Thursday, June 10, 2010

Review: Drake - Thank Me Later

Heartthrob Holds Back, Sings Too Much, Comes Up Short On Hotly Anticipated Debut

"Thank Me Later" was expected to be the formal unveiling of Drake as rap's newly anointed King. The official passing of the torch to the Millennial Generation's valedictorian. A hip hop golden boy with movie-star good looks, rock star swagger, and pop star accessibility; Drake was groomed on Nickelodeon, nurtured on the internet, doused with street-cred and then launched into super stardom on the strength of a phenomenal mix tape that was simply unstoppable.

But somewhere along the line the coronation veered off course. Despite all the resources in the world, including big name producers and a roster of star-studded cameos, "Thank Me Later" manages to fall short of the mark, possibly weighted down by its own gravitas.

The basic problem is that it's just too commercial and calculated. The whole affair lacks passion, like a big budget action thriller where the leading man mails in his performance, relying instead on the special effects wizards to carry the day. What's worse, rather than rewarding the underground hip hop fans who made him a star, Drake seems to aim this album squarely at his pop audience -- blatantly seeking rotation on Sirius Hits 1. And unlike "So Far Gone", the aforementioned mix tape that ignited his fame, this record lacks any element of surprise. Missing is that feeling of spontaneity you get when an artist is freed of expectation and burden.

Or maybe there's just too much singing involved. On way too many tracks, Drake is content to bang out bland, soulless R&B. Songs like "CeCe's Interlude" and "Karaoke" are so dull that I'm not sure anyone other than my 10 year old niece will bother to listen to them more than once. Even The-Dream and Alicia Keys, who turn up for "Shut It Down" and "Fireworks" respectively, can't manage to generate any sparks.

When Drake does finally get around to rapping, it's obvious that he is a stone cold thoroughbred. Charming, intelligent and disarmingly self-reflective, Drake's verses are crisp, skillful and so of-the-moment that it always seems as if he wrote them this morning. In predicting just how big of a star he is about to become on the lead single, "Over", he sleighs with lines like "'Bout to go Thriller-Mike-Jackson on these n@$%#'s / All I need's a F@$&%#' red jacket with some zippers". Or how about on "The Resistance" where he boasts "It's happening Penny Lane, just like you said / I avoided the Coke game and went with Sprite instead", a deft reference to his recent Sprite endorsement contract.

On the album's best overall track, "Up All Night", Drake and Nicki Minaj flip effortless come-ons over a seductively murky Boi-1da beat. But too often, Drake's slick rhymes are abruptly shut off just when the album starts to gain momentum, derailed by his tendency to burst into song. When he slips back into his crooning pop-star persona, it's like watching a dazzling prize fighter who'd rather hold on to his opponent and lay on the ropes, than unleash a barrage of combinations and uppercuts. In the end, we're left with a feeling of emptiness, like we've been short-changed by our would-be rap icon. It seems for now that our thoroughbred is content to be a stud, rather than sprint to the finish line.