In late 2002, Source magazine publisher and sometime rapper Ray “Benzino” Scott declared war on Eminem—he produced a tape of the Detroit superstar rapping the n-word as a teenager, called him “the rap Hitler,” and mentioned that, by the way, there was a new Benzino record hitting stores soon. At root, Scott’s beef revolved around issues of cultural ownership and privilege: Did a white kid really deserve to be the world’s biggest hip-hop star? One thing Scott said on the subject was a bit more measured—and rang a bit truer—than the “rap Hitler” stuff: “Eminem gets to talk about his issues and his pain,” he told MTV, adding, “We have to rock the party in order to get spins and burn on the radio. We have to entertain more than expose our true issues. When black and Latino people try to give our pain on there we couldn’t get burn. The machine doesn’t want our pain to be out there.”
Eight years later, pain is everywhere at the top of the rap charts. In mainstream hip-hop, emotions like regret, longing, and insecurity have routinely been funneled into a handful of well-worn, inadequate tropes (the deceased-friends song, the apologize-to-mom song), or displaced from the lyrics into the music (“I can’t see ‘em coming down my eyes/ so I gotta make the song cry,” Jay-Z rapped in 2001 over a poignant soul sample), or stowed away wholesale behind a front of invincibility. But the genre has become a moody place of late. The watershed moment was 808s & Heartbreak, Kanye West’s 2008 album of wrathful breakup rhymes set to desolate, coldly clanking beats. Since then, Cleveland-born MC (and 808s collaborator) Kid Cudi has made a niche for himself as rap’s “lonely stoner” and is certainly the first MC to turn the phrase “tell me what you know about night terrors” into a hook; last month, the Atlanta newcomer B.o.B. scored a hit with “Airplanes,” a clenched, come-down of a single featuring Paramore’s Hayley Williams on the chorus; Lil Wayne has released an album of aggravated, misanthropic rock-rap; and Eminem, on something of a comeback trail, is about to release Recovery, an LP about drug addiction and despair—its needy lead single, “Not Afraid,” entered the pop charts at No. 1.
And then there’s a 23-year-old, half-black, half-Jewish, all-Canadian rapper named Drake, whose much-anticipated debut album, Thank Me Later, will be released on June 15. Drake, born Aubrey Drake Graham, is not only the most heralded rookie in hip-hop, but he’s also the poster boy for what some call the genre’s “emo” phase. As fond of pickup lines as he is of punch lines, Drake is a smoothie with a twist: The good life gets him down. “I want the money, money and the cars, cars and the clothes, and the hoes,” begins the hook to 2009’s “Successful,” before ending on a note of ambivalence: “I suppose.” In an interview with Billboard, the programming director at New York’s Hot 97 summed up the Drake brand in three words: “flossy yet vulnerable.”
As hip-hop biographies go, Drake’s is unusual. The child of a black man and a white woman who divorced when he was 5, Drake was raised by his mother in Forest Hill, a wealthy, heavily Jewish suburb of Toronto. He had a bar mitzvah, and he still celebrates Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. In 2001 he was cast on the teen soap Degrassi: The Next Generation as Jimmy, a basketball player who was put in a wheelchair by a school shooter in the fourth season. Drake rapped as a hobby until 2008, when songs of his fell into the hands of Lil Wayne, who—seeing the signs of a fellow virtuoso in the former’s punch-line-packed, internal-rhyme-riddled verses—promptly invited him to join his circle.
In light of Drake’s background, the apparent smoothness and speed of his ascent is surprising. By contrast, Eminem spent years struggling for acceptance in the hip-hop clubs of Detroit, and Kanye West worked hard to convince label executives to sign a middle-class Midwesterner: “We all grew up street guys who had to do whatever we had to do to get by,” Jay-Z told Time in 2005, recalling his hesitation in signing West to Roc-A-Fella Records. “Then there’s Kanye, who to my knowledge has never hustled a day in his life. I didn’t see how it could work.”
