Still unsigned, Drake released his third mixtape, So Far Gone, on 13 February 2009 as a free download on his blog. Influenced by Kanye West’s 808’s & Heartbreak in sound and emotional depth, Drake both sang and rapped the frank lyrics that told of heartbreak and his hunger for fame. Dominated by the production skills of fellow Canadian Noah “40” Shebib, So Far Gone featured a winning combination of downbeat electro-soul, pop and tough hip-hop beats, exemplified by two singles, the silky-smooth Trey Songz collaboration ‘Successful’ and the bright and breezy ‘Best I Ever Had’. The latter proved a huge hit, charting for 24 weeks and peaking at No.2 on the US Billboard Hot 100, while the former reached No.17. Elsewhere, the Lil Wayne-guesting, 80s-boogie-referencing ‘Ignant S__t’ and the experimental, electro-pop diversions of Santigold collaboration ‘Unstoppable’ provided more winning moments on a release that marked a turning point for Drake’s career. The mixtape’s success was compounded when Universal Motown signed the rapper, issuing a scaled-down version (with one new song, ‘Fear’) as the So Far Gone EP. It debuted at No.6 on the Billboard 200 and won the 2010 Juno Award for Rap Recording Of The Year.
Following a bidding war, Drake signed a deal with Lil Wayne’s Young Money Entertainment, and on 15 June 2010, he released his debut studio album Thank Me Later. With a range of top producers at the helm, it was a continuation of the downbeat soul and emo-rap stylings of So Far Gone, though with an exponentially bigger budget. Among a cavalcade of guest turns, Alicia Keys contributes a compelling hook on the sultry opener ‘Fireworks’, Nicki Minaj adds a typically idiosyncratic verse to the bass-heavy banger ‘Up All Night’, Stevie Wonder provides harmonica on the sultry ‘Doing It Wrong’ and Jay Z pops up on to the beat-heavy ‘Light Up’. The strongest songs, however, are those left to Drake himself: the downtempo confessional ‘The Resistance’, the Timbaland-produced title track and the strident pop of the album’s accompanying singles, ‘Fancy’ and ‘Over’. The album debuted at No.1 on the US Billboard 200 chart the week of its release, and eventually reached platinum status, cementing Drake’s status as one of hip-hop’s biggest-selling artists.
Despite the album’s rampant success, Drake was unhappy with the finished product, feeling the recording had been rushed; the title of his 2011 follow-up, Take Care, reflected the extra effort and time he put into its successor. With his close friend and producer Noah Shebib back on board as a stylistic guiding force, the album featured a more cohesive set of songs that took Drake’s trademark mix of R&B, hip-hop, electronica and pop to new heights. Promoted by a whopping eight singles, the Rihanna-guesting club-friendly title track proved a huge international hit, reaching the Top 10 in the US, UK, Australia, New Zealand and Denmark.
Other highlights on a remarkably consistent set of emotive head-nodders include the dreamy soul of The Weeknd-guesting ‘Crew Love’, the gospel-rap of ‘Lord Knows’, the piano-driven ‘Look What You’ve Done’ and the achingly beautiful ‘The Ride’. The album’s extra cut, the club banger ‘Motto’, successfully released as a single, even gave birth to the popular acronym YOLO (for “you only live once”). Released on 15 November 2011, the album debuted at No.1 on the US Billboard Chart (selling 631,000 copies in its first week alone) and eventually went double-platinum. It proved popular with critics too, making numerous end-of-year lists and winning Best Rap Album at the 55th Grammy Awards.
Drake spent much of 2012 touring, though he found time to start a record label, OVO Sound, with producer Shebib, signing the likes of PartyNextDoor and Majid Jordan alongside producers Boi-1da, T-Minus and Mike Zombie. Drake began work on a third studio album later that year, releasing the brooding single ‘Started From The Bottom’ in February 2013, presaging the forthcoming album’s direction.
