Jonah Bromwich owns several Sunz of Man CDs.
Over the last decade of pop-rap, superstars have often tended to use their album’s first single as a mission statement. Jay-Z’s “Change Clothes,” was derided as being a crappy, superficial single, but the song’s chorus and verses introduced The Black Album’s themes: a mature Jay, acknowledging his past, concerned with his legacy and brushing off other rappers as not being on his level. It was a comprehensive, easy-listening package. “Love Lockdown,” was a landscape-changing introduction to a landscape-changing album in 808’s and Heartbreaks. And though Lil Wayne’s “Lollipop,” was a one-off novelty song, “A Milli,” Tha Carter III’s second single is a perfect encapsulation of that album’s manic rap grab-bag mentality.
Drake’s history reveals mostly catchy singles with extraordinarily bland content. “”Over,” and Headlines,” the trend-bucking first singles from his first two albums are beige songs about the triumph of fame. They succeeded based on catchy hooks and melodic verses. But Nothing Was the Same‘s lead single, “Started from the Bottom,” proved to the opening salvo for an album on which Drake relentlessly courts his nagging chief critics: conservative hip-hop heads.
For as long as he’s been around, Drake has been abhorred by a certain kind of rap fan. It’s difficult to pin down exactly why this is. Reasons may or may not include: Drake is soft, he’s overrated, he’s got a douchey personality, he has no content, he sings too much, rap fans still tends towards homophobia and Drake seems girly, etc. But it’s clear that hip-hop traditionalists have never made much time for Drizzy. BigGhostFase, a parody blogger who criticizes music in Ghostface Killah’s voice exemplifies the type—his review of Drake’s last album Take Care was a devastating litany of drawn-out observations about Drake’s softness.
Drake knows the criticism – in the past he’s always been of the “I make hits, so my kiss my ass” school of thought. But Nothing Was the Same seems like a genuine attempt for him to reconnect with rap nerds like the one he used to be, and it all starts with “Started from the Bottom.” The track is a plea of authenticity, a humorless attempt for Drake to posit himself as just another “ashy to classy” member of the historical rap elite. It works better than either of Drake’s other lead singles (again, more due to a excellent beat from Mike Zombie and smart flow choices than to actual content) but it’s probably his most interesting attempt yet to appeal to a fan base that has always dismissed him. And he acknowledges that explicitly: “boys tell stories bout the man, say I wasn’t hungry, never struggled, yeah I doubt it.”
Nothing Was the Same is best understood as a continuation of that message. On the album’s opener, ”Tuscan Leather,” Drake claims that he could rap for an hour over the beat, the kind of Joe Budden-esque sentiment that’s calculated to appeal to heads, to “the borough niggas” that Drake says he’s aiming for on the same song. Wu-Tang, arguably the most famous rap crew that never went pop, is all over the album – there’s the track “Wu-Tang Forever” and the “C.R.E.A.M.” referencing “Pound Cake/Paris Morton Music 2,” (which, for the record, contains yet another horrific Jay-Z verse. It’s gotten to the point where Jay-Z has to prove himself to rap stans all over again, and here he seems less well-equipped to do it than Drake.)
Even when he reverts to confessional-mode, Drake stays on message. “From Time,” contains a revealing set of lines:
“I want to get back to when I was that kid in the basement, I want to take it deeper than money, pussy, vacation and influence a generation that’s lacking in patience.”
Nothing Was the Same is filled with this kind of nineties nostalgia, for a time when Drake was just another kid who loved rap, as opposed to a pariah in the eyes of those people who he used to see as kin.
Drake’s subject matter has never changed all that much. The thrust of his albums simply depends on what aspect of his personality that he’s choosing to emphasize. On Take Care, the rap-cred establishing songs were shoved into the record’s monotonous middle. That’s reversed here – the biggest songs on this record are the ones that find Drake looking to posit himself as a legitimate rappity-rap rapper. Whether or not it succeeds is a question for someone else to answer. My opinion is “no,” but I have a history of naysaying Drake albums only to end up liking them. Yet what’s clear is that Nothing Was the Same is undoubtedly an album meant to appease those critics that Drake has never quite found a way to reach.