Toronto's top dog delivered 2013's best LP by improving his complicated balancing act of romantic lover boy and boastful MC with a conscience. Drake sits down to dissect his masterful album Nothing Was the Same STORY: John Kennedy l PHOTOS: Zach Gold
You’ve never seen an NBA locker room look like this. White sheets scale the walls, illuminated by blue mood lighting. A snowy rug sprawls the floor beneath a glass coffee table, on which two tall powder-scented candles burn so pungently that they make you want to sneeze. In the center of it all is Drake, folded forward on a white sofa in the Zen-like dressing room he’s subletting from the Charlotte Bobcats for the night. It’s past midnight and the 27-year-old rapper just performed at a packed November stop on his rhetorical Would You Like A Tour? run here in North Carolina’s Time Warner Cable Arena, keeping women of all ages (and even a few man fans) singing and rhyming along to the melodic anthems that have made him a supernova in music’s Milky Way. Yet at this moment the hip-hop heavyweight is assessing his stature on the undercard: the rap blogosphere.
“People love to sing, that’s what I never forget,” says Drake, hovering over a lukewarm plate of pasta—carbs to replenish after leaving it all on the stage about an hour ago. “But you can’t say my bars aren’t up there with the best of them. People keep challenging me about what real rap is. Is it the sh*t you know all the words to, or the sh*t that sounds fast and complex? I don’t have the answer. At the same time, I know I can do a couple things.”
Drake has become accustomed to dwelling in alternate worlds. His whole bio is a paradox: He’s a biracial Toronto-born former Degrassi child actor with family ties to Memphis who found megastardom after joining Lil Wayne’s YMCMB crew via truth-serum singing and 16s. It’s this tightrope treading that has defined Drake and helped his third studio LP, Nothing Was The Same, earn VIBE’s 2013 Album of the Year honors. While it lacks Justin Timberlake’s soul-warming grooves, Pusha T’s real-life coke fantasies or Yeezus’ fearless musicality, the Take Care follow-up achieves a steamy stew of emotional catharsis, mid-20s regrets and YOLO stunting. Never mind the Sampha sample and the already-timeless ’80s two-stepper “Hold On, We’re Going Home”; this is an excellent rap LP, with chest-beating bravado, alphabetical slaughter (“Aye, B, I got your CD, you get an E for eFfort”), respectable odes to ’90s icons and melodies that morph like Power Rangers.
“This album is probably the most aware of self that I’ve ever been,” Drake says. He’s rocking a virtually airbrushed shape-up, dark blue button-up shirt and creamy gray Timbs, preparing to deconstruct his best project to date. As he leans against a white throw pillow embroidered with OVO’s owl logo, Drake appears comfortable with his current pole position. “I’m here, I’m gonna own this now. I’m gonna give you guys everything and keep going forward ’til something else happens. Like, I’ve fallen in love. Or make the real Here, My Dear...”
VIBE: Like Nothing Was The Same, Nas’ last album, Life Is Good, was greatly influenced by Marvin Gaye’s 1978 LP Here, My Dear.
Drake: Oh wow, crazy. I didn’t even know that. Here, My Dear was an influence to me because he was telling such a vivid story about going through divorce and that particular relationship. Even though this album wasn’t really about a relationship or that specific, I had vivid details much like that album and wanted to get them across in that concise format. Here, My Dear wasn’t Marvin Gaye’s biggest album. But I think when people look back in 10 years they’ll be like, “Damn, ‘Hold On, We’re Going Home’ was on this. ‘Started From the Bottom’ was on this.” I always think about that feeling, flipping over the CD like,What was on this album?
It’s definitely the most cohesive of your albums. It’s such a journey that it’s over quickly, but you forget where you started so you have to listen again. By the time you get to “305 To My City” you don’t remember how you got there from “Wu Tang Forever.” It’s all connected . The initial idea was to release two versions of the album. The deluxe version was going to flip the whole track list, so it would go “Pound Cake” then “Too Much”—it would go in reverse . It was a cool, different listening experience. We never brought it into fruition; I think it was some iTunes [issue] or something like that.
 "There’s a lot of [musical] manipulation, these winding roads. I would’ve loved to embellish on that more, for every transition to be craziness. But it’s difficult when you’re also balancing the order and flow of the tracks.” —Noah “40” Shebib, executive producer  “That illustrates how much thought goes into telling these stories—the sequencing, the mood, the peaks and valleys. Even Kanye has brought up the importance of the sequencing of [Yeezus]. It's not just slapped together.” —Oliver El-Khatib, executive producer
The Weeknd was obviously a huge influence on Take Care. At any point during the recording of Nothing Was The Same did you consider tapping him to bring that energy? We actually sat together for a couple nights on some personal sh*t. Just to vibe and get back to whatever it was we’d started out doing. When I had met the Weeknd there was no Weeknd, so it was extremely influential on me. I saw it from its inception. I saw the impact that House of Balloons had on [Toronto]. I go off the city—once the world has it it’s a little too late for me. It was that chapter. That House of Balloons moment this time was PARTYNEXTDOOR . That and Nothing Was The Same is all that our city is listening to. That’s who has the juice. With Party, he never wants to go too slow; there’s always some energy. He inspired me to stay away from the real R&B ballads. Take Care got scrutiny for being too slow, too this, too that. I said to myself, “I’m always going to have records to drive to.” That’s my sh*t. I’m never going to make some album full of bars with no melody, don’t ever wait for that. I’ll give you raps on raps, [“5 A.M. In Toronto”] and [“9 A.M. In Dallas”] and “Stay Schemin” But when it comes to making a body of work, that sh*t becomes boring to me.
