The Fascinating Self-Torture of Drake's 'Take Care'

[caption id="attachment_18877" align="alignleft" width="640" caption="Drake celebrates his 25th Birthday in Las Vegas, Nev., October 2011. Photo: David Becker/WireImage"][/caption]

Often treating preordained success, servile women and fawning fans as symptoms of hopeless existential emptiness rather than solutions to it, Drake called himself “young and unlucky” and was hardly a sympathetic character on his debut Thank Me Later. But he was damn sure compelling. And lest you think he’s found much comfort in that album’s wild success, consider this smirk from “Headlines,” one of the many singles from his sophomore bow Take Care: “I guess it’s just me, myself and all my millions.”

"It’s the story of a man equally fueled by ego, insecurity and vulnerability attempting to exert his control on everyone around him, a superstar’s humanity turned exaggerated and fascinatingly grotesque."

So yes, Take Care is something of a rite of passage for a superstar rapper coming off a beloved debut: the gloomy, fame-obsessed follow-up. Yet compared to Thank Me Later, which doubled as a lavish coronation, Take Care is understated -- tough thing to say about a record which features Stevie Wonder, Rihanna and Lil Wayne. Likewise, he forgoes production from Kanye, Timbaland and Swizz Beatz for help from closer associates Noah “40” Shebib, Illangelo and Boi 1da. Overwhelmingly lush and mostly downtempo, Take Care serves as the dark center of the pop universe orbited by the XX, James Blake, The Weeknd. It’s what’s been called “cloud rap”: Like the narrator at the center, it’s a sound that’s mostly ruminative, occasionally boastful but always deeply, deeply absorbing.

And yet, despite the insularity, the stakes feel way higher: Drake wished he could just be a 19-year old in sweatpants, kicking it with his girl in a dorm room on Thank Me Later, and it sounded like that was somehow within the realm of possibility. But if money just changed everything by the first line of that LP, here it’s a slow-acting poison that has contaminated his every relationship and thought. Like a small-scale My Dark Beautiful Twisted Fantasy, it’s the story of a man equally fueled by ego, insecurity and vulnerability attempting to exert his control on everyone around him, a superstar’s humanity turned exaggerated and fascinatingly grotesque.

Not surprisingly Take Care is one of the drunkest records I’ve heard in a long time – while Drake boasts him and his crew are “… drinking every night because we drink to my accomplishments,” the hangovers always hurt worse -- “A Shot For Me,” revels in an ex’s misery and attributes it all to himself (“First I made you who you are / Then I made it”), the title track flips a Gil Scott-Heron and Jaime XX sample into a high-NRG exchange of damaged goods between Drake and Rihanna. And of course, there’s “Marvin’s Room,” a completely pathetic and unsparing display of intoxicated exploitation that rivals Neil LaBute in its misanthropic exhibit of the male psyche.

Indeed, Take Care unintentionally could be viewed as a complicated, if not necessarily complex study of masculinity as it’s presented in pop culture. On the one hand, there’s the idea that as a well-groomed former TV star favoring cloudy ambience, fluidity between rapping and singing and at least the feign of sensitivity, Drake panders to an increasingly feminized society; surely, any of the male characters populating the “manxiety” craze of television (Man Up, Last Man Standing) this season would surely see Take Care as a threat to their sons. But take note of Drake’s words and actions, and a core of misogyny and manipulation that’s internalized and grown more malignant manifests -- “Make Me Proud” mockingly praises a woman for what she does rather than for who she is, “The Real Her” is all unctuous locker room talk disguised as a quiet storm jam, “Practice” flips “Back That Azz Up” into a flippant celebration of a woman’s formative sexual experiences and then there’s the Weeknd-assisted “Crew Love,” which just plain lashes out at nearly every woman who'd have the nerve to approach them ("This ain't no fuckin' singalong/so girl, what you singin' for?"). Point being, “fuck you” is a common sentiment here, though applied quite differently depending on whether a female or male hanger-on is being addressed.

But what’s bracing is that there’s hardly any artifice in what Drake’s doing -- there are no layers to peel, no hurt disguised. It’s all out in the open, ugly and captivating, his capacity to feel everything played to the hilt no different than the unbothered kingpin persona Rick Ross embodies on the regal Just Blaze production “Lord Knows.” And yes, it’s a whole lot to take. Almost tyrannical in scope at a juggernaut 74 minutes, Drake earnestly goes to whatever length necessary to establish himself as one of pop music’s unquestionable greats -- bracing punchline barrages (“Underground Kings,” “We’ll Be Fine”) that should silence any mic obsessive still holding a grudge, a staggering love letter to his family (“Look What You’ve Done”) stuck between something called “HYFR (Hell Ya Fuckin’ Right)” and a tribute to strippers, ending the heartbreaking “Doing It Wrong” with an unmistakable harmonica solo from Stevie Wonder. Frankly, it makes the sequencing feel completely random, and Take Care lacks the narrative arc and impeccable flow of Thank Me Later. While impeccable guest verses from Andre 3000, Kendrick Lamar and Rick Ross should make Take Care feel like a proper event, they feel like mere accessories. But those are minor quibbles on a record that that take Drake beyond the idea that he’s merely a celebrity or a personality and establishes himself as an artist of magnetic vitality and ambition“too big to fail” would’ve been the easier route, but Take Care’s aims carried with them a tremendous risk of failure. That it follows through so thoroughly makes its success all that more rewarding.

Take Care arrives November 15 on Cash Money.