When Drake materialized in 2009, he was more than a bit of a novelty, a former Canadian child star experimenting with a sensitive, diaristic approach to hip-hop, spilling out his many concerns over dense, opaque beats. Four years later, he's one of the genre's biggest names, despite a marked lack of specific ability beyond a great ear for production and an inveterate, introspective charm. The passage to this point has been marked by a gradual transition toward hardness, following a series of public battles with Chris Brown, a bulking up in muscle and content. Drake is now sleeker and meaner than ever before, qualities that would seem to have diminished the softie persona he presented at the outset of his career. Yet these changes have really functioned as a progressive revelation of what's been hiding inside him all along, as passive-aggression has ceded to outright belligerence, sour self-doubt to sour self-love.
The effect has been akin to watching a figure carved from stone, yet this isn't the feel-good story of success begetting newfound confidence. The Drake of today is doubtlessly more of an asshole than the Drake of So Far Gone, but that development reads as more of an overture toward increased sincerity than anything else. Early songs like “Houstatlantavegas,” even with the deep wells of guilt that inspired their rigorous self-examination, were mostly rooted in narcissism, the dissonance between a man guilty of inveterate bad behavior and the nice guy he imagined himself to be. This conflict continues, but the more arrogant Drake becomes, the more he's willing to cop to egotism, while still occasionally snapping at himself for his shortcomings. This means that, while not as precise as 2011's Take Care, and not nearly as full of A material, Nothing Was the Same is a more interesting album, its flaws drawing all the contrasts of his persona into sharp relief: the jerk and the nice guy, the sensitive poet and the posturing wannabe thug, pressed together in a dense environment full of bassy, woozy production and marathon songs.
On first listen, Nothing Was the Same sounds a bit thin, Drake's nice-guy pensiveness continuing to curdle, with an accompanying downturn in the complexity of his lyrics. The singles “Started from the Bottom” and “Hold On, We're Going Home” both hinge on simple, familiar conceits—a refrain based on the well-worn humble-to-triumphal arc on the former, and a dry paternalist lecture explaining a woman's motives to her in second person on the latter. But there's still an internal struggle in nearly all of these songs, and as seemingly tough as he may have become of late, Drake remains more self-effacing, inward-focused, and anxious than most rappers, or pop artists in general. The album's hooks may too often be dumb and domineering, but they just as often segue into verses that defy that simplistic posturing via frantic attempts to justify it, often modifying the surface messages via their neurotic content. His swagger continues to expand, and while Drake is even more haughty and demeaning to lovers and family members than ever, the simple fact is that this makes for better music than the woe-is-me soppiness that dominated his first couple of albums.
It's key that the production, overseen by longtime collaborator Noah “40” Shebib with some outside assistance, is routinely fantastic, full of lush backdrops, with a constant atmospheric dynamism undergirding even the most scattered of songs. “Connect” is lyrically inert, hinging on a lame string of baseball metaphors, but the Hudson Mohawke-supplemented backing is vibrant and chameleonic enough to make up for it. “Own It” is an egregious collection of Drake's worst characteristics, a mixture of crude, macho posturing backed by tedious vocal-pitch modulation, yet the track at least has the musical chops to distract from these facts. Basically, the baseline of strong music repeatedly rescues Drake from himself, while simultaneously allowing him to stretch further into exploratory territory. Consequently nothing here is totally without value, and even the low points fit into the vicious cycle narrative of the album, which finds Drake losing himself in his own fame, even as the lifestyle disconnect fostered by that success feeds his festering insecurities, and attempts to banish those fears via more talk of his success, which brings things right back to square one.
The depth and subtlety of this process puts this so far afield from the standard level of hip-hop discourse that it's often startling when other rappers show up. Big Sean and 2 Chainz make for a pleasing confederacy of dunces on “All of Me,” their boneheaded brags serving a purpose similar to the rustic comedic foils in Shakespeare dramas, briefly distracting us from all this draining psychological tension. On the other side, “Too Much” finds U.K. artist Sampha darkening the tone via a passable James Blake impression, while Jhene Aiko enlivens “From Time,” despite the weird, robotic lyrics Drake seems to have given her to sing. Overall, it's hard to overstate how much Nothing Was the Same benefits from a cohesive production style, just as it benefits from the smaller amount of guests, since more time with the half-charming, half-monstrous Drake means an even clearer rendering of his foibles and flaws. The album isn't perfect, but it draws energy from that imperfection, further establishing a persona driven by Drake's still-developing conflict between assurance and hesitation.