A ballad is a slow sentimental or romantic song, and if there’s one thing Drake is known for it’s that. Interestingly, too, the ballad form typifies old-school rap, as Adam Bradley affirmed in Book of Rhymes: The Poetics of Hip Hop, “Rap’s early years are rich with easily observable poetic forms like those of ‘Rapper’s Delight.’ The sound that would soon come to be identified as ‘old school’ is a product of MCs’s strict reliance on formal patterns like the ballad stanza.” Something else that exemplifies the old-school rap form is a distinct straightforwardness, whereas new-school rap is more controversial, typically written with a stream-of-consciousness narrative, and thus less primitive. If each form were an author, the old-school form would be Charles Dickens, while the new-school form would be more of a James Joyce or T.S. Eliot type.
And on the outset, Nothing Was The Same does seem to be boasting all of these old-school characteristics. Which makes the album’s cover art—a little Drake juxtaposed against a big Drake—seem natural, perhaps suggesting that he’s always looking back, never forgetting where he came from. The plethora of old-school references on the album seem natural too. The song “Wu-Tang Forever” samples Wu Tang’s 1997 song “It’s Yourz” and “Pound Cake / Paris Morton Music 2” samples Wu Tang’s C.R.E.A.M; in “Tuscan Leather,” Drake references The Fresh Prince, Prince Akeem from Coming to America, Tatyana Ali, and Family Matters; on “Worst Behavior” he steals part of Mase’s verse from Biggie’s “Mo Money Mo Problems”; on “Connect” he sings, “Same city, same friends if you’re looking for me”; and on “From Time” he raps, “I want to go back to when I was that kid in the basement.” All of which seems to be saying that he remembers his past and isn’t getting ahead of himself.
And yet, a second glance at the album yields an opposing narrative. For one, Drake keeps contradicting himself. And this isn’t something that has gone unnoticed amongst reviewers. When he isn’t professing his love for a chick or lamenting something that led to a breakup, he’s just here to fuck. He goes from “Next time we fuck, I don’t wanna fuck, I wanna make love” in “Own It” to “She just want to smoke and fuck / I said, ‘Girl, that’s all that we do’” in “The Language.” And he goes from “I got my eyes on you, you’re everything that I see / I want your hot love and emotion endlessly / I cant get over you, you left your mark on me / I want your hot love and emotion endlessly” in “Hold On We’re Going Home,” to “I just want some head in a comfortable bed, it could all be so simple” in “The Language.” New York Magazine also noted his tendency to overshare and kiss-and-tell is not only eerily similar to Taylor Swift, but also makes him harder to trust. He dishes some pretty personal qualms regarding his family on the album, and he claims to have “started from the bottom” despite the fact that he, well, didn’t.
Clearly Drake is not as straightforward on this album as he seems at first glance. And at the same time that we realize we can’t trust him, we learn that he’s distrustful of others too. Drake makes numerous subtle blows at Kendrick Lamar, who dissed Drake on his verse in Big Sean’s “Control,” and alludes to Chris Brown in “Wu Tang Forever” when he raps, “I just like the rush when you see your enemy somewhere in the club.” Drake is bitter, but he’s also anxious and, in light of his success, wary of peoples’ motives. Which is perhaps why Jhene Aiko sings to him in “From Time,” “You give but you cannot take love.” And why he has scarcely any other artist featured on this album.
A closer look at “Furthest Thing,” “Wu Tang Forever,” “Own It,” and “Worst Behavior” sheds light on the evolution of Drake’s thoughts and general temperament. In “Furthest Thing” he’s apologizing to his girl for being too busy, and bemoans the fact that she thinks he doesn’t love her. Then in “Wu Tang Forever,” his girl is less hesitant, willing to give up herself entirely to him. Drake raps, “We used to be friends, girl, and even back then / You would look at me with no hesitation and you’d tell me baby, it’s yours / Nobody else’s, yeah, this shit belong to nobody, it’s yours.” In “Own It,” Drake reciprocates the girl’s unrequited love from “Wu Tang Forever,” saying “Guess whose it is? Guess whose it is? / It’s yours.” But then “Worst Behavior” comes along and suddenly he’s bitter. Perhaps after reciprocating his girl’s love, he was slighted by her. Regardless, the resent is palpable: “Worst / Mufucka never loved us / Fucking never loved her.” By the end of this song, he’s an entirely antagonistic and aggressively accusatory man.
And his resentment seems to culminate in “Pound Cake/Paris Morton Music 2” when he raps, “Look, fuck all that ‘happy to be here’ shit that y’all want me on.” He’s past the stage of being thankful, and is ready to receive credit where credit is due. His voice recalls WWI poet Siegfried Sassoon’s voice in “Glory of Women.” What Sassoon seemed to despise most about fighting in the war was the reaction of the women back home. Like Drake, who recognizes all the fake people who are suddenly taking a pointed interest in him after his success (“Mufucka never loved us, remember?”), Sassoon said of the women back home, “They love us when we’re heroes.” Sassoon also accused the women back home of making him and his fellow soldiers into “shells.” It implies a loss of humanity; as if these men are immortalized in the eyes of the people back home—unfeeling and unbreakable. Which perhaps explains the listless, statuesque, immortalized appearance of Drake on the cover of his album. He almost resembles a wax figure; more spectacle, perhaps, than human.
Despite continuing to lament how things have changed, Drake doesn’t seem willing to give up his life for anything—not even for a perpetual, idyllic sameness. He’s happy where he is. And the irony of it all is: while Drake’s feelings may have changed, his music hasn’t. In “Tuscan Leather” he boasts not having a chorus to the song, evoking a Yeezus/Black Skinhead mentality. And yet, where we’ll never hear “Black Skinhead” on the radio, we’ll undoubtedly hear Drake over the radio, rapping, “This is nothin’ for the radio.”