With production once more overseen by Shebib, alongside OVO Sound affiliates Boi-1da, Mike Zombie and Majid Jordan, Nothing Was The Same was a darker affair than its predecessors, with a set of songs that largely eschewed pop affectations for a dense mix of eerie synths and street-tough trap beats. Lyrically, it was a similarly morose affair, with angry broadsides aimed at former girlfriends, family members and school friends sitting alongside the usual mix of disillusioned soul-searching and boastful turns. Gone were the multiple guest spots of Thank Me Later and Take Care, with Jay Z being the only other big name present, contributing a verse to the ethereal wash of ‘Pound Cake’. Instead, armed with an improved singing voice and rapping skills, Drake unleashed some of the most compelling and consistent performances of his career. Among the myriad high points are the eerie, piano-led pair ‘Started From The Bottom’ and ‘Wu-Tang Forever’ while single ‘Worst Behavior’ featured one of Drake’s more menacing turns over tense and scattershot beats. Light relief was found on the luscious soul of the Sampha-assisted ‘Too Much’ and on the album’s big pop hit ‘Hold On, Were Going Home’, which reached No.4 on the US Billboard Hot 100. Popular with critics and once again finding Drake on many end-of-year lists, the album debuted at No.1 on the US charts and made further waves internationally, charting high in the UK, Denmark, Australia and Drake’s native Canada.
Following the album’s release, Drake briefly returned to TV screens, hosting a well-received special edition of Saturday Night Live in January 2014. The appearance possibly sparked a spate of nostalgia for his early days: just over a year later, on 13 February 2015, he celebrated the sixth anniversary of the career-making So Far Gone by surprise-releasing his fourth mixtape, If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late. Musically, it was a continuation of Nothing Was The Same’s murky atmospherics, though by now any pop and R&B pretences had disappeared completely. The production, manned once more by OVO affiliates, ploughed a trenchant, slow-paced hip-hop furrow over which Drake took pot-shots at fellow rappers and his long-suffering family members. Exemplified by tracks such as ‘Know Yourself’, ‘Wednesday Night Interlude’ and ‘You & The 6’, it was another exceptional release that performed exceptionally well, despite the absence of an identifiable hit to promote it. Driven by the social-media frenzy which greeted its release, If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late debuted at No.1 on the US Billboard chart, racking up three-day sales of 495,000 copies and breaking Spotify’s first-week streaming record.
2015 was to be a busy year for Drake. Caught up in an internet-based feud with fellow-rapper Meek Mill, in July he released two diss tracks, ‘Charged Up (Ghostwriter)’, and ‘Back To Back’ (which earned a Grammy nomination), alongside the R&B song ‘Hotline Bling’. The latter was one of the most irresistible pop songs of Drake’s career, and proved a huge international hit, reaching No.2 on the US Billboard chart (his joint highest position), and No.3 in both the Canada and the UK. In September that year, he released the collaborative mixtape What A Time To Be Alive with Atlanta rapper Future. Issued once again without prior announcement, it was another foray into the tougher side of hip-hop for the ever versatile Canadian, and reached No.1 on the US Billboard charts.
