In hip-hop, the only way to trump the inviolable law of Keeping It Real is to establish a whole new reality.
That’s why Drake, a Canadian actor turned surprise rap phenom, has emerged as the genre’s new leading man, steering hip-hop out of the streets and into the emotive headspace of information-age isolation. It was a frontier first explored by Kanye West with his 2008 masterstroke “808s & Heartbreak.” Now, Drake’s arresting new album, “Thank Me Later,” follows through on West’s heavy-hearted promise. With penetrating lyricism and arresting melodies, it’s a truly captivating debut — a rookie’s ticket into the 21st century pop pantheon.
For most fans, hip-hop has always provided a glimpse of urban reality, seemingly unfiltered. Drake explores a terrain both more rarefied and more familiar: global celebrity. He doesn’t rap about street life, thug life or even club life. He raps about emotions — the clashing panoply of feelings that come with an unquenchable thirst for fame and the untenable romances that follow.
How can a 23-year-old possess such an aversion to stardom before his first album even hits shelves? Because he’s already a star. Before dropping his first mixtape in 2006, Aubrey Drake Graham made his name on television, playing teen athlete Jimmy Brooks on the corny Canadian drama “Degrassi: The Next Generation.” The heartthrob eventually earned his bona fides in the rap world under the wing of Lil Wayne — and proved himself an apt pupil with a spate of mixtape cuts (“Best I Ever Had,” “Successful,” “Forever”) that began to coat American airwaves and bandwidth last summer.
He eclipses those hits with his album’s first single, “Over,” a song that finds the ascendant star casting a suspicious glare over his own coronation. With ribbons of brass trilling behind him, he sings with a furrowed brow, “I know way too many people here right now that I didn’t know last year.”
The track approaches clubland delirium, but the rest of “Thank Me Later” sounds far more spare. Across the album’s 14 cuts, beats are parsed to their thundering essence while synthesizers billow on some distant horizon like strange fog. Each track feels only half full, providing ample space for the rapper to deliver his boasts and confessions in high definition. Even with “Fancy” — an up-tempo ode to women who spend hours primping in preparation for Saturday night — the beat eventually dissolves into a misty coda.
All the while, Drake toggles seamlessly between the twin roles of rapper and singer. His rhymes evoke Lil Wayne’s manic croak transposed into a suave, sonorous purr. As a singer, he croons each refrain with conversational ease — a nuance inherited from 50 Cent.
But what should truly endear Drake to the masses is his supreme self-awareness. “My 15 minutes started an hour ago,” he declares on “Fireworks,” simultaneously projecting himself as a braggart and a pawn trapped at the crossroads of celebrity and reality.
With “The Resistance,” his mind races from his ailing grandmother to a one-night stand that resulted in an abortion. Dazed by the fast life but still unable to resist its pull, he raps, “I’m holding on by a thread/It’s like I’m high right now/The guy right now/And you can tell by looking in my eyes right now/that nothing really comes as a surprise right now/’cause we just having the time of our lives right now.”
He sounds conflicted at times, but the confidence in his delivery makes his marquee collaborators seem smaller than they are. Rap heroes Jay-Z, Lil Wayne, Young Jeezy and T.I. make guest turns, but all are relegated to supporting roles. On “Up All Night,” larger-than-life newcomer Nicki Minaj sounds drowsy. Bun B’s cameo on “Miss Me” is limited to five quick words.
Though he’s been championed as incumbent rap royalty, Drake’s strongest analog resides in a neighboring star system. Her name is Taylor Swift.
For generations, both country singers and rappers have traded with the same currency: the notion of authenticity. Accordingly, both Drake and 20-year-old Swift are pushing their respective genres forward by retooling what it means to be “real.” He gets his heart crushed in the tabloids, she gets her heart crushed after sixth-period biology. Both can flip these painful personal experiences into supremely pleasurable hooks.
Yet as similar as they are, Swift’s songbook galvanizes fans with its youthful charm. Drake’s output feels far more downcast, much more remote.
He’s tugging on a strand of pop music that feels both magical and rare — the kind that brings us all together by reminding us that we’re all alone.
“Over,” “The Resistance,” “Fancy”