Forever; yet there’s an entire sect of humans who barely remember the second Wu-Tang Clan album but do know about a friendship that turns into an exclusive romantic pairing, and that connection is why Drake wins with the masses.
The entire setup for Nothing Was the Same is something we could have — and should have — predicted when “Started from the Bottom” was released at the beginning of the year. Drake’s success relies on a clever and almost manipulative walking of the line between nostalgia and foresight. The detail in which Drake recounts his most private moments expresses a genuineness that we latch onto. “Working all night / Traffic on the way home” strikes a chord, whether it’s something you’re currently living or have experienced in the past.
The chorus of “Worst Behaviour” is based around Drake screaming “Remember?!” and reminding the listener that “motherfuckers never loved us.” The record depends on how those words contrast against the present, when it’s apparent that so many people do love Drake. There’s an air of bitterness on the song that turns into the wicked joy of vengeance, but no matter which end of the story your current situation lies closer to, both are laid out just as honestly. That’s Drake’s advantage. At a time when we can know what a musician has for lunch, the art they produce is more about personal connection than detached admiration.
Even Drake’s most extravagant raps are more aspirational than boastful, and for every quote like “Bank account statement just look like I’m ready for early retirement” on “The Language,” there’s a nod to the world of roommates and car leases, like those on “305 to My City.” We simply relate to Drake, rather than look up to him the way we’re almost forced to do with, say, Jay Z, and that lowers the barrier to entry with his music. Drake actually out-rapping Jay Z at this point, like he does on their Nothing Was the Same collaboration “Pound Cake,” further affirms his significance in the contemporary canon.
In “Furthest Thing,” Drake calls himself “the furthest thing from perfect, like everyone I know,” proving that vulnerability is the new bravado, and he knows it. Centuries ago, the sculptures of Ancient Rome were more revered if they confronted imperfections directly, rather than glossing over them. After 30 years of lyrics that reinforce unrealistic expectations of flawlessness from our rappers, Drake is winning because he exposes his faults unabashedly. He’s far from the first to do so, and almost every great emcee can lay claim to revealing problems in a way that sparks empathy and pulls in loyal fans, but Drake’s made it his entire game.
So many of us share the same shortcomings and insecurities, and we just want to know that we’re not alone in them. Nothing Was the Same offers that reassurance.