Words: Paul Bowler
After the huge commercial and artistic success of his last album, Thank Me Later, Drake threatened/promised that his next album would be a straight-up R&B record that forsook rapping for vocals. The plan fell through, but his 2011 album Take Care has the feel of a late-night R&B album, full of slow tempos, muted textures, impassioned crooning, and an introspective tone that is only rarely punctured by aggressive tracks, boasts, and/or come-ons. For the most part, increased success hasn’t done much to improve Drake’s mood, as he details his failures at love, his worries about living a hollow life, and his general malaise. Drake’s longtime producer/partner Noah “40” Shebib did most of the production work, and he surrounds Drake’s voice with murky beats, layers of dusky synths, and moody guitars that fit Drake’s voice perfectly; the two work together to create a thick mood of melancholy. When other producers take over, there is a definite shift in mood. Boi-1DA gives “Headlines” a jaunty synth line that Drake matches with his strongest rap, T-Minus brings some booty bass to the thoughtfully sexy Nicky Minaj feature “Make Me Proud,” Just Blaze builds “Lord Knows” around some majestic samples that let Drake brag like a boss, and Chase N. Cashe take things one step further toward R&B by creating a late-night after-hours club feel on the bittersweet “Look What You’ve Done” (which features a phone message left for Drake by his grandmother). The album's most unique track, “Take Care,” features Jamie Smith of the xx working with Shebib on an (almost) uptempo, (almost) danceable song that has a typically great vocal from Rihanna. The super-moody collaboration with the Weeknd on “Crew Love” is another highlight, though it does point out the problematic fact that the Weeknd beats Drake out in the vocal department. The collabo with the predictably brilliant André 3000 and Lil Wayne also point out Drake’s shortcomings as a rapper. Though he drops the occasional line that dazzles (“All my exes live in Texas like I’m George Strait”), Drake is a middle-of-the-pack rapper at best. His true strength, as Take Care proves over and over, is his willingness to delve deeply into his emotions and the ability to transmit them in such a simple and real fashion that it’s easy to connect with him even if your life isn’t filled with glamorous exes, hangs with Stevie Wonder (who adds some harmonica to “Doing It Wrong”), and gold owls. It’s an important achievement, and his success might mean that the world was ready for the first emo rapper. Thank Me Later hinted at it, but Take Care makes it plain. And while Take Care's charms may be a little more hidden, with a couple exceptions, than Thank Me Later’s were, repeated plays reveal a record that is just as strong and more powerful emotionally. Don’t play it at your next house party or DJ night; save it for later when you need something to get you through the rest of the night.
Words: Tim Sendra
By the time of the release of Drake's first full-length album, the Canadian rapper was already a star thanks to his huge single "Best I Ever Had," his celebrated mixtape and then EP So Far Gone, and his spots on hits by Young Money and Eminem. Thank Me Later had the tough assignment of living up to the anticipation and further Drake as an artist, and it totally lives up to the hype. Thanks to the rich and nuanced production and Drake's thoughtful, playful, and intense lyrics, Thank Me Later is a radio-friendly, chart-topping collection of singles but also a serious examination of Drake's life that holds up as an album.
Most of the record finds the young rapper (23 at the time of release) conflicted about his growing stardom and fame. Whether it’s a relationship splitting up as on the melancholy “Karaoke,” worries about the fame changing him (“The Resistance”), fears that so-called real hip-hop fans will find him manufactured (“Show Me a Good Time”), or the difficult nature of romance when you’re a star (“Miss Me”), Drake isn’t afraid to examine what the past year has done to his life. He’s also not afraid to talk about how great life has become as well, dropping plenty of lines about the money, the women, and his own prowess as a rapper. His belief in his own skills is well-founded, as the list of collaborators lined up to work with him attests. T.I., Swizz Beatz, Young Jeezy, the-Dream, Jay-Z, Alicia Keys, and Drake's mentor Lil Wayne all drop by to add verses, sing hooks, and produce tracks, and their presence sometimes serves to liven things up and keep Drake away from his melancholy nature.
The T.I./Swizz Beatz track “Fancy” is a fun and sassy summer jam with a huge hook, his track with Jay-Z ("Light Up") is a fierce takedown of the Industry and the damage it can wreak, and the Nicki Minaj collabo "Up All Night" is a tough-as-nails boast that features Drake at his most insistent. Elsewhere, Lil Wayne's verse on "Miss Me" is his usual breathtaking verbal roller coaster, the-Dream's vocals on the verses of "Shut It Down" are heartbreakingly sincere, and Jeezy adds some welcome ferociousness to "Unforgettable." It’s like all the guests had to bring their best game to keep up with Drake, and they didn't want the youngster to show them up. He never shows anyone up exactly (though Jay-Z's verse sounds kind of out of breath compared to Drake's), but he definitely proves that he belongs at the very top of the game. His nimble flow is impressive; his words are heartfelt, brainy, and surprising; and while his singing may not be the best, it shows a vulnerability that is rare in rap circles. Indeed, it is this willingness to be introspective and honest that makes Drake unique and helps make Thank Me Later special. It is the rare album, rap or otherwise, that follows through on the artist's potential and the fan’s anticipation.