West helped turn a résumé like Drake’s from a liability to an asset, and Drake is smart enough to turn his comfortable upbringing into its own sort of brag. On “Say What’s Real,” from 2009, he upends the familiar story of the well-off suburban kid who idolizes gangstas: “Drug dealers live vicariously through me,” he raps. Still, Drake doesn’t throw credibility out the window as a hip-hop must-have, he just re-defines it. In trying to communicate his realness, he still makes reference to struggle and adversity, it’s just that his struggles are mostly emotional.
After two hit-or-miss mixtapes—Room for Improvement and Comeback Season—Drake’s sound came into focus on 2009’s So Far Gone. His music gravitated toward lunar, hard-knocking R&B beats, and he began singing his own choruses in a tender, wistful voice. And whereas he’d been a stylistic show-boater before, eager to prove his chops, he honed a more economical approach that fit the songs’ spare sonics. On “Lust for Life,” he crams some bars with syllables, and leaves others pointedly gutted, while rhyming vividly about being the lonely life of the party: “And as for them pretty light-skinned models standin’ in the cold? Ah yeah, they with us/Let them girls in for a drink, and I’m all in they ear/ Saying she should be the one I see, everytime that I’m here/But when am I really even here?”
On “The Calm” we get further into Drake’s inability to fully enjoy himself: He describes visiting a Western Union to wire money to his father, who has apparently fallen on hard times, even as Drake’s stable of luxury cars expands. To be sure, driving a Range Rover to a nightclub stocked with “pretty, light-skinned models” isn’t the easiest predicament to sympathize with, but it’s to Drake’s credit that throughout So Far Gone he isn’t asking for sympathy, exactly, so much as sliding bitter notes of alienation into what would otherwise be routine tales of hedonism—sometimes, in fact, these laments do double-duty as boasts: Oh, Drake seems to be saying, you woke up next to three girls, couldn’t remember their names and thought it was really cool? Well, I do the same thing except it fills me with a profound malaise. He’s a post-playa.
But this can be a game of diminishing returns. Go back to the party-pooper well too often and a) you come off as one-note and b) your listeners will soon tire of hearing you whine about all the great times they weren’t invited to in the first place. This is Drake’s challenge on Thank Me Later and, as the album demonstrates, he hasn’t quite figured out how best to tackle it.
Thank Me Later is full of songs that revisit the same terrain Drake navigated with more verve and insight on So Far Gone. The music, by turns morose, frostbitten, and smoldering, sounds great, but the guy at the center of it all can be a tremendous bore. His central thesis remains the same—fame is a warping, isolating, addictive force—only instead of pushing past that (familiar) conceit and diving deeper into what it means to be a hip-hop star alienated from his own pleasure, Drake stays at surface level. Moments like the Western Union trip from “The Calm” are replaced with meaningless clichés, starting with the album’s very first lines: “Money just changed everything/ I wonder how life without it would go/ From the concrete, who knew that a flower would grow?” Throughout, Drake’s breath-of-fresh-air sensitivity campaign congeals into shtick—on “Cece’s Interlude” he actually sings, “I wish I! Wasn’t famous!” Too frequently, the album is the story of a dynamic artist reducing himself to a type.
There are some flashes of greatness. “Shut It Down,” which features the effortlessly entertaining R&B singer The-Dream, lives in the moment where desire becomes excruciating, expanding a passing ripple of across-the-party longing into a seven-minute, minor-key epic. “Light Up” is an indignant kiss-off to haters, though it derives most of its power from a brutal Jay-Z cameo. And in the context of Drake’s hand-wringing, it’s refreshing to hear him at his most bluntly boastful. On “Up All Night,” Drake puns on the word stunt, roughly hip-hop slang for flaunt: “I’m busy getting rich, I don’t want trouble/ I made enough for two niggas, boy: stunt double.”
The problem is that throughout the album Drake drains his palette of virtually any color besides gray. There is a great, unlikely rhyme to be written about Canadian child stardom, or Yom Kippur, or about any of the other anomalies on Drake’s C.V., but he doesn’t go there. Perhaps the commercial expectations that attach to an official debut pushed him in more conventional directions. But after spending an hour in the company of Thank Me Later, you might be surprised at how little you’ve learned about him. A first album is a strange place to run out of ideas.