 “I don’t think I'm filling a void; I was just adding what Drake wanted. They sent me a bunch of tracks and asked me to fill gaps and add flavor or certain riffs and runs.” —PARTYNEXTDOOR, singer
This album does a good job of merging rapping and singing in a seamless way. I remember asking people early on what can I do this time to make it a memorable project. I took a lot away from performing. On the last tour, I’d be rapping records like “HYFR” and “The Motto,” then have to go onto “Doing It Wrong,” “The Real Her.” I couldn’t even get onstage and perform them, because they’re such blatant singer moments and the energy would come down. My biggest thing this time was working with my vocal coach, just really finding a different tone. Detail is a huge influence on that as well. I’ve never had a vocal producer other than 40, and there were nights where 40 would leave the studio and let Detail vocal produce me. What’s different about Detail, I’ll do a verse in one take with 40; Detail would make me go line by line. It was annoying at first, like who is this guy to tell me I’m not doing it right? But when I listened to the finished product there’d be so much emotion in every line that it was almost like somebody different rapping.
You bookend the album with two bold lyrical records—“Tuscan Leather” and “Pound Cake/ Paris Morton Music 2.” What was the message you wanted to send?
You bookend the album with two bold lyrical records—“Tuscan Leather” and “Pound Cake/ Paris Morton Music 2.” What was the message you wanted to send?
Yeah, I wanted to bookend it with strong raps. Intros and outros have always been kind of ambient. I wanted to come out strong. When we were in Atlanta I told 40, “Man, just give me some sh*t that Dipset would rap on.”  He gave me the beat for the first part of “Tuscan Leather.” Then Boi-1da sent us some drums  and we flipped it , then flipped the end part again. We had this running joke; we’d listen to the song and be like “Oh, the album is done. The song was such a journey.” “Pound Cake” was never going to be the last record but it just became that . Then “Paris Morton Music” came along and it felt like this is where it should end.
 “'Tuscan Leather’ sounds like a beat I made for [Toronto rap group] Empire Crew when I was 17 called ‘So Softly.’ That was the ruggedest rap music you can imagine. Oliver was like—go back to the old 40!” —Shebib  “I was working on a track and 40 walked in like, 'Yo, send me that right now.' I didn’t even get to finish, he just added it onto what he was doing. Whenever 40’s ears perk up you know its something serious.” —Boi-1da, producer  “Boi-1da’s drums were created from a sample that we couldn’t use for whatever reason, so then I basically re-created that sample.” —Nineteen85, producer  “My producer Jordan Evans brought the Ellie Goulding [‘Don't Say a Word’] sample to me and I was like, ‘this is perfect.’ Nothing sounds bet- ter than Ellie Goulding singing in the background while Jay Z is rapping.” —Boi-1da
How much fun was it to write “Worst Behavior”? These sessions were probably the craziest nights of my life. When we had the completed “Worst Behavior”  and played it back for the first time, it was a crazy feeling. I just like making music like that. The cadences, seeing people get hype. All those last sessions were crazy. We did “The Language,” “305 to My City,” “Too Much” and “Worst Behavior” all in the last two weeks. So I feel like I just caught the wave at the end. And that’s why I’m so eager to get back in.
 “The album is even-tempo and my joint is kind of a wake-up, like, 'Oh sh*t! What’s this?' Detail added the Auto-Tune sound on top of the beat—that’s definitely not me singing” —DJ Dahi, producer
Where does that energy come from, lines like, “Muh*&%^$#@Eas never loved us?” In my mind, I’m still fighting to convince you that I’m meant to be here. I just want people to love me like they love 'Pac. I want people to remember I spoke from the heart and told the truth. It’s so crazy because while 'Pac was here, he felt like everybody hated him. And that’s where that sh*t comes from. As much as I brush sh*t off, I don’t feel like people love Drake necessarily. I’m still human—I see a lot of love, tickets selling, people going crazy. But at the same time, it’s tough to just see that. I see the rest of it, too. I know I must be most-hated out here.
Do the jokes and Internet memes ever get to you? It’s flattery. I’m just being human, it’s not like I’m on records crying and making videos in the rain and sh*t. I always get to this point where it’s like, “Man, how come this guy is allowed to do this? How come this guy is allowed to talk about the streets? All he did was be around it, just like me. He didn’t live it, but he’s allowed to talk about it. How come this guy is allowed to make girl records—love records—but they’re not girl records or love records when he does it?” I just have to step back and be like, because it doesn’t matter what those guys do. Whoever that is, it just doesn’t matter. They’re not important enough to be scrutinized like that. So it’s that feeling of accepting that I’m at the top and I don’t give them enough to talk about, so they have to make sh*t. No one ever loves that guy that’s on top.
