"R.I.P. to the artist formerly known as Drake!"
Other members on the site came down on me hard; they said I had little faith in Drizzy. They said that I was jumping the gun and wasn't giving it a chance. Look. I may not be a rocket scientist, but I trust my instincts more than anything, and I knew he was going to "rap down to his colleagues." You sign to a label full of what-ifs. All of whom have not panned out, except for Nicki Minaj, who is determined to be a pop star, and mediocre loves company. So Drake or Aubrey chose "loyalty to Lil Wayne" over just flat out good business sense, and to me he's paid for it. Substantively he has. Now, I'm sure he and his minions couldn't disagree with me more. After all, he's richer than ever and featured on everybody's wack ass song from T. Dot to L.A. But name one relevant hip-hop track Drake has released since So Far Gone? I'll wait.
So, in the spirit of nostalgia, I'm taking a look at Drake's catalogue, specifically, the Pre-Young Money catalogue in deciding which one was his best. After all, Drake did rap, "...some of you will be saying the old me is better than the new me." Yep. Agreed, Drake.
Here we go...
WHEELCHAIR JIMMY - THE BEGINNING
I am slightly embarrassed at the fact that I am a fan of Degrassi Jr. High. I never watched the original, because that was a little before my time. But, by the time they decided to bring the show back, I was probably in college at the time, and I found myself checking it out. The show is actually pretty decent, but I digress. Drake, known then as simply, Aubrey Graham, played a character on the show named Jimmy. And, in probably one of the shows best episodes, he gets shot by a pretty disturbed kid at school and ends up in a wheelchair. On the show, Jimmy goes through a myriad of emotions due to this, but finally comes back to himself at a talent show where he decides to rap about his situation. To everyone's surprise, he's pretty good. Now maybe this was the outlet Drake needed to finally decide to do this rap thing, but soon thereafter, rumors of a mixtape began circulating. What's funny is you can find old behind-the-scenes videos of the cast, and talks of the mixtape were met with lukewarm feelings. People seemed to be polite without saying, "Why the hell do you want to rap?" Luckily for Aubrey, he stayed the course,
ROOM FOR IMPROVEMENT - 4.4/5
I actually didn't listen to this mixtape until after I'd heard his latter two. However, I did peep the City is Mine track on Fuse circa 2008. I thought it was solid, but not anything to write home about. But after listening to this mixtape, I remember it being in heavy rotation for months. Typical of a first mixtape ever, Drake sounds hungry, excited, naive and he hadn't established his style yet. What I do like about this mixtape, is the fact that he features so many of his Canadian colleagues, including the much underrated R&B songster, Voyce, n/k/a Aion Clarke. These two should've never fallen out, because they made pure magic together. What a lot of people don't know is that Drake used to be in a collective group of hot artists in Toronto. Some in the group featured him, Melanie Fiona, Voyce among others. Well, considering that they were on the whole "starving artist" vibe, and Aubrey was on a tv show, they basically kicked him out of the group. Clearly, this was a blessing in disguise. While the original mixtape was supposed to be sold, and only a few thousand copies were made to be bought and autographed for those who cared to support. Local radio got a hold of several of the tracks and soon people in Toronto were giving "Drake" a chance. This mixtape has a few standouts: "Special" featuring Voyce with the Stevie Wonder sample is really nice. In fact, this song sounds like an LL joint. It has that smooth R&B meets smooth rap feel to it. The tracks "Money (Remix)" and "AM 2 PM" featuring fellow Canadian rapper Nickelus F go hard. Having someone else on the track that has an AZ flow, forced Drake to step his game up. (There is a theme here, you either rap up or rap down to your competition). Of course "City is Mine" has to get an honorable mention. After all, this is the cut that sort of put him on the map. His lyrics back then are a stark contrast to his lyrics now.
"This the record that my back pack underground fans get to skippin..."Or, even more stark is on "Video Girl" when he says he doesn't want to see his beautiful black women shaking their ass in a rap video. I'll leave that alone. This mixtape is when Drake and Trey Songz first worked together, but they don't hit their stride until the next mixtape. Super standouts is "Thrill is Gone" which has a very jazzy hypnotic chorus. Also, my personal favorite, "Come Winter" which has two parts or moods to the song, both of which are better than any commercial track he's done. This was a solid first effort and is a worthy listen even today.
COMEBACK SEASON 5/5
Janet Jackson once revealed that the first time she heard her brother, Michael's "Thriller" album, it was in the car. He picked her up and they just drove around listening to it. I find this to be an amazing way to listen to a record. So, how fitting, my first listen to "Comeback Season," was in the car. I knew from the intro, that Drake wasn't playing. It's something about receiving that first bit of criticism or hate for something you suddenly have a big passion for. I imagine, he had mixed reviews after Rooom for Improvement, and came harder and more polished for Comeback Season to show people that he was for real. He succeeded. Hands down this is Drake's best project. I even give it a slight dip above So Far Gone, slight. I don't see how anyone could have an issue with this mixtape. Everything, from the production, the samples, the bars, the features, hell, even the cover pic is the best look I've seen from Drake! Back to the music. "Closer" featuring Andreena Mill with the Goapele sample is pure perfection. First of all, I love the original song! That beat is sick and Drake, legit, put some great bars to this track. To me, this is when I felt he hit his stride, or got his swag, whatever you want to call it. This single was HUGE in Toronto! Deservedly so. His manager at the time, convinced him to put his money behind probably the only semi-commercial track on the mixtape, "Replacement Girl" featuring Trey Songs. They did a video for this track and everything. Drake has that early Hov flow on this track. That fast rapping, quick-witted style that Hov originally had. This is a radio song, but still enjoyable. He lends a freestyle to the Kanye-produced Barry Bonds track, but his lyrics on the Alicia Keys sampled "Going in for Life" establish him more soundly. You see the style developing, the clever, tongue-in-cheek flow that he becomes known for.
"If Hov is Jordan