Has there ever been a rapper as charismatic as Drake? In some sense, the phenomenal success of his platinum debut, Thank Me Later, is just one more testament to how much people like the guy. Anyone who wants to explain that album's success in terms of its music has to build their argument on what? Passable rapping, barely passable singing, and a batch of tracks that flirt with a distinctive identity for all of four or five songs before capitulating into moodier variations on sounds that its high-priced producers had long driven into the ground? The truth is, Thank Me Later was a fairly average rap album that worked because it doubled as a truly effective character study, one that introduced a likeable protagonist before plunging the listener into Drake's deeply conflicted psyche, flush with confidence on one track and absorbed in self-pity on the next, shouting out his overachieving lady friends on "Fancy" before getting friendly with the pole dancers on "Miss Me." By far the most salient feature of Drake's persona is his superabundant, almost gushing sincerity, which combines with his total self-absorption to make him a veritable icon for Generation Overshare (or "a time where its recreation to pull all your skeletons out the closet like Halloween decorations," as he puts it on "Lord Knows").
In many ways, the Drake of Take Care is still the same Drake, embodying narcissism and sensitivity in equal measure. As evidenced by the drunk-dial anthem-turned-sleeper-hit "Marvin's Room," he's yet to totally get a handle on his fame, though he's certainly less liable to wring his hand over the matter than he was on Thank Me Later. Take Care's thematic bent is less monological, with its slower numbers exploring loneliness, heartbreak, and mistrust in a register that's infinitely harder to dismiss now that Drake seems to have given up on thinking that those problems would all just disappear if he gave up his money and fame. "Doing It Wrong," for example, is every bit as powerful as "Marvin's Room," but it doesn't contain a single line about adjusting to stardom. Instead, it's a ruminative breakup ballad where Drake invites his ex to "cry if you want to, but I can't stay to watch you, that's the wrong thing to do," unsure of how to comfort her without giving her false hope. Meanwhile, 40's production positively aches and Stevie Wonder cuts in for a heartfelt harmonica solo.
Certainly, the ladies love them some Drake, and that's not liable to change anytime soon given how artfully he and 40 approach their trademarked, minimalist slow jams. If that style remains Drake's forte, he's nonetheless come a long way in his ability to carry a harder-hitting rap track. Even the guys who claim they only bought Thank Me Later for their girlfriend will find the bangers on Take Care a lot harder to write off. Just Blaze's track on "Lord Knows" just might be the best one on the album, and it's certainly not going to be confused with one of 40's productions. There, Just Blaze replicates the massive, speaker-blowing soul that he brought to Jay Electronica's "Exhibit C," but ups the volume a few more notches for an instant classic, soon to be heard blasting from an Escalade near you. The track also contains a number of Take Care's best lines, with Drake joking about drinks being on the house "like Snoopy" and shooting back at his tough-guy detractors. A line like "I know that showin' emotion don't ever mean I'm a pussy" could read as overly defensive, but Drake delivers it like a battle cry.
While the production on Take Care's other hard-hitting numbers, most of which come courtesy of T-Minus, don't live up to Just Blaze's high standard, they do give Drake a pretext for showing off his immeasurably improved flow. "Underground Kings" and "HYFR" find Drake experimenting with new cadences while spitting faster than he did on Thank Me Later, while Boi-1da and 40's "Headlines" is both harder and hookier than any of the other singles on the album. Still, Take Care is frequently at its best when it dodges the soft/hard dichotomy altogether. 40 has come as far as a producer as Drake has as a rapper, and his knack for mixing melodic synth tracks with menacing low-end rumble is what ultimately gives the album its distinctive point of view.
The guest list on Take Care is also pretty hard to argue with, particularly as it serves less to divert attention from Drake than to extend his personality. A past-prime rapper like Birdman maybe doesn't deserve a spot on such a high-budget affair, but he and Lil Wayne were huge influences for Drake and so of course they both get cameos. And what about Chantal Kreviazuk's hook on the album's intro? The singer-songwriter had her heyday in the '90s and is virtually unknown outside of Canada, but this is Drake's show and he'll invite who he wants to. Elsewhere, like-minded newbies the Weeknd and Kendrick Lamar turn in tremendous performances, with Lamar's verse on "Buried Alive (Interlude)" rivaling Andre 3000's on "The Real Her" for album-stealing potential. Sounding more like a member of Shabazz Palaces than anyone you'd expect to hear on a pop-rap blockbuster, Lamar begins his verse with a chilling pledge of fidelity: "If you was in a pine box/I would surely break the lock/I'd jump right in and fall asleep/Because you are the death of me." Surprisingly, the only guests who seem extraneous are Drake's Young Money mates, Nicki Minaj and Lil Wayne. Nicki's sloppy verses on "Proud of You" border on self-parody ("I'm a star…Sherriff badge!") while Wayne is simply given one verse too many on the album's last few songs.
But I don't think anyone was going to try and convince you that Take Care is a perfect album. The album it is, however, is almost more impressive than a well-coiffed and endlessly fussed over 10-track wonder. Take Care is remarkably consistent, with maybe two or three dull tracks cropping up over the course of its 80-minute runtime—and for all the sonic territory it covers, it never sounds like anything other than a Drake album. That's because Drake has grown tremendously in the year since he recorded his debut, reemerging as a more versatile performer and a more heartfelt songwriter, as though by making peace with his celebrity he's allowed himself to access a new artistic plateau. On Take Care, Drake finally shows he's got the talent to match the hype, and I have to think he knows it. "Really," he admits on "Crew Love," "I think I like who I'm becoming." That makes two of us.