Not to compare you, but that’s reminiscent of Ja Rule being criticized for singing, when his rival 50 Cent was doing the same thing on his choruses. Yeah, I see it in a lot of places. The difference between me and that parallel is that as much as I may make great records for women, nobody could ever box me into a corner. I see myself more as 50 than Ja, not from a street perspective, but from a hitmaking perspective. I have the “21 Questions” and “Started From the Bottom.”  I’ve tapped into both markets, whereas when Ja would go the street route it would be seen as a reach because 50 kept attacking him. So he’d have to stay in that girl lane. I can really rap, so I would never let that happen. That is an interesting situation to bring up. I don’t want confrontation because it’s stressful, man. As much of a show as it is for people and sometimes what makes it exciting, for us it’s just unnecessary pressure and stress. That sh*t’s not fun. It’s not fun to be in a beef with somebody. If you do win the war of words, then what? Then where does it go? The person starts feeling self-conscious, and then we start getting into some whole other sh*t. I try and avoid sh*t like that for the sake of my career.
 “When I spoke to Drake he said that song sparked the creative process for the whole album. Everybody was saying it’s a trap beat. but it’s not—it just has trap elements.” —Mike Zombie, producer
Rap nerds have speculated whether “The Language” is a subliminal response to Kendrick Lamar’s verse on Big Sean’s “Control.” Is it appropriate to put those two records side by side?
In an interview with Los Angeles’ Power 106, Kanye West told Big Boy that he wishes he’d recorded “Hold On, We’re Going Home.”  How does it feel to hear someone who’s inspired you— someone who’s greatly steered hip-hop culture in the past decade—say that about your song? [Pauses] As of late, me and ’Ye have opened up the doors to having communication and a relationship that was closed for a bit—and it needed to be. To push him more. We’re just checkin’ on each other once in a while. I’m sure it’s always gonna be competitive. [OVO co-founder] Oliver El-Khatib and I were talking the other night, like, “How crazy it is to hear ’Ye say sh*t about us?” We’re some kids from Toronto. It’s crazy. I couldn’t have predicted it. I’m still very much honored when I hear something like that because that’s still my guy. He’s why people accept me. He really was the first one to break down that door that I was allowed to walk through. It was crazy to hear him say anything about my music, let alone, that. And there’s a lot of good songs out right now for him to say that. It’s dope.
 “When I heard the completed version, it was almost unreal what I thought it could do. I was like, 'This might be one of the biggest songs of our time.' 40 years from now, I don’t think the song will sound old.” —Nineteen85
You brought him out as a surprise guest at OVO Fest in Toronto in August. He said you’re the reason that he and Jay Z made Watch the Throne, because you were bringing the pressure. Have you had a conversation with him since? We talk a lot. We talk about potential things, working on stuff together. It’s just so interesting to go from OVO Fest to now, being the two tours that are on the road in America. We’re kinda back on the same—What’s he gonna do? ’Cause I know what I’m gonna do. It’s like that Larry Bird and Magic Johnson documentary of them reflecting on everything years later. Me and him might be able to do one of those one day, a crazy sit-down together in suits and just be old, like, “This how I really felt.” He’s, like, the best. What an era to be a part of. I wouldn’t want my competition to be anybody else. My competition is nobody else, by the way. It’s just me and ‘Ye. I still have work to do but that’s what it is right now.
Some of the writing on Nothing Was the Same, particularly on “Connect,” has a poetic feel to it. Lines like “Wish you would learn to love people and use things and not the other way around,” how do you come up with those? I just have a folder of lines. It’s usually from conversations. I’ll open up and see the last thing that I wrote down. [Scrolls phone] Like this’ll probably never get used: “I’m not gullible, I just trust you.” Someone must have said that to me. I kinda just write down these lines. Who helped me write on“Connect”  is this girl Kenza. She’s a great girl and a phenomenal poetry writer. We just sit together and come up with the best way to say things. Actually, me and her did [the lyric] “love people and use things and not the other way around.” It’s cool to get another creative mind in there, just someone who’s thinking solely about the words and not the melodies and placement. It’s nice to read her poetry sometimes, I’ll take from that.
 “‘Connect’ was in the air at one point. Because the album is slow sometimes and we were trying to keep the tempo up—maybe we could replace that with something a little quicker. But I fought for ‘Connect’ because that was one of the most groundbreaking pieces, musically.” —Shebib  “When I texted him, 'Isn't it amazing, how you talk all that sh*t and still we lack communication,' he was like, 'Are you talking to me about me right now or is that for the song?'” —Kenza Samir, poet
Do you ever have to censor yourself when telling personal stories? On “From Time” you mentioned a “Courtney from Hooters on Peachtree,” and people tracked her down online. Do you ever feel the need to change names or details?
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