Drake warns us what's coming on his new album "Nothing Was the Same," laying out a mission statement of sorts on sprawling opener "Tuscan Leather."
"This is nothin' for the radio/but they'll still play it though/Cause it's that new Drizzy Drake/that's just the way it go."
The most anticipated rap album of the year is here and "Nothing Was the Same" is probably nothing like you expected. Drake's third album is introspective, practically guest free and every bit as sonically brave as Kanye West's "Yeezus" - though not quite so abrasively bold.
Drake's right. There are no radio cuts here - a predictable inevitability after he debuted "Started from the Bottom" last winter. That song was nothing like the music Drake released on 2011's top album, the Grammy Award-winning "Take Care." Yet it got stronger, more mesmerizing and meaningful with each play, and it remains among the most streamed songs in a year overstuffed with sickly sweet pop tunes.
"Take Care" was meant to be played at top volume with the windows rolled down. It was club music. The party is over now. "Nothing" is for dark rooms and headphones. There are few hooks here, almost no choruses, not much to sing along to. The heart-on-his-sleeve rapper with a million friends and the tightest of crews seems all alone here after ridding himself of fake friends, trying to sort out why all the success, the money, the drugs and the women leave him with a hollow feeling.
He tells us over the course of the album how his relationships with his family and friends, like Lil Wayne and Nicki Minaj, have been strained.
The only pleasant memories seem to come from his childhood - represented by that chubby-cheeked cherub in the cover painting - and the "90s are all over the album, serving as touchstone, reminder and measuring stick.
He references the Wu-Tang Clan in the song "Wu-Tang Forever" and in a half-dozen other places. "Nothing" is full of the kind of studied minimalism and sped-up soul vocal samples favored by RZA and his acolytes like West, who we'll get back to in a minute. But he's not aping the game-changers as much as using them as a landmark.
So the biggest star in the rap world retreats. "I've been plottin' on the low," he sings on "Furthest Thing," "Schemin' on the low, the furthest thing from perfect like everybody I know."
It's moments like this that differentiate "Nothing Was the Same" from the year's other releases in the three-way battle for king of the hill. Where "Yeezus" shows us West has turned confrontational in the post-fame portion of his career and Jay Z has become condescending with "Magna Carta ... Holy Grail," Drake becomes more and more confessional with each release. His charismatic self-doubt remains intact even as he wears the crown.
It sits atop his sharp-cut fade, heavy and at a tilt, but still firmly in place.