Aditya Mahalingham-Dhingra thinks Drake is the voice of the modern, millennial relationship.
Months back, long before Take Care leaked, its unofficial lead single, “Marvin’s Room,” debuted on the nternet. An emotionally-charged dramatization of drunk dialing an ex, Drake’s haunting melody, wound loosely between producer Noah “40” Shebib’s whispy heartbeat and phone-distorted dialogue, found immediate resonance with young hip-hop and R&B listeners, who identified with its plaintive heartbreak, and with the Internet’s hordes of aspiring artists, who recorded hundreds of new versions.
In a conversation with New York Magazine, Drake noted an unexpected side-effect of the track’s memetic popularity:
It’s just with Twitter, Facebook, it’s so easy to find someone that, like, I’ll say someone’s name and then people go online and go find them and start talking to them and it gets weird for people because when you have a life of anonymity and then all of a sudden people know you. The girl on “Marvin’s Room,” for example. No one knows who that is, but then there are people who know who that is, and it got weird for her. She’s all over the world, you know?
Take Care is a packed, 15-plus track album, and it explores breakups and touring and “lean” (when Drake says “Sprite and that mixed up,” the “that” is cough syrup) and everything in between. But running through the album are the unfinished whispy ends of “Marvin’s Room.” The Internet, and by extension the modern age, is a complicated place to be an artist. It’s also a complicated place to be in love.
In his Grantland review of the album, Hua Hsu writes, “rarely does sadness—this wallowing, defeated, infinitely alone kind of sadness—infect hip-hop … Few albums in any genre set out for the abyss that is Drake’s Take Care, a weird and exquisitely crafted triumph of both self-confidence and self-loathing.” Hsu is right in that Take Care is deeply affecting, and Drake’s music feels impactful in a way utterly unlike that of his peers. But is it really because his subject matter is a distant frontier for the genre of hip hop, let alone all other genres? Hsu’s premise seems reckless, especially in a year dominated by Kanye West’s massive, operatic masterpiece.
My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is an obsessive study of human darkness writ large; Monster’s haunting video flings dead models at us until the violence of its imagery is meaningless, and the album’s other huge single, “Power,” takes its chorus from the infamous words of a white cop upon witnessing Malcolm X’s sway over a Harlem mob. Runaway’s verses recklessly breach the bounds of sensibility, deliberately, it turns out. MBDTF is almost a concept album, so thorough is its exploration of man’s inhumanity to man, and woman.
By contrast, Take Care doesn’t attempt to scale the heights that MBDTF mounts. Drake doesn’t monologue at length about the distorting effects of power, or the systemic objectification and violence faced by black women, or racism. Jake Cleland put it well while succinctly panning “Marvin’s Room” for The Singles Jukebox: “the throbbing beat borrows from latter-day Kanye and apart from the god-awful line ‘Fuuuuck thaaat niggaaaaa that you love so baaaad’ it could be a pre-mixed demo of an 808?s b-side — though even Kanye knew to move on from that. Either go hard and dirty or grandiose and operatic. Drake’s adolescent whimpering is neither. Someone get the kid a moleskine.” He’s right that Drake isn’t Kanye; Take Care‘s passion pales next to 808s and its scope is dwarfed by MBDTF. And yet the album is deeply affecting, especially to young artists and listeners, something Hsu picked up on although he misdiagnosed it.
Take Care isn’t dark because it “sets out” for uncharted melancholy. Take Care is dark because it doesn’t set out for anywhere. Instead, Take Care follows us to the club after work with the attractive coworker we never got around to asking out who’s now sleeping with our best friend. Take Care dogs us to the frat party where we run into our ex and she looks amazing. Take Care smothers us alone in our bedroom, brooding about the mistakes we’ve made and the ones that got away. “I think I’m addicted to naked pictures and sittin talking ‘bout bitches that we almost had.” Take Care is obscenely mundane and infinitely relatable.
The album feels new because Drake gives faces and voices to the relationships he depicts. He names his exes at the top of “Shot for Me.” We can easily picture the phone conversation from “Marvin’s Room” happening on the same phone Drake brings in the booth and on which he famously writes his lyrics. Is there an image more appropriate for my generation’s experience with relationships, more brutal in its “it’s complicated” melancholy, than Drake playing a voicemail he got after drunk-dialing an ex into his sampler and then taking that same phone into the booth to record?
It isn’t the first time Drake’s played with this sort of acoustic intimacy. So Far Gone, Drake’s last album-sized effort, was produced, recorded, “released, mixed, and mastered” in a hotel room at the Beverley Wilkshire. The venue feels like a pointed choice—intimate, private, and welcoming, though only on the surface. The hotel room is a location for honeymoons, for illicit trysts, for anonymous hookups. There’s an illusion of privacy, a veneer that’s easily penetrated; the curtains are too sheer, the hallways too long, the walls too thin. My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, by contrast, was recorded in a multi-studio compound in the Hawaiian islands.
