There are a lot of unexpected things about So Far Gone, the third mixtape from former Degrassi star and current Lil Wayne protégé Drake. The first, and not least, is that the kid can actually rap, instantly erasing any fears of some weird crossover cash-in. Yet even more surprising is the reserved and measured tone of the tape, its insistently minimalist beats, and the fact that it goes five tracks before even raising its voice. This occurs on “Ignant Shit,” a lively club track featuring Wayne and produced by Just Blaze, the kind of raucous display that rarely occurs on So Far Gone.
It’s a little disconcerting that Kanye West’s 808s & Heartbreak may be the new reference point for intelligent, self-aware hip-hop, and Drake’s songs recall that album in more ways than one, from icy synth backing to the guilt-infused, soul-searching slant of the rhymes. Yet even with his reliance on this model, Drake proves a surprisingly thoughtful, often clever lyricist. “Houstatlantavegas” takes on the subject of a stripper with care and insight, one of several songs that broach issues of gender politics with surprising dexterity. The split between this kind of smart levity and the standard brazen grandstanding is also handled well. As a newcomer, Drake is obligated to engage in his share of self-promotion, something he does with gusto on “Say What’s Real” and “Unstoppable.” That he’s able to make this kind of perfunctory fodder witty and engaging is another good sign.
There are some missteps though. The album’s sparse beats create an interesting mood but begin to feel tired as things progress, leaving Drake too exposed and too often hinging on his words. This reliance on minimalism and a tendency toward an overly diffident sensibility creates a weird split personality, as on “Successful,” where a joyful sense of victory clashes with a strangely inordinate feeling of remorse. This is another feature cribbed from Kanye, but here it’s pulled off more crudely, leaving the tape feeling a little soft, a fact exacerbated by tracks that sample Peter, Bjorn & John and Lykke Li.
All this plays as a calculating push for broad-level appeal; Drake notes on “Ignant Shit” that “them hipsters gon’ have to get along with them hood niggas.” This nod toward both camps suggests that his contrite hesitance is simply Drake overplaying his hand, pushing the self-awareness to too high a level, a miscalculation that may be corrected by the release of his first proper album, slated for later this year. But for a beginner, even one whose big-time endorsements seem to have cemented a promising start, So Far Gone is a pretty brave effort, and Drake’s ability to juggle standard bling-and-bluster narratives with intelligent narratives bodes well for his future.