by Eleni Armenakis
Drake’s place on the Polaris short list might be the most contentious nomination this year. While the Polaris is awarded on merit, there’s a strong undercurrent of thought that suggests the prize, and it’s $30,000 reward, are better off in the hands of Canada’s up-and-coming musicians—more so, that is, than big names like Drake. But it’s also hard to deny Drake is deserving of Canadian recognition considering how dedicated he still is to his hometown, especially on an album like Nothing Was The Same, which he partially recorded in and around Toronto.
Drake (a.k.a Aubrey Drake Graham) once again indulges in his trademark style of self-reflective hip hop, alternating between straight rap and more musically driven mixes. Still, NWTS is no Take Care –Drake’s forays into the past aren’t the dark, jumbled swirl of emotions that carried him into the mainstream. There’s a sense of order and wizened experience this time around as he resists his usual brooding calls for more straightforward nostalgia.
It’s on NWTS too that Drake’s ties to Toronto come out clearly—on “Connect” he maps his route through the city’s highways at night, capturing not just numbers and signs but a sense of that youthful thrill and innocence that goes with the memories. And on “The Language” Drake proves he still has edge as he verbally rejects his surroundings, “Get what I can out the country and then I just get on a jet and go back to the cold” before segueing into the bass-laden “305 To My City.” While much of the album seems to be dedicated to his newfound status (especially the infamous “Started From The Bottom”), the album’s memories seem more distinctly tied to his older life in Toronto and its people.
That isn’t to say there isn’t a certain amount of posturing going on, from the meta six minute “Tuscan Leather” with it’s slow fade, “How much time is this […] spending on the intro?” to the album’s first single (with the video’s not-so-subtle nods to Canada and Toronto thrown in) in which Drake makes the bold claim he’s reached the top. While it’s the sort of assertion that doesn’t always wash down easy, the admission also shifts the album’s reception. NWTS is a vastly different beast than the two full-length albums and EP that preceded it—it’s no longer a predominantly hook-filled struggle to prove himself. And yet, even with his perceived success it’s obvious Drake still felt the need to push himself further instead of once again releasing the kind of music he already knew would be popular.
Because yes, “Started From The Bottom” is almost irritatingly catchy, and “Hold On, We’re Going Home” is yet another anthemic ballad. But beyond the initial singles, Drake’s engaged in some creative experimentation, changing things up by singing soulfully at the beginning of “Own It” instead of delivering the same old beat. And there’s a certain amount of respect on display when Jhené Aiko nearly steals “From Time” as her softly sung “I love me enough for the both of us” juxtaposes perfectly with his harsher words, revealing an appreciation for the guests on the album (not all of them as predictable as Jay-Z) along with the confidence to let someone else command the song.
And while Drake has never hesitated over the kind of admissions other rappers would never dare to say, there’s a bold vulnerability as he reveals, “I hate stopping for gas this late ‘cause there’s […] creepin’,” turning NWTS into a confessional of all his youthful insecurities even as he boasts about his new status—not a new move, but it’s hard to remember lines this open on his previous work. It’s part of a larger return to the past brought on by coming home—and given just enough time and distance to turn them into the kind of verses that let us in while still maintaining that artistic presence.
It’s this strange mixture of continuing to push himself while creating his most overtly patriotic album yet that justifies Drake’s place on the short list of Canada’s treasured indie prize. It’s easy to convince yourself to work hard when you have something to prove, but harder to avoid becoming complacent once you’ve reached the so-called top.