On the 7th day, God created Drake. In 2020, Aubrey Drake Graham is less of an artist and more of an inevitability. His music is everywhere, and his influence on the landscape of hip-hop and pop music is arguably even more important than the music. His stature in the industry is unprecedented, but even more unprecedented is the amount of time he’s spent at the top. For over a decade Drake has been reshaping popular music in his image, and in an age where chart superstardom is extremely ephemeral, that’s no small feat.
Drake’s uncanny ability to maneuver through ten years of changing tastes in rap and pop music can be attributed to a couple of things: first, his ability to synthesize almost any style of music, both within and outside of hip-hop, has allowed him to play chameleon, morphing himself to fit a trend and then jumping to the next one as soon as he can. Second, Drake perfected the art of switching effortlessly between rapping and singing (both competently, although neither perfectly) that is now basically a requirement for any aspiring rapper. Last, though, and most important, the content of a Drake song can take a few forms: boastful, scorned, aspirational, longing, but the thread that ties every one together are their relatability. There’s a throughline to all of these traits, of course, from Kid Cudi and Kanye and Lil Wayne onto Future and Lil Uzi Vert and Young Thug, but Drake is the person who made the aesthetic whole, and for that he’s reaped many rewards.
Unfortunately, for a variety of reasons including, but not limited to, the rise of streaming services, Drake has become a bit of a self-parody — sure, he still has an eye for new trends, but their usage is heavy handed, less an homage than a cheap facsimile. His lyrical themes are similar, but now they scan as petulant and haughty — the trappings of immense fame aren’t always the best look! Drake really hasn’t released a great project since his menacing and hypothermic mixtape “If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late” and hasn’t even released something I would consider good since “More Life.” HOWEVER! There was a time, seemingly aeons ago, where Drake was still hungry, still trying to prove something. And listen, I get it — much has been made of Drake’s origin story, his career as a successful (Canadian successful, to be clear) actor, his middle class upbringing, his removal from the ‘life’ that rappers are supposed to live. How can someone who hasn’t had to worry talk about how he has something to prove? All of that hand wringing is garbage in my opinion. Drake isn’t the first rapper to rough up the edges a bit and tell some tall tales for the sake of his art, and he certainly won’t be the last. And in any case, none of the knocks that I listed above disqualify you from wanting to prove yourself.
So in 2011, Drake was hungry. He was still basking in the success of his debut album “Thank Me Later,” which sold well and contained a big hit in the brash ‘Over.’ But Drake was still hearing the same criticisms he’d heard since he released the mixtape that propelled him to international fame in 2008, “So Far Gone.” He was too soft, not genuine, could only rap using the much maligned ‘hashtag flow’ (e.g. from the aforementioned ‘Over:’ “I could teach you how to speak my language, Rosetta Stone). So instead of shying away from that criticism, he doubled down on the woozy success of his debut, and returned with the stunning “Take Care.”
Looking back now with a critical eye, the problems that plague Drake releases now were present on “Take Care” too. It’s probably 20 minutes too long, wildly narcissistic, and contains a lot of tossed off misogyny that sounds a lot worse now than it did in 2011. But on “Take Care” that scanned less as overindulgence and insecurity and more as a kid who wanted to prove that he could be everything to everyone.
“Take Care” was one of the first albums where I remember anticipating its release. ‘Marvins Room,’ Drake’s absurd choice of lead single from the album, had come out during the summer of 2011 while I was on co-op, doing manual labour at a cleaning products company and living with my parents. ‘Marvins Room’ was not your traditional leadoff single, it was a literal drunk-dial of a song, reintroducing us to a Drake character who was petty, hurt, and too insistent. But it proved a perfect companion to me that summer, languid and humid at a time that I had little to do and nowhere to go.
So when “Take Care” finally dropped in November 2011, I dove in immediately and loved what I found. Drake’s biggest strength throughout the album remains his ability to make you feel like you could be the star of one of his songs, no matter if he’s talking about money and fame at levels that I could never even think to achieve. The other secret weapon of “Take Care” is Drake’s producer, Noah ‘40’ Shebib. He was able to synthesize decades worth of Houston screw music, Organized Noize’s southern rattle, the purple R&B being perfected by then-labelmate The Weeknd and others, add a dash of flinty Toronto, and create a signature sound for Drake.
Opener ‘Over My Dead Body’ opens with some stately piano and Canadian crooner Chantal Kreviazuk constructing the Drake mythology before we even hear his voice. ‘Over My Dead Body’ is Drake building up the legend of Drake, fighting off haters and grifters, providing for his friends, shielding himself from the harmful effects of romantic relationships. The rest of the album’s songs all follow the openers lead in one way or another. We get boastful and generous Drake on ‘We’ll Be Fine,’ ‘Under Ground Kings,’ the deliriously fun Just Blaze produced and Rick Ross assisted ‘Lord Knows,’ and the rollicking second single ‘Headlines.’ We also get that Drake on the Lil Wayne showcase ‘HYFR,’ a song whose lyrical inquiries have remained in my group of friends’ lexicon to this day: ‘Do you love this shit?/Are you high right now?/Do you ever get nervous?’ Weezy intones.
We get Drake’s thoughts on romantic and platonic relationships on the beautifully sung post-breakup ballad ‘Shot For Me’ and the dumb-fun ersatz-waltz ‘Practice’ and the for-the-boys, with-the-boys Weeknd duet ‘Crew Love.’ We also hear Drake and Rihanna, with help from producer Jamie xx, flip the spoken-word Gil Scott Heron vehicle ‘I’ll Take Care Of U’ (itself a cover of a song by Bobby Bland) into a gorgeously tropical ballad replete with steel drums and soaring vocals – no wonder the Drake/Rihanna dating rumours started right after this album’s release.
Elsewhere, we hear a showcase for then-newcomer Kendrick Lamar on ‘Buried Alive,’ and another for then-newish comer Nicki Minaj on ‘Make Me Proud.’ But where the album really shines is when it slows down and gets really personal. ‘Marvins Room’ is the obvious highlight here, but we also hear Drake maligning the effect of paparazzi and fame on his relationships on the multipart ‘Cameras/Good Ones Go,’ searching for love with Andre 3000 on ‘The Real Her,’ and keeping distance from an ex on ‘Doing It Wrong,’ featuring a wonderful harmonica outro from living legend Stevie Wonder. It’s on these songs where Drake is especially capable of letting us into his psyche, and in turn reflecting some of our own back onto us. Like the American painter Norman Rockwell, who came to fame portraying perfect and distorted versions of American living, Drake has an exceptional talent for internalizing the mundane and everyday and beaming it back to us — still recognizable, but refracted, more vibrant, blurred at the edges.
And so we’re left with ‘The Ride,’ which sees Drake doing some more self-mythologizing: ‘My sophomore, I was all for it, they all saw it/My junior and senior will only get meaner.’ He was right, of course — since “Take Care,” Drake’s upward trajectory hasn’t slowed down. But lost in that thrust was Drake’s ability to keep his feet on the ground while he reached to the top of the mountain, to make the exceptional feel universal and the impossible feel achievable, and that is what makes “Take Care” so exceptional.