It all began with a drunk dial. On his 2011 hit “Marvin’s Room,” a confession in the form of a shot-down booty call, Drake confided his deepest anxieties about stardom and sex, divulging the exact number of times he’d had sex over the last week (four) and the sad details of who those women were (veritable strangers living on his payroll). Plenty of rappers before Drake had allowed themselves to look vulnerable, but none had ever let themselves look so unabashedly pathetic. With one song, Drake reinvented himself as rap’s most compelling open book, and he kept that candor flowing through his fantastic, deeply intimate 2011 album, Take Care.
For all of its weepy missives and Facebook-age oversharing, though, Take Care was at its core still a rap album, with frequent displays of muscle to back up Drake’s assertion that “showing emotion don’t ever mean I’m a pussy.” On his follow-up, Nothing Was The Same, Drake eases up on that machismo and distances himself even further from genre tropes to further mine the late-night vibe of Take Care’s softest stretches. Gone are the celebrations of strip clubs and syrup, and if there ever really were gunmen in Drake’s crew, he isn’t bragging about them anymore. A former child actor whose only youthful ties to the streets were that he drove past them sometimes between his shoots for Degrassi: The Next Generation, Drake has stopped pretending that he’s anything other than he is. Even when he gloats about struggles overcome on the chest-beating monster single “Started From The Bottom,” one of the Nothing’s few true bangers, they’re distinctly ordinary struggles—clocking thankless hours; saving up to move out of his mom’s house—not the gritty corner tales of so many of his peers.
That’s by design. Throughout the album, Drake goes out of his way to stress how universal his concerns are. “The furthest thing from perfect, like everyone I know,” he labels himself on the “Furthest Thing.” Reflecting on some past relationship turbulence on the plinky Jhené Aiko duet “From Time,” he pushes back, “Know we were going through some shit, name a couple that isn’t.” After a summer that saw Kanye West proclaim himself a deity and Jay Z release an album only Jay Z’s tax bracket could fully love, Drake pushes back against the idea of rap-star exceptionalism with his staunch insistence that he’s just like everybody else.
If Nothing Was The Same doesn’t resonate quite as consistently as Take Care, it’s because Drake and his in-house collaborator Noah “40” Shebib sometimes seem content to revisit that album’s sonic landscapes instead of carving out new ones. Especially during a couple mid-album stretches of unhurried, half-sung R&B songs, the duo lose time refining moods and ideas that were better realized the first time around. It’s hard to dwell too much on those plateaus, though, when they’re balanced by such monumental highs. “Tuscan Leather” opens the record with a six-minute rush of beat flips and kinetic spitting, a reminder of how well Drake can rap when a track demands it. The deep-house Lionel Richie homage “Hold On, We’re Going Home” may be Drake’s most sumptuous pop single yet, while the even more soulful “Too Much,” featuring a spotlight turn from British electronic singer Sampha, is beautiful in its achy simplicity.
For his final trick, on closer “Pound Cake/Paris Morton Music 2” Drake runs circles around the album’s only marquee guest, Jay Z—admittedly not the impossible feat it might have been a decade ago—with a verse that underscores just how grounded he is compared to rap’s other towering elites. “My classmates, they went on to be chartered accountants, or work with their parents,” he huffs, “But thinking back on how they treated me, my high school reunion might be worth an appearance / Make everybody have to go through security clearance.” Drake may be one of the world’s biggest pop stars, successful beyond imagination, but it’s a testament to his natural relatability that he can nonetheless voice a fantasy shared by bullied high school rejects everywhere.