Get in to any debate about Drake for long enough and you’re bound to have the same exchange everybody else has had.
“Well, Drake doesn’t have a classic album.”
“What about Take Care?”
For many, that’s the beginning of the path of divergence on Drake, the most famous and most controversial of all of rap’s figures in this post-blog era. His reign on the top is as long as any we’ve ever seen — including Jay Z, Kanye West, Kendrick Lamar — and anybody else. Rarely has a run lasted as long without public opinion waning on an artist, and despite some vocal detractors, now, nearly eight years since his breakthrough mixtape So Far Gone, the Canadian MC is bigger than he’s ever been.
Despite his current, commercial peak, it’s a near consensus that Aubrey Graham was at his artistic peak on his second album Take Care, which celebrates its fifth annviersary tomorrow. For many it’s his lone classic, the album of such prestige and universal acclaim that every legendary rapper must possess to truly solidify his status amongst the elite. The all have them, and the truly upper-echelon rappers have multiple classics, which makes the fact that Drake has become so revered without an undeniably transcendent, genre and era-defining album in the vein of Jay Z’s Blueprint, Nas’ Illmatic, and Kanye West’s College Dropout maybe his most puzzling and impressive accomplishment.
In some respects, Drake’s greatest trait may be his most glaring flaw. He’s almost too successful for the requisite risks to craft a classic, and as a pop star he has to touch so many bases on each release that it hardly allows for the focus that nearly all classic rap albums possess. Illmatic is the story of one project stoop, The Blueprint is an hour-long confessional/retrospective, the same for Good Kid, M.A.A.D City. This is where Take Care comes close, as it’s basically the tales a forlorn star dealing with the pressures of celebrity and hollow relationships. They’re all focused efforts, either thematically, sonically or in most cases, both.
Drake, with his dual identities and sing/rap ying-yang — and multiple chefs in the kitchen, probably — is rarely able to concentrate his attention in such a way, and as such is often left with albums spanning different sounds, tones and even genres in an effort to please multiple crowds. Ultimately he succeeds, giving songs to everybody separately, but rarely giving them to everybody together. Take Care is a solemn album, even in its celebratory moments, like the uptempo and emphatic “HYFR” with Lil Wayne, where he’s busy learning “working with the negatives could make for better pictures.”
On the triumphant “Lord Knows,” powered by a thunderous, gospel-inspired Just Blaze production, Drizzy quickly shifts gears from rapping about “All of the little accents that make me a king” to reminding himself and listeners that he’s actually “more concerned with n****s thinkin’ about Christmas in August, do anything to buy gifts for their daughters.” Even there, on top of one of the most grandiose productions of Just Blaze’s legendary career, Drake doesn’t allow himself or his listeners to get too jubilant or satisfied. Later, he admits to knowledge of the constant internet chatter looking to tear him down, twice. “I know of all the things that I hear they be poking fun at,” he raps at one point before coming back to it moments later. “I’m hearing all of the jokes, I know that they tryna push me / I know that showin’ emotion don’t ever mean I’m a pussy.”
It’s a slog, but it’s consistent one and never too dour. Part of the consistency of Take Care is owed to The Weeknd and Drake’s go-to producer/engineer Noah “40” Shebib. Their influence provides the tone for most of the album, with 40 credited as a producer in 13 of the album’s 18 tracks, and The Weeknd contributing “almost half of (his) album” to Drake during Take Care‘s inception. “I was hungry,” he revealed in a 2013 interview with Complex. “I was like, ‘Dude, take anything.'” He later confirmed the dealings to Rolling Stone last year, saying “I gave up almost half of my album. It’s hard. I will always be thankful — if it wasn’t for the light he shined on me, who knows where I’d be.”
The Weeknd’s songs lifted by Drake were revealed to be, “Crew Love,” “Shot for Me,” and “The Ride,” which Abel says were all lifted at different stages of completion. “The Ride,” the album’s closing number for all intents and purposes, is one of the few tracks without an added touch from 40. So are “Lord Knows” and “HYFR,” the two most out-of-place, sonically and tonally, tracks on the album.
