Nothing Was The Same opened with “Tuscan Leather”, a track that functioned more as a thesis on the Toronto rapper than a simple glimpse of what the album had to offer sonically. On it, we saw three different sides of Drake: Drake the braggart, Drake the big dreamer, and Drake as one appreciative of his relationships. These three things feed into each other, however, and it was appropriate that the beat was made from the same song (Whitney Houston’s “I Have Nothing”) flipped three times. Drake’s always been open about his influences so if anything, his “tough guy” shtick should be seen as a tribute to his heroes, especially on an album with multiple Wu-Tang references and lines from one of Biggie’s biggest hits. But at the same time, it’s hard to gauge how much of his “worst behavior” stems from that or his need for approval from others, be it his hip hop contemporaries or Courtney from Hooters on Peachtree. As a result, Whitney Houston singing “Don’t you dare walk away from me / I have nothing […] If I don’t have you” feels apt because it could be applied to all these different sides of Drake. Let’s play a game: if he sang those lyrics himself, what would it sound like—a vulnerable confession? A tactless demand? A bit of both? The answer doesn’t matter as much as the fact that it would sound like, and make you feel, something. That it’s unsurprising for a Drake review in 2015 to be, at least partially, a character study attests to how how his music is inseparable from his persona. When Drake opens If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late by nonchalantly claiming ”if I die, I’m a legend”, it sounding like a troll or problematic to certain people is only more proof of his complicated, and conflicted self. It’s the same Drake as always, just maybe not the one you like. In other words, it’s Drake feat. Drake, and we get a lot of that across these 17 tracks.
If You’re Reading is split into two halves, the first of which moves at a slow, murky pace. It has the same ethereal atmosphere that’s defined his previous releases, just noticeably darker. 40’s signature sound shines through, even in the hands of other producers. Long gone, however, is Drake’s soft crooning; this is Drake at his most unapologetically serious. And for the first six songs, he utilizes specific signifiers—moody piano melodies, snippets of Jamaican voices, samples of Ginuwine’s “So Anxious”—to reinforce that he means everything that he says. The nuisance of haters on “Energy”? He’s over them. Instead, he’s spending his time mastering his craft and striving for the success he’s touting on “10 Bands” and “No Tellin’”. But he’s also just as sure of the girl he’s gonna get on “Madonna”. Put bluntly, it’s the most overtly sinister thing Drake’s penned, and the way he switches his flow and tone from detached to overly insistent gives the lyrics an enormous amount of weight. There’s even an uneasiness to the way 40 morphs the Ginuwine sample, and letting the song close on such a foreboding note allows the following track, “6 God”, to feel more potent than when it was released as a standalone single back in October.
At this point, If You’re Reading starts chipping away at its tough surface; the production becomes more spacious and the lyrics more sensitive. “6 God” and “6 Man” still find Drake as boastful as ever, even referencing his previous works, but they sandwich some of the album’s most vulnerable moments. “Star67” starts with a list of Drake’s possessions but it soon drifts into a hazy blur— drums lose their authoritative power and synth pads take over. We’re left hearing Drake recall his history getting money via phone scams and the pride that characterized the “goddamn, we ain’t even gotta scam” line from earlier makes sense. Right after, PARTYNEXTDOOR takes over on “Preach” and “Wednesday Night Interlude”. The former ends up being the brightest moment on the album, but only deceptively so, as it leads into the loneliness described on the latter. To have the “My Boo“-sampling postlude of "Preach” sound distant and melodramatic only seems appropriate. For the first time on the record, there’s an openness to defeat both past and present. It’s a taking off of masks, and having PND do the heavy lifting on “Wednesday Night Interlude” helps to set the stage for when Drake does the same later.
Drake’s duplicity is a result of many different things. And in the album’s final stretch, we see how admirable it can be to hear Drake at his most sincere. On “Now & Forever”, he feels the need to leave a relationship to focus on his career. He’s convinced it’s a healthy decision but it’s soon contrasted with “Company”, a song that reveals how his insatiable craving for women was probably a major factor. But Drake owns up to it, and we’re soon reminded on “You & The 6” that he’s just another person dealing with his own issues. On it, he converses with his mother about his romantic interests, his place in the rap game, and his father. The most affecting lines end up being “I can’t be out here being vulnerable, momma” and “I used to get teased for being black / And now I’m here and I’m not black enough” for the precise reason that they reframe Drake’s tough guy front to those who didn’t catch on earlier. And in a way, the song reflects the sequencing of If You’re Reading: Drake’s midsong frustration and stuttering eventually gives way to personal confessions and a final, genuine thank you to his mom and Toronto.
Bonus track “6PM in New York” is a wonderful victory lap of a song but “Jungle” closes the record on an appropriately heartfelt note. Drake’s biggest desire has always been to love and be loved by someone. And while Drake’s been manipulative and self-centered in the past, it really sounds like he wants to grow. “Still finding myself, let alone a soulmate” he sings. And throughout the course of the song’s five minutes, “that’s cutting all into my time” turns into “are we still good?” It’s always seemed silly to knock Drake for his inauthenticity and selfishness when I see so much of it in myself. In the opening lines of “Jungle”, Drake croons “the things I can’t change are the reasons you love me”. The same could be said of Drake by any of his fans. I just hope one day we can all, Drake included, say the same thing to ourselves.