If it's true, as some have suggested, that rapper and singer Drake is the musical voice of his generation, one statistic on his new album is instructive: Through 13 tracks over the course of an hour, the platinum rapper mentions himself nearly 500 times.
This third volume, called "Nothing Was the Same," sees the Toronto hip-hop superstar, 26, offering thoughts on his day-to-day, the spoils of his riches, his girls and his bitches (but seldom his ladies or women), his dad, his mom, his success and his isolation.
He's the would-be King of Generation Selfie, whose mirror gaze is directed at matters occasionally universal but too often minuscule: "I hate stopping for gas this late," "I'm on a roll like Cottonelle," "The one that I needed was Courtney from Hooter's on Peachtree" (whom he considers "the piece to complete me") are among the lines he offers.
Of course, whole tomes could be written about inflatable autobiography in rap lyrics. Self-involvement is a cornerstone of it (and most art). But self-portraiture isn't inherently interesting, as anyone who's endured the Rich Kids of Instagram stream can attest. The picture needs to pop, needs to produce heat, and Drake on "Nothing" reveals its creator to be strikingly ... normal. At times jagged and sharp, sure. But mostly the work of someone who rides the waves without much interest in making them.
Drake has long harnessed self-involvement and internal monologue as tools for tugging hearts and bumping body parts. He examines his plight and intentions while chasing booty, bragging one minute then scolding the next. In small doses, such autobiographical openness is a strength, especially when delivered within a sound that at its best is as alluring and groovy as a Sade track. With a subtle 3 a.m. vibe perfect for bedroom tugs-of-war, "Nothing Was the Same" revels in such candlelit contradiction. When he's not lusting he's leaving — so that he may lust again. He sure sounds good doing it.
At his most self-indulgent, though, Drake is the guy at the dinner party who won't shut up about himself, who dishes the extended yarns of a self-described "kid with a motor mouth" absent much curiosity for the stories of those surrounding him. He talks a lot without saying much, a man less interested in conversation, language and craft than he is with experiential navel-gazing.
It's what he does, and at times "Nothing" can be really something. When he's addressing matters of relational import, as on "From Time," Drake's music feels universal. A song about his father, it's both smart and touching, carried along by a liquid jam produced by composer/pianist Chilly Gonzales and Drake's longtime collaborator Noah "40" Shebib. The Shebib- and Hudson Mohawke-produced "Connect," too, is an exquisite late-night jam, muffled, groovy and private.
"Started From the Bottom" is vital for another reason: With pure braggadocio and celebratory glee, Drake carries the listener through his formative biography with earnest pride, then rolls around in the spoils for all to see.
"Hold On, We're Going Home," too, is sweet and catchy, an obvious hit. Still, it's a touch clumsy, mired by condescension toward the woman he desires, the chorus delivered with a tone that suggests he could be addressing either human or puppy. "You're a good girl and you know it, you act so differently around me," he sings before deciding that he knows "exactly who you could be/Just hold on, we're going home."
Such triviality is Drake's weakness. His indifference to (mostly) nameless women turns them into headless bodies from whom he expects devotion even when he's on his worst behavior. Nothing may be the same, but as the tracks pile up little feels at stake that suggests self-aware transformation. He's still shining his ego and buffing his bank balance while pondering some random girl's utility.
By the end, "Nothing Was the Same" overwhelms even by Drake's selfie standards, and confirms that just because they're well-marketed and Midwest-palatable doesn't make internal diaries wholly compelling. More lyrically and musically adventurous artists such as Kanye West, Kendrick Lamar and Earl Sweatshirt can get away with self-absorption due to the sheer force of their gifted verbosity. Few jams, after all, are as myopic as West's "I Am a God" or Sweatshirt's simmering "Chum."
Still, I'll take loose-cannon college dropouts and gifted young students over motor-mouths. The self-centered guest, after all, is only fascinating to those willing to put up with all the me-me-me. Just because this voice is well soundtracked doesn't necessarily make it engaging. Spout about yourself all you want — and wake me when you get to the illuminating parts.
"Nothing Was the Same"