There’s another young artist whom neither Hsu nor Cleland discuss, which is surprising, given her fiercely soulful breakup album has been one of the biggest albums of the past several years. Adele’s 21 is a brilliant depiction of heartache, and it soars and crashes, spanning pain, anger, jealousy, and tenderness. There’s a range to Adele’s thematic approach that mirrors her stunning vocal athleticism; Take Care doesn’t attempt either, and, while Drake can certainly construct capable hooks, we should probably be grateful that it doesn’t. Adele’s voice carries gallons of emotion up and down a roller coaster melody in “Rolling in the Deep”; Drake’s frank lilting works best when he’s murmuring dark half-threats into our ears. Take Care is an album that paradoxically almost sounds better through tinny earbuds than through a booming speaker system.
While Hsu’s review misses the thematic thrust of the album, it is right on point musically. Drake’s signature singing of his own hooks is a powerful departure from the norm, and profoundly warps the experience of listening to Take Care. It often feels emotionally too close; it’s not Jay Z yelling “I’m fucking depressed” over Swizz Beatz’ blaring horns and whistles, and it’s not Kanye wailing to us about heartache across the frigid expanse of an auto tune filter. Drake is right up in our ears, serenading us darkly, and his music is uniquely raw as a result.
R&B wunderkind Frank Ocean crystalized the contrast on his breakout mixtape hit “Novacaine”—“did didn’t I can’t feel nothing / even when I’m fucking viagra poppin / every single record auto tuning / zero emotion, muted emotion, pitch / corrected, computed emotion.” Ocean’s point isn’t that the much-maligned auto tune effect cannot be paired with real emotion—Kanye’s 808s is a powerful and chilling and almost entirely auto-tuned breakup album, after all. Rather, that the filter puts some distance between the artist and the listener, a distance that allows Kanye to wail the sad melodies he would normally outsource to a gospel choir or sped-up soul sample. More importantly, it allows us some safety as listeners. Kanye can be brutal, hyperbolic sound and fury on 808s without making his album unlistenable. Drake’s sound is infinitely closer; when he softly sings the veiled line “and I’ll start hating only if you make me” to his ex on “Marvin’s Room,” it sends chills down my spine that hold their own against any I’ve experienced while listening to “Heartless” or the huge, teary, soulful anger of Adele’s “Someone Like You.”
Novacaine’s video is a sweaty, bleary-eyed journey through unfocused bong hits and cycles of anonymous sex at the insistence of an unnamed “model broad with the Hollywood smile.” Ocean’s whole song is about numbness, but the whirling confusion of the lifeless connections it depicts is so painfully unsustainable that the song builds and builds and then ends abruptly, with a hand reaching into camera and slapping Ocean across the face.
Hsu draws a wonderful contrast between Drake’s emotional immediacy and his current tour opener, Houston-style Harlem rapper A$AP Rocky, who embodies a youthful strutting style that A$AP’s crew would call “swag” and satirical hip hop blogger and established Drake hater BigGhostFace would call, affectionately, “ignorance.” But the contrast extends to their sounds—“Purple Swag” sounds like Ocean’s “Novacane” feels. Rocky, with his emphasis on slow-warped Houston flow and ethereal drugged out-beats from producers like Clams Casino, constructs songs that spin dizzyingly and practically pour Benadryl through the speakers.
Rocky slows his voice down to a Darth Vader drawl for his hooks, to the point where it is barely recognizable as human. It’s the perfect counterbalance to Take Care. Rocky’s music hands you a bottle of lean, pulls a blunt from the sleeve of its Rick Owens jacket, gets you faded, invincible, and young. Drake’s cuts the haze; even his more drug-addled lyrics are paired with acoustically clean tracks, a contrast made only more noticeable by Rocky’s heavy-handed use of sonic-warping effects. They are two sides of the same coin. Take Care is a harsh antidote to A$AP and Novacane’s hazy drugs—it’s the slippery connections and the untenable relationships made real. Take Care explains the joke, reveals the magic trick, flips the lights on at the end of the party after everyone has gone home and takes a good look at the floor.
Hsu wonders openly why Drake is sad, a question he doesn’t fully resolve before the end of the review. But Hsu teaches at a college; does he really not see Drake’s themes echoing like one of Shebib’s reverbs on the faces of his students? Take Care is millennial hookup culture, in all its beautiful, dark, twisted complexity, relationships chopped and screwed with an H-town lean, sung in a half-whisper right into our ears.