Drake‘s debut mixtape wasn’t So Far Gone. That was just his breakout moment. His true origin began years earlier, with a self-produced, little-heard mixtape called Room For Improvement. That first foray into hip-hop for the then-teenage Canadian soap opera star feels like it bears little resemblance to the larger-than-life, walking meme that Drake’s music and demeanor have become since. It’s an earnest effort, with flashes of the Drake we would all come to know and love (or love to hate), but with a sincere, “real hip-hop,” backpack rap veneer that tells us more about who Drake is than any of his more “confessional” and emotive recent output.
Drake’s a rap nerd (not to be confused with nerd rapper). He always has been, and it seems likely that he always will be. By blowing up and taking that underground rap style mainstream, he opened the door for a new generation of rappers who wear their hip-hop geek badges proudly on their sleeves. He found the sweet spot between the two poles, solidifying his place as a pioneer of the genre and providing the recipe for success in an arena that has long demanded artists pick a side.
There’s no singing on Room For Improvement, and very little on its follow-up, Comeback Season. On both of these mixtapes, Drake goes for broke lyrically, jumbling up complex rhyme schemes and punchlines like a late-’90s Lyricist Lounge invite dead set on impressing with his wordplay and technical ability. While his guest star, Virginia rap expert Nickelus F, handles the street talk on most of the album, Drake parses his favorite topics: Toronto and the women thereof. On tracks like “AM 2 PM” and “City Is Mine,” he juggles multisyllabic cadences, throwing out references to the twin cities where he was raised, Toronto and Memphis, Tennessee while telling tales of his nighttime exploits of sneaking into bars and clubs.
The difference between then and now is the presentation. Currently, his longtime production partner Boi-1da provides beats prototypical of his modern, more-refined style, but Drake spends most of his old tapes rapping over relatively straightforward two-track soul samples and boom bap drums. In short, it’s an underground album that makes no pretense about wanting to be one. There’s a neo-soul vibe throughout, as if The Boy were influenced as much by Dwele, D’Angelo, and Raheem DeVaughn as by the lyricists that he openly apes with his wordy flows — Lupe Fiasco, Phonte Coleman (of Little Brother) and Elzhi (of Slum Village). He does his best, but forced punchlines like, “I’m perfecting my craft using more Sess / Tryna make some cheese off a single is a process / Get it? Kraft, single, cheese, process,” hurt the image of an able wordsmith he tries to hard to portray.
It’s no great leap to imagine that these were his earlier influences; Lupe’s “Kick, Push” is one of the songs he remixes on Room For Improvement, while Little Brother and Elzhi figure prominently on tracks from Comeback Season. However, it’s also clear on Comeback Season that Drake’s rap nerdiness pushed him to branch out. He began featuring even more street-oriented rappers in Pusha T and Lil Wayne, perhaps already feeling confined by the restraints of backpack rap.