Nothing Was the Same marks a tide-is-high moment for Aubrey Drake Graham. As he surveys the world from the vista of his achievements, he sums up what he once called "The Ride," and what he calls on opener "Tuscan Leather" as "my mission to shift the culture." But there are others nipping at his ability to define the contours of mainstream rap, chiefly Kendrick Lamar, and to a lesser extent Future, Macklemore and a few others. Perhaps it's why Drake has no major guests on Nothing Was the Same, save for a growling Birdman ad-lib on "The Language," and a pair of imperious Jay-Z verses on "Pound Cake." He wants vindication as a hip-hop god on his own merit.
There are allusions to Wu-Tang Clan: He samples their "It's Yourz" for "Wu-Tang Forever" and "Own It." (He doesn't acknowledge that the Wu-Tang song is itself an homage to T La Rock's "It's Yours.") A sample of "C.R.E.A.M." crops up in "Pound Cake." He posits these virtual shout-outs as childhood memories of being a rap fan, but they're also a symbolic reach for the near-mythical legend the Staten Island group represents.
Early reviews of Nothing Was the Same have noted Drake's flashes of righteous anger. It crops up in the haughtiness of "Started from the Bottom," where he memorably lolls, "No new n*gg*s," and which was widely misinterpreted as a shot at The Weeknd upon its release as a single last spring. (Drake's cameo on The Weeknd's Kiss Land put an end to that rumor.) "Worst Behavior" finds him adopting the repetitive chants of high-energy rappers like Migos as he says over and over, "Motherf*ckers never loved us!" More convincing is his lyric from "Paris Morton Music 2": "F*ck all that 'happy to be here' sh*t that you want me on/ I'm the big homie, they still trying to little-bro me, dog." After two platinum albums and a plethora of pop hits, he shouldn't have to apologize for his success anymore.
Counterbalancing Drake's chest-thumping are lyrics that dwell on the meaning of success. This is a familiar theme for him, but on his 2011 album, Take Care, he was too dazzled by the vagaries of rap stardom to address it substantively. It's a sign of his maturation that he often refers to women now as "girls" rather than "b*tches," a linguistic shift that almost (if not quite) acknowledges the fairer sex as his equals. He deftly untangles his knotted relationships with old family and friends on "Too Much." His observations about his mother, a familiar presence in his early So Far Gone days, are particularly biting yet sympathetic: "I hate the fact that my mom's cooped up in an apartment/ Telling herself that she's too sick to get dressed up and go do sh*t."
Regardless of where you stand on the issue of Drake's vocal skills -- and there are compelling arguments to consider from both effusive supporters who love his displays of vulnerability and pathos, and staunch critics who can't stand his often-stilted rap cadences and thin, wavering singing tones -- his albums shine because they are impeccable sonic tapestries. Take Care in particular blended UK garage, electronic pop, screwed-and-chopped refrains and '90s R&B loops into stunningly remarkable music.
Perhaps it's just in keeping with Drake's lyrical focus on refining his usual concerns, but Nothing Was the Same isn't as bracingly innovative as that watermark. There are fanciful tricks: "40" splits up "Tuscan Leather" over three separate beats, and then cleaves "Furthest Thing" over two. There are shining moments, too, like the blissful waft of chipmunk vocal on "Pound Cake" that smoothly shifts into the melodic piano jazz of "Paris Morton Music 2." (The track is a coproduction by Boi-1da and Jordan Evans.) The melancholy piano minimalism of "From Time," played by Chilly Gonzales, underscores Drake's recriminations on a former girlfriend that worked at Hooters: "I felt like we had it all, guess I f*cked up the vision/ Learning the true consequences of my selfish decision/ When you find out how I'm living I just hope I'm forgiven."
It has been nearly five years since Drake emerged, seizing the cultural mood of hip-hop as a fame conduit accessible to all classes and demographics. He has sparked a debate on race and class, the authenticity of homogenized suburban personas versus distinctly regional voices, and the declining influence of gangster funk in favor of melodic pop rap. Nothing Was the Same won't end that discussion. But as he caps another successful riff on his familiar themes of hip-hop fame as an ambient, R&B-inflected anomie, Drake will have to decide if he plans to usher in a new phase of artistic development, or if he'll remain content to refine his stylistic tics as he ages into a comfortable rap superstardom.