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 adlib on “Language,” and a pair of imperious Jay-Z verses on “Pound Cake.” He wants vindication as a hip-hop god by his own merit.
Lil Wayne could have made a much worse album than Tha Carter IV. Certainly, he seemed primed for a disaster. 2010’s widely derided Rebirth was a sophomoric pop-punk experiment. Its follow-up, the I Am Not A Human Being EP, marked a retreat to his modus operandi as a Dirty South rhyme animal, but it sounded rote and joyless, and he seemed distracted by a pending prison stint for weapons possession (which he completed early this year). After those relative failures – both went gold on Lil Wayne’s brand name and his unquenchable base of fans – Tha Carter IV seems less likely to draw the same excitement and interest as 2008’s Tha Carter III. And while teaser singles such as “John,” “6 Foot 7 Foot,” “How to Love” and “She Will” were decent, none of them equaled the classic minimalist attack of Volume III’s “A Milli” or the inexplicably popular pillow-hump ballad “Lollipop.”
Nicki Minaj is a self-described Harajuku girl with a potty mouth and a dementedly theatrical fashion sense to match. Much like Katy Perry, Lady Gaga, and Ke$ha, Nicki Minaj is a brand in constant flux, re-positioning herself from video to public appearance to newly-released digital single. The series of teaser tracks for Pink Friday: Roman’s Reloaded brought a variety of fresh guises, including usurper of Lil Kim’s rap queen throne on “Stupid Hoe,” and the nightclub siren of “Starships.” (One early single, “Roman in Moscow,” didn’t make the final cut.) Helpfully, she cleaves Roman’s Reloaded into two distinct halves. Lovers of her face-melting rhymes get “HOV Lane” (as in Jay-Z a.k.a. “Jay Hova”) and ciphers with Rick Ross, Cam’Ron, and Nas. Fans who adore her radio confections get clubby house tracks like “Starships” made by Lady Gaga’s “Poker Face” producer RedOne.
However, this was supposed to be an hour completely devoted to Nicki’s manic id, Roman Zolanski, the one who upstaged Kanye West on “Monster,” swiped credit for Big Sean’s hit “Dance (A$$),” and the self-described “lunatic” who battled with Eminem on “Roman’s Revenge.” Roman is essentially a stand-in for Nicki the MC, but Nicki the MC doesn’t pay her bills, at least when it comes to her solo success. Her biggest hits, like “Super Bass” and “Moment for Life,” featured her singing front and center, and even though she rapped on both songs, it’s the flat voice and Trinidadian lilt that we remember. So Roman the rap lunatic takes a backseat on Roman Reloaded, while Nicki the multi-platform pop sensation gets a majority of face time.
“I swear to God I ain’t nervous,” pronounces Lil Wayne on “Curtains,” his voice wavering under an Auto-Tune effect. Then he adds, “I spent my birthday in jail/ I was making bad decisions.” For a brief, tantalizing second, it seems like he’s making himself vulnerable. But it’s just a glimpse, and he quickly buries the impulse: “My niggas got them birds/ You ain’t even got bird seeds/ Your bitch ride me like a go kart/ I play that pussy like Mozart.”
Still, those moments of clarity are the most interesting aspect of I Am Not a Human Being II, an album on which Lil Wayne doggedly sticks to his path as a young, rich and tasteless rhyme animal. Nothing he says here is as shockingly offensive as 2011’s Tha Carter IV and “I’m Good,” when he retorted “Nigga I’m straight/ My girl a faggot.” But it’s not for lack of trying. “These niggas nag like bitches/ Actin’ like little fags like Richard,” he growls on “Trigger Finger.” He talks about his dick a lot, because, as he claims on “Back to You,” “this dick won’t suck itself/ You know it needs some help.” His lyrical spray ranges from thrillingly provocative (the title track, “Trippy” and “Gunwalk”) to clumsily boorish and ineffective (“No Worries” and “Wowzerz”). Sometimes it sounds like IANAHB II is an hour-plus freestyle about bitches, pussy and his dick.
On the cover artwork for his second album Take Care, Drake holds a pair of chalices. He’s dressed in a black shirt with the top buttons undone, revealing his hairy chest, and he wears a thick gold chain 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 YMCMB bosses Lil Wayne and Baby the Birdman (Young Money – Cash Money Billionaires). Meanwhile, 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 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 he introduced on Thank Me Later, including Frank Ocean and the Weeknd (who appears 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, taunt them as being too “soft,” lob homophobic slurs and claim 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.