At his rawest, which is to say his best, Drake cuts close to the bone. His songs are in your face, meant to get under your skin by expressing exactly what he’s feeling. He does not sugarcoat. He can make you uncomfortable, avert your eyes as if you’ve been caught eavesdropping on someone else’s conversation.
Almost always it’s a conversation worth hearing.
“Nothing Was the Same,” the Canadian rapper and singer’s new album released earlier this week, is full of those moments. For someone already known for turning inward — he is both his own champion and toughest critic — his third studio record is a potent mix of braggadocio and pride but also humility and introspection.
“Nothing Was the Same” also establishes Drake (born Aubrey Graham) as a remarkably linear artist whose perspective is restricted to precisely what he’s going through at the moment. His 2010 debut, “Thank Me Later,” dissected his rise out of obscurity, and then he tackled the aftermath of finding fame on its follow-up, “Take Care,” a year later.
The opening “Tuscan Leather,” named after a cologne by designer Tom Ford (who’s mentioned in the song), lays out his parameters: six minutes of shape-shifting interludes that never really connect or lead to a chorus but still make a statement: “This is nothin’ for the radio/ But they’ll still play it, though/ ’Cause it’s that new Drizzy Drake/ That’s just the way it go.”
Sonically, the album is arresting for just how little there is surrounding Drake. He and longtime producer Noah “40” Shebib prefer an arid atmosphere on his records, and thick, heavy bass rumbles throughout his latest. On “Wu-Tang Forever,” he’s backed just by ghostly piano emanating from what sounds like the loneliest bar in the world. On “305 to My City,” the beat crawls in slow motion even as Drake’s voice spikes with emotion.
Desolation becomes part of the landscape, the canvas on which Drake puts his words front and center. Guests appear on occasion (Jay Z drops by on “Pound Cake/Paris Morton Music 2”), but no one draws focus quite like Drake. He gets close to mimicking Marvin Gaye, an acknowledged influence, on “Own It,” a lumbering love song on which Drake vows, “Next time we talk, I don’t wanna just talk/ I wanna trust/ Next time I stand tall/ I wanna be standin’ for you.”
This being Drake, a proven hit maker, there are also splashes of radio-ready pop songs. “Hold On, We’re Going Home” pulses to the most upbeat rhythm on the entire album, a sly slow-burner that’s no doubt already a soundtrack to when the lights go down.
Rising R&B singer Jhene Aiko adds an airy sophistication to “From Time,” a track that otherwise seethes with anger about his fraught relationship with his mother and father and how it relates to his own love life. He unravels his frustration with his family even more on “Too Much,” on which he raps, “Money got my whole family going backwards/ No dinners, no holidays, no nothing.”
That’s the dark side of a story that has also given Drake a reason to celebrate how far he’s come. “Started From the Bottom” is a case in point: “Just as a reminder to myself/ I wear every single chain even when I’m in the house/ ’Cause we started from the bottom/ Now we’re here.”