3 stars (out of 4)
Drake, the melancholy hustler with a conscience, is back drunk-dialing former girlfriends and mourning the ones who got away. Jay-Z he is not.
Hip-hop’s hard-core faithful don’t know what to make of him; he’s too soft, too sensitive and does too much crooning. And where are the beats? But on “Take Care” (Young Money/Cash Money/Universal), the Toronto MC’s second album, Drake remains resolutely himself. He hones the introspective tone set by his earlier work and sings or raps in a voice that confides more than boasts.
Though hip-hop has had its share of “emo”-inspired soul-searchers in past decades, from Atmosphere to Eminem (when he’s not in Slim Shady mode, that is), it was Kanye West’s 2008 album, “808s and Heartbreak,” that set off the most recent wave of inward-looking sensitivity. It presaged everything from the introspective hip-hop of Kid Cudi’s “Man on the Moon: The End of Day” (2009) to the wispy crooning, plush keyboards and light mechanical beats of Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon and British dub-step balladeer James Blake. Drake shares plenty with both camps, which is why his take on hip-hop is so skewed (and so frequently skewered by rap purists).
Toronto-born Aubrey Drake Graham, 25, was championed by Lil Wayne and capitalized on the hype with a series of song-stealing cameos on other artists’ singles, a well-received 2009 EP and mix tape, and a million-selling 2010 debut album, “Thank Me Later.”
With “Take Care,” Drake refines the formula. By refusing to indulge in the macho poses that have dominated mainstream hip-hop for decades, and blurring the line between singing and rhyming, he becomes instantly divisive – and occasionally he gets defensive about it. “Showing emotion don’t make me a (wimp),” he protests.
Mostly, he struggles with maintaining balance as success washes over him, or, as he pithily acknowledges in “Lord Knows,” he’s “looking for the right way to do the wrong things.” The trials of too much wealth and fame as subject matter for rap and rock songs has a long and mostly dubious history, but Drake turns his tales into moral psychodramas that transcend exclusive after-parties with cocaine and hookers. Mostly, he comes across as a kid who got in over his head and now is trying to dig out.
He calls an old girlfriend in “Marvin’s Room” to tell her he has “sex four times a week,” not too boast but to confess that he’s losing his grip. “I thought I found the girl of my dreams at a strip club … I was wrong, though,” he admits in “Over My Dead Body.” And, in what must be a first for a would-be hustler, he’s “ashamed to mention” the porn stars trying to make it with him.
All of which may not sound like much to folks who don’t travel in such privileged circles, but it places the concepts of self-doubt, remorse and regret at the center of Drake’s persona. He’s capable of rapping forcefully (with a tinge of bravado leaking in) or in a whisper; what’s appealing is that he makes his rhymes sound conversational, matter of fact, like he’s talking to the listener one-one-one rather than making A Statement About How Hard It Is To Be Me. As a singer, he’s not bad, either. His voice is neither showy nor croakily off-key (as Kanye West and Lil Wayne can often be when they break into Luther Vandross mode). He moves melodies around without much effort, implanting little hooks in the listeners’ heads almost without trying.
His music is equally outside the hip-hop norm, with beat-less interludes and lost-in-space keyboards that occasionally make Drake sound like he’s several planets away. At other moments, he’s out front in the mix, curling up alone and muttering pillow-talk to an audience of one: himself. He’s at a piano bar at closing time in “Look What You’ve Done,” talking about his family and remembering an argument he once had with his mother. Countless hip-hop hard guys have a soft spot for their moms, but Drake’s take is more complex and fully developed. In Drake’s telling, slights between family members linger even as the bonds endure.
It’s also telling that mom gets the last word in “Look What You’ve Done.” What little bravado exists on “Take Care” is often supplied by the women he not only covets but admires, some who are no longer in the narrator’s life, except as memories. “I’m so proud of you,” he croons to his “college-educated girl … with a future and a past,” and then Nicki Minaj snaps out two verses fiercer than anything Drake puts down.
Too bad the album runs out of steam before its nearly 80 minutes and two wholly unnecessary Lil Wayne cameos are up. Still, the best of it affirms that Drake is shaping a pop persona with staying power. Sticking pretty much to his less-flashy in-house producers, he keeps “Take Care” in a lower key. Even with serial-songstress Rihanna on “Take Care” (is it possible to release a pop-leaning album anymore without a Rihanna cameo?), the tone is muted, loaded with reverb and beats that occasionally drop out completely.
On “Lord Knows,” with Just Blaze dialing up a choir, bombastic drums and a Rick Ross cameo, Drake finally dares to strut. But it’s an anomaly on an album that prefers the ambiguity of “Doing it Wrong,” in which Drake breaks up with a girl and then lies to her in a misguided effort to cushion her fall. Even the natural joy of Stevie Wonder’s harmonica playing is turned into an elegy for the couple’s demise. Here’s the rare hip-hop star who allows himself to sound lost. It’s not an album about how tough it is to be famous, but how tough it is to live with yourself after your moral compass has been shattered.