June 10, 2010

Album Review: Drake's Thank Me Later

The world of hip-hop music props itself up around hype. It doesn't matter if you are a Jay-Z, a Kanye West or an Eminem -- If you have a new album that is set to "drop" in the coming weeks or months, expect an overbearing blitz of marketing on all fronts to ensure the world knows you've got something new on the way. For Canadian hip-hopper, Aubrey "Drake" Graham, the hype surrounding his debut has been mounting for over a year now.

Many were baffled when Drake, then still playing the role "Jimmy", the wheelchair-bound high school hoops star on the Canadian teen drama, Degrassi: The Next Generation, let it be known that Lil' Wayne was working on a new rock-oriented album. This had to be a joke, right? Not so much, as we soon learned Weezy had signed Drake to his Young Money label and was acting as a mentor to the fledgling rhymer. In the summer of 2009, Drake released the singles, "Best I Ever Had" and "Successful", off the So Far Gone mix tape to immense acclaim, airplay and even a Grammy nomination. While not an official debut, the So Far Gone mix tape itself was an admirable feat thanks to Drake's way of integrating hip-hop with trendy indie pop samples and rhymes that heard Drizzy vocalize to his growing fan base that success wouldn't change him.

After all this build up, Drake has now found himself in the most precarious of positions with his official debut, the confidently titled, Thank Me Later. Combined with a general mainstream buzz and the backing of some of hip-hop's heaviest of hitters, listeners are left no choice other than to expect the best they ever heard from this young gun. Unfortunately, Thank Me Later gives off the impression that Drake may have gotten a little ahead of himself by assuming instant greatness. The album's first two tracks, "Fireworks" (featuring Alicia Keys) and "Karaoke," are slow paced rhymes that could have easily been named, "Successful, Part 2" and "Successful, Part 3" due to a recurring theme in Drizzy's lyrics about how he's weary of fame and women. These songs act a precursor of what's to come on Thank Me Later, as it becomes obvious by the end that Drake has merely made over a dozen songs that follow the same format of "slow, repetitive beats + rhymes about the downsides of success." When you realize the opening line to "Show Me a Good Time" is taken straight from a sorority girl's Status Update ("I live for the night's I can't remember, and the friend I'll never forget...,") it makes you question the limits of Drizzy's storytelling skills.

The biggest names in the hip-hop world disappointingly don't reach their full potential on Thank Me Later, either. It boasts guest appearances by the aforementioned Alicia Keys, up and comer Nicki Minaj, T.I, Swizz Beatz, The-Dream, Young Jeezy, Jay-Z and of course, Drake's mentor, Lil' Wayne. All these names certainly give Thank Me Later a stronger backbone, but at the same time, it's disconcerting to realize that some of their talents are either used underwhelmingly (Most surprising, Keys, Jay-Z and Weezy) or outshine the album's main star's presence whenever they appear (The-Dream, T.I and Swizz Beatz.) "Shut It Down" and "Fancy" would see a lot of substance lost if they were left solely up to Drizzy, while "Light Up" and "Miss Me" may have faired better had Lil' Wayne and Jay-Z took the training wheels off their boy, Drake, and let him ride out the tracks alone.

This aside, there are three singles on Thank Me Later that will ensure Drake becomes the new golden boy of hip-hop among less critical listeners regardless of the rest of the album's missteps. "Over" is the album's lead single, and while it again showcases Drizzy conflicted about his new found success, he addresses the topic in it's most cohesive manner yet amid a well-produced bombastic anthem. "Shut It Down" (featuring The-Dream) is the album's centerpiece and emotional highlight -- a sexy, synth-based slow jam that climaxes with The-Dream's guest spot. Finally, "Find Your Love" was co-written and produced by the always innovative Kanye West. That track could have easily passed for something found on West's 808s and Heartbreak, but nevertheless, it's a welcome variation of sound on an otherwise mediocre album.

Had all tracks on Thank Me Later been superbly produced like the latter three, the likelihood of Drake joining the ranks of Kanye West and Eminem with their respective breakout debuts would be guaranteed. Degrassi's most famous alumni just isn't ready to step into those top players shoes, yet, contrary to what he rhymes. Thank Me Later relies too heavily on guest spots to pull its weight, and its not always a winning formula. The eccentricity of Drake's range heard on the So Far Gone mix tape has been watered down here, much like it was when Universal Motown re-released the mix tape as a six song EP last autumn. It's not a bad album, it's just that there's a lot more revving to go in Drizzy's fuel tank than emotive R&B tracks about break ups and being an anti-celebrity. AwkwardSound recently predicted that the debut from the man they call Drizzy would live up to its album title, but instead, it would be best to hold the applause until further notice.

Drake's Thank Me Later will be released June 15, 2010 on Universal Motown under the Young Money imprint.

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