On the cover of his second album, Take Care, Drake holds a chalice. He's dressed in a black shirt with the top buttons undone, revealing his chest, and he wears a few gold chains around his neck. ("Bracelets and rings/ All the little accents that make me a king," he says on "Lord Knows," before adding that his only role models are Hugh Hefner, Michael Jordan and his Young Money/Cash Money Billionaires bosses Lil Wayne and Baby the Birdman.) His eyes stare soulfully at the table in front of him, as if he were deep in thought. It's as if he wants to tell us that he, too, has dark moments of the soul.
Take Care is a thematic follow-up to 2010's Thank Me Later, but it's much closer to the pop zeitgeist. It caps a year when a host of artists echoed the ambient blend of R&B and hip-hop Drake introduced last year, including Frank Ocean and The Weeknd (who appear on several Take Care tracks). Big Sean and J Cole embraced the clean-cut, proudly middle-class, fame-for-fame's-sake ethos that Drake trumpeted. He didn't invent it (that honor goes to Kanye West), but his success has come to personify it. Much of the hardcore rap audience views these suburban braggarts suspiciously, taunting them as being too "soft," lobbing homophobic slurs and claiming that they're pop sellouts. Smartly, Drake doesn't bother answering these trolls. He's too focused on extending the cultural moment that began with Thank Me Later and exploring a vague melancholy that emerges in his relationships with women.
Drake could have pruned a song or two from the 80-minute result, but it's a manageable length. His main producers, Noah "40" Shebib and Boi-1da, deserve much of the credit for making it flow seamlessly. They add small touches, like a distorted loop of SWV's "Anything" on "Shot for Me." For "Crew Love," which 40 coproduced with The Weeknd, they interrupt deliciously ambient R&B blues with occasional keyboard throbs that, in The Weeknd's words, keep "blowing like a C4." For the title track, Jamie xx of The xx revisits his own U.K. garage remix of Gil Scott-Heron's "I'll Take Care of You" (from Scott-Heron and Jamie's We're New Here) and recruits Rihanna to reinterpret the original's chorus as a haunting siren's call. (It's not the only allusion this album makes to Kanye West's good-guy-gone-bad tragedy My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, which memorably sampled Scott-Heron's poem "Comment #1.")
"Marvin's Room" is arguably the high point, and the moment when Drake's outward confidence and underlying insecurities come into sharp focus. It's structured around a drunken late-night booty call he makes to an old girlfriend, who has since found a new boyfriend. "F*ck that n*gg* that you love so bad," he sings. "I'm just saying you could do better." The title pays homage to Marvin Gaye, and though Drake is much younger than Gaye was during his Let's Get It On peak years, he is also a decent man seduced and trapped by his vices and his appetite for sex.
However, Gaye found artistic salvation by being brutally honest about his addictions. Perhaps Drake has yet to hit rock bottom -- he certainly hasn't in his career -- or maybe it's just immaturity. He eschews self-analysis and embraces the rap life as if it were religious dogma. "You say I'm such a dog/ I say you're such a bone," he says on "We'll Be Fine." On "Lord Knows," he adds, "I don't trust these hoes at all/ But that's just a result of me paying attention ... I'm talking strippers and models that try to gain attention/ Even a couple porn stars that I'm ashamed to mention." Eventually, his love affair with women starts to look like good ol' hip-hop misogyny.
Drake's quest to fit in leads to some awkward moments. Hilariously, he brags about his army of bodyguards and weed carriers: "You're gonna make someone around me catch a body," he claims on "Headlines." (What happened to Gang Starr's credo "Suckas Need Bodyguards"?) On "The Ride," he marvels, "Brand new girl/ And she's still growin'/ Brand new titties/ Stitches still showin'." He spouts Weezy and UGK verses on "Under Ground Kings," reminding us how Bun B gave him "honorary" membership in the famed Texas group. For "Lord Knows," Drake offers, "I know the hustle so well/ Stunt like I'm working overnighters right by the motel." He's sympathizing with the drug dealers and working-class stiffs, but his audience hasn't forgotten that he spent much of his teen years acting on an internationally televised teen soap opera, Degrassi High: The Next Generation.
Despite veering perilously close to creepiness, Drake thinks he's the same nice guy who emerged from Toronto's indie rap scene five years ago. "I like who I'm becoming," he says reassuringly on "Crew Love." He dedicates "Look What You've Done" to his family, reserving one verse each for his sickly mother and his late uncle. He refuses to question the hip-hop industry's rituals of debauchery, and how they may have changed him beyond fattening his bank account, allowing him to drink for free in nightclubs and enabling him to have sex with different women four nights a week.
Drake's lack of self-awareness limits Take Care's impact. Yes, it's a major event. Its cloud of synths and laptop arrangements approximates chillwave and electropop, and it sounds so lovely at times that it feels all-enveloping, like a warm blanket. Drake remains an underrated rapper whose only limits are a topical focus so narrow that his engaging wordplay is overlooked. It's not a positive sign when his guests, chiefly Kendrick Lamar on "Buried Alive Interlude" and Andre 3000 on "The Real Her," plumb emotional depths with one guest verse apiece that Drake barely reaches. However, to be fair, they don't have the burden of carrying this hour-plus album.
"My junior and senior will only get meaner," Drake promises. Until then, we only have Take Care's luscious waft of ambient R&B, the brilliance of "Marvin's Room," and the comfort that Drake has considerable room for improvement.