Words: Tim Sendra
After an EP and two albums that firmly established his moody, introspective style and made him a huge star, Drake's third album, Nothing Was the Same, isn't a huge departure but it does take some steps in new directions. Built around sped-up samples and Wu-Tang-inspired, spooky loops, the production retains the same basic style, but is a little deeper and more foreboding. Provided mostly by longtime collaborator Noah "40" Shebib, the backing is suitably melancholic and claustrophobic enough to match Drake's main lyrical themes of angry boasting, dealing with a broken heart, and being disillusioned by the lifestyle his fame has brought him. This time out, Drake adds to his list of family issues, as a couple tracks deal with re-establishing a relationship with his father and worrying about his mom. It's good to hear him reaching out a little and expanding his concerns because his usual topics are wearing thin, especially the boasting. "Started from the Bottom" is the main offender, since the idea of Drake starting from the bottom is a little ridiculous. If growing up well-off, starring in a TV series, and hooking up early with Weezy is the bottom, we should all want to start off there. It's hard to entirely write off this song, and the others that focus on his greatness, since the music is so evocative and because Drake's basic persona is still appealing. "Too Much," in particular, is a brilliant combination of brag rap and quiet storm balladry that features a simply heartbreaking vocal from Sampha. The tracks that work the best on Nothing are the slow-to-the-point-of-being-static ballads like "Own It," "Connect," and "305 to My City," which feel like the late-night emotional outpourings of a truly sad soul; the songs that bubble with raw emotion and are balanced against very dark loops, like "Wu-Tang Forever"; and the one song that has some uptempo punch, the very poppy R&B groover "Hold on, We're Going Home." That last one shows that Drake could make great left-field R&B if he wanted to, and is a nice contrast to all the angry talk and bitter introspection that fill the rest of the record. As impressive as it is that Drake has become a star while making records that are mostly joyless and twisted up by emotions, it might be nice to hear him loosening up and having some fun now and then. As far as this album goes, though, it's not much fun but it is worth exploring if you've been following Drake's progression up till now. Nothing Was the Same doesn't show large amounts of growth, but the small changes to the sound and the slightly wider net his lyrics cast make it worthwhile. Plus, there aren't many other rappers who do gloom as well as Drake and that's something worth supporting, if only because it's something different than the hip-hop norm in 2013.
Words: Tim Sendra
After a typically busy and fascinating 2014, Drake's 2015 started off much the same way. His chart-topping "album" If You're Reading This It's Too Late started off life as a free mixtape, but his label Cash Money stepped in at the last minute and changed it to a full-priced release. This move came amid reports that Drake was ready to follow his mentor Lil Wayne and leave Cash Money because of money issues. The album's number of references to not getting paid by his label shows that even if the rumors end up being false, Drake was plenty upset with Birdman and his business practices while he was recording this tape. Drake is also mad at women trying to play him for a fool, rappers who diss him, and people who think he's soft. Par for the course for a Drake album lately, but the difference here is that there are no pop singles to balance the claustrophobic rants. There are also no huge radio hooks, and most of the album sounds like it was cooked up (mostly by old mates Noah "40" Shebib and Boi-1da) during sleepless nights behind drawn blinds, with more dank atmosphere than the coach cabin of a passenger jet after an 18-hour flight. His raps sport the same snappy wordplay as usual, but Drake sounds like he's rapping to himself this time out, trying to work out issues and feelings instead of broadcasting to the world. He occasionally breaks out of the murk to make some noise, like on the strutting "6 God," but mostly he keeps his head down and the mood subdued. It makes for an album that's hard to love right away, but if you stick with it, is a rewarding listen. Especially at the end of the mixtape/album when Drake drops three songs that would have been highlights on any of his albums (or anyone's albums for that matter). The heartbreaking conversation with/ode to his mother "You & the 6," the slow-motion Prince-inspired R&B ballad "Jungle," and the swaggering "6PM in New York" sound like the core of what could have been his best album. As it is, they are a stunningly good coda to a very confusing detour in his career.