It’s 40 that provides the glum but exquisite tone to the album’s highlights like the drunk-dialing anthem “Marvin’s Room,” the Lil Wayne homage “Underground Kings” or the impeccable two-punch knockout blow that is “Cameras / Good Ones Go Interlude.” In these moments Drake and 40 harken back to the highest highs of So Far Gone or his debut album Thank Me Later, where Drake is both introspective and relatable. It’s there he’s able to flaunt one of his greatest skills, the ability to voice simple but ultimately engaging soliloquies like “I’m getting money just taking care of me, girl,” that become the Instagram captions and the become the de facto attitude of millions. They’re phrases simple enough that anybody could have said it, but assume an extra heft because it’s Drake that said it.
All of his work after Take Care lacks thematic consistency, and totality. Instead his albums and mixtapes jolt suddenly, shifting between tones, often leaving disjointed albums and odd sequencing. That obligation to capture a wide array of sounds and crowds ultimately damages the final, complete project — even if it usually results in more hits for the 6 God. Clearly, he’s fine with things being that way, he’s successful to an extent that few rappers can match, and while some may see that as the leeway he needs to create a wholly focused effort, he’s decided to continue treading water instead. Drake would rather keep the status quo, keep printing money and collecting plaques, than break away and step out of that comfort zone and maybe, finally, create that transcendent album his career lacks. In essence, he’s chosen to continue to make commercial product rather than artistic statements, and ultimately that’s his decision. A disappointing one, but his decision nonetheless.
At this point, it may be too late, and any decision to break the mold he calcified may be seen as deliberate and still not organic. In the court of public opinion, among his vocal detractors, such a move might be seen as similar to Kevin Durant’s decision to jump ship for greener pastures and an easier road to a title in Oakland with the Golden State Warriors. A grasp at that type of acclaim at this point could be viewed as hollow attempt at complexity, not some risky endeavor for an artist seeking greater heights. It’s a lose-lose, so Drake might as well keep cashing in on the empire he’s built and status quo he’s set.
With as risk-averse as Drake has been thus far in his career, it’s highly unlikely he ever shifts gears. He’s nothing if not calculated, and has become the music version Will Smith, who famously monitored box office trends with his agent and chose to focus on the film types that grossed the most money, rarely diverging from those priorities. “We looked at (the list) and said, O.K., what are the patterns?” he told Time Magazine in 2007. “We realized that 10 out of 10 had special effects. Nine out of 10 had special effects with creatures. Eight out of 10 had special effects with creatures and a love story.”
Drake hasn’t outright confirmed that he’s chasing the most commercially successful sounds available, but the music he’s released since Take Care has all but established the fact that that’s his goal. On Nothing Was The Same, the album that followed Take Care, the second single “Hold On We’re Going Home,” made his intentions more clearer than ever. His focus would be diverted, old rap rules be damned. “It’s not a rap record,” he told MTV News. “It’s me and 40 just channeling our Quincy Jones/Michael Jackson production duo.” What came next was the revelation of his plans not only for “Hold On…” but his career as a whole going forward. “In approaching this album I was like man, it would be great if we had a record that was played at weddings in 10 years or that people that are away from their families in the army could listen to,” he said. “Something that just [has] timeless writing, timeless melody.”
What’s odd, is he’s succeeded, but also managed to continually chase trends to craft anthems of the now, but gotten away with it because, much like those simple but relatable lines that anybody could have jotted with enough thought, they’ll resonate for years because he’s Drake. Despite his bragging and boasting that Views would be a classic, it never quite lived up to that billing, and with the direction he went it’s likely he never intended for that to be the result anyway. He chased the pop charts, and landed all over them, garnering his first ever No. 1 record, just like he wanted. He values commercial success over critical because for Drake, rap’s oddest superstar ever who seemingly is immune to the genre’s timeless standards, having a No. 1 record is “the biggest moment of my career to date,” not a 5 Mic record in The Source.
Drake is here to make commercial records that people will drunkenly sing at weddings decades from now, with “timeless writing, timeless melody.” Maybe he doesn’t think rap songs can be that. Maybe he observed the trends and decided this was the most fiscally responsible route for success in an industry with dwindling returns on investments and ever-changing revenue streams. He has to touch all those bases, put his eggs in all those baskets and wait for the Spotify records to be shattered. Maybe, just maybe, Drake doesn’t give a damn about making a cohesive, focused and transcendent classic rap album.
Still. “What about Take Care?”