The last time I visited Toronto, I asked my host to drive us through Forest Hill, my curiosity for the environs piqued specifically because of this rapper/singer named Drake whose much maligned (but frequently clever) hashtag flow and aw-shucks interview personality have dominated the States’ urban music landscape for nearly three years now. If you ever hope to understand a person, you have to first comprehend where they came from, so, like a responsible music writer, I was seeking context.
The first thing to note about Forest Hill is that it resembles a place more likely to produce dentists or investment bankers, not rappers. Affluent origins and monumental success in the rap game are not mutually exclusive states of existence, but they’re fairly uncommon denominators. To his credit, Drake has never been the type to practice unnatural menacing postures in public. His doe-eyed daytime TV appearance would betray any hints of studio gangsterism, anyway, but that’s never been the issue for detractors. Instead, the rapper’s pre-music acting career — as disabled, former high school basketball star Jimmy Brooks on Canadian teen soap Degrassi: The Next Generation — is the popular foil for haters’ affronts. “He’s soft!” is the rallying cry most heard from doubters who take up message board arms against Drizzy. It’s a fairly empty accusation that speaks more about the philosophically-challenged accusers than their target, especially considering it’s that very characterization Drake is most comfortable assuming on record.
Drake is also part of a generation that is alarmingly comfortable with making its emotional needs — every single little one of them — a public and permanent record. Considering that the current set of early twenty-somethings (of even modest privilege) came of age in a time when no one in their households had to share a telephone, a computer, or even a television, it’s not surprising that this is the type of pop star who would emerge. This decade’s young people emote freely via social media like a minion of only-children, even if they are not. Drake betrays their (and his) technologically-infused angst in the first verse of “HYFR (Hell Yeah Fuckin’ Right)” which traces an entire romantic tryst, from meet-up to break-up, in the concise form of text messaging. All of this can seem quite disposable at times to folks who still find some amount of novelty inside those magical handheld phone boxes — it’s easy to forget that these traces of digital data are this generation’s version of handwritten love notes.
All of this self-indulgence can make Drizzy out to be a real whiner sometimes, so he balances it with a fairly standard swag-rapper persona that’s wholly unbelievable but sounds great over producer Noah “40” Shebib’s hip-hop sonic chamber music. Rap culture has been the mainstay trend among young people for at least 15 years now, so when a mode of dress or speak is disseminated across broadband, it’s hip-hop’s that is most commonly aped. That’s not to say Drake is King Poseur of all Poseurdom, but, when in Rome…
Take Care has brag-rap to spare and on bangers like “Headlines” and “We’ll Be Fine,” Drake weaves his punchline smirkiness with familiar don’t-test-me rap tropes. Tracks like these are immensely pleasing, sonically. 40 somehow manages to create compositions that are both spare and voluminous, a form of understated club music by way of subdued orchestral effects layered underneath massive percussion and bass. Nothing moves too quickly in the rhythm section, but double-time snares often accompany kicks, allowing Drake to ride the beat clean or switch to fast-forward, which he does skillfully. The rapper found his muse in 40 (or perhaps it’s the other way around) years ago and in fact the only place he falters vocally here is “Lord Knows,” where Drake sounds brittle (although who doesn’t?) under the gravity of Just Blaze’s trademark bombast. Thankfully a well-placed Rick Ross picks up the slack, adding verbal weight to the track in addition to Take Care’s most tastefully offensive bon mot: “Villa on the water with the wonderful views / Only fat nigga in a sauna with Jews.” The quip doesn’t feel quite like an off-the-cuff remark considering Drake’s own semitic heritage.
Toronto itself is a diverse and eclectic city that seems to lack a single identity. About half of its residents were born outside of Canada which, in an arguably subversive way, transforms the city into a blank canvas: a landscape onto which one could conceivably project whatever he or she wanted. Where it seems like Drake is committing blatant rap identity grabs (the YMCMB association, the archetypical rap womanizer, the affirmations of being a “real nigga”), it’s more likely he’s accepting the ambiguousness of where he’s from, and running all the way to pop stardom with it. The only place on Take Care where we see Drake make a step toward true artistic individuality, is on the album’s best offering, the title track. “Take Care” combines elements of R&B, rap, dance, and indie rock, employing a big-name feature in Rihanna, but also allowing co-producer Jamie xx and a sampled ghostly wail of the late, great Gil Scott-Heron to be the track’s spiritual guides. The lyrics deal in simple romantic fare — slowing down a fast-paced life in order to let love in and work for the sake of long-term happiness — but the authoritative movement of the track’s rhythm feels like real progression for Drake.
The sum of Take Care’s emotive elements equal an artist who is one part sad-sack Charlie Brown, and one part exceptionally brash young man who’s had the fortune of never wanting for much in the way of material things. Drake is mostly window-shopping the fame part — trying on the clothes and the girls simply because he can. Whether you believe him when he tells you that all he really wants is a few loyal friends and the one love of his life, is up to you. Over the course of Take Care’s 18 tracks, he makes a fairly entertaining case that it’s true.