Words: Tim Sendra
A surprise mixtape that went from announcement to the top of the Billboard charts within a matter of a few weeks, What a Time to Be Alive is also a worthy hang session from MCs Drake and Future, one that feels instant, spontaneous, and just messy enough to keep off the top shelf. Think of it as a less ambitious Watch the Throne and the listener's role is mapped out, as being in awe or living vicariously through these songs is the only option for anyone not signed to the OVO and Freebandz imprints. The mixtape comes alive with half-tempo club bangers like "Jumpman" (a druggy Future drops "Way too much codeine and Adderall" while a money-blowing Drake goes "Nobu, Nobu, Nobu....") and "Big Rings" (Drake says you better give his crew some money, while Future drops the weird "I got racks like Serena/All of my rings Aquafina, my bitch Aquafina"). Stoned-out and slow tracks like "Scholarships" offer something more interesting and impossibly emo, as Drake admits "I need acknowledgement/If I got it then tell me I got it then" because he doesn't read the papers. Drake also brings things to a close with a solo and self-aware kiss-off called "30 for 30 Freestyle," which gives up 2015's ultimate meta moment with "My plan was always to make the product jump off the shelf/And treat the money like secrets, keep that shit to ourselves." What a Time to Be Alive, indeed.
Words: David Jeffries
No doubt about it, Drake blew up big time in 2009. The one-time TV actor (from Degrassi High: The Next Generation) hooked up with Lil Wayne a couple years previously, worked the mixtape and collabo circuit hard for a spell, and then suddenly hit with the song "Best I Ever Had." The song was taken from the So Far Gone mixtape and became, arguably, the top summer jam of 2009. After a ferocious bidding war, Drake ended up signing with Universal Motown (while keeping his affiliation with Weezy's Young Money and Cash Money intact), and they officially introduced Drake with the So Far Gone EP. The release included seven tracks from the mixtape and gave undeniable proof that the hype and noise surrounding the rapper were all justified. The productions (courtesy of members of Drake's Toronto-based crew) are nuanced and powerful, the hooks are huge, and Drake has lyrical skills and a vocal flow that make him one of the best young spitters on the scene. The twists and turns of his words keep the songs interesting on repeated listens, the equal amounts of inspired raunchiness and heart-felt introspection make for a truly well-rounded presentation, and most impressively, the youngster manages to keep up with his mentor on the three tracks Lil Wayne adds verses to. His rapping style owes some to Wayne's drawling and woozy delivery, but he also has some of Kanye's erudition, Jay-Z's bite, and plenty of contemporary R&B influence. In the end, though, the melding of the various influences means he comes up with something all his own. That the memorable, constantly surprising lyrics and smooth flow are laid on top of the rich productions and sticky hooks means that there are some jams here that will put the competition on their heels. "Best I Ever Had" is the instant classic, but the other six songs are just as impressive. The melancholy "Houstatlantavegas" and "The Calm" show Drake's sensitive side, "Successful" and "Uptown" are hard-edged pop-rap, "I'm Goin' In" gives a glimpse of Drake's hardcore credentials, and "Fear" wraps up the too-short EP with some nice symphonic soul-rap. When an artist is as talked about and hyped as Drake was in 2009, it's easy to write them off as an industry creation or some kind of fluke. So Far Gone shows that Drake is for real, and works as a tantalizing teaser for his first full-length record.
Words: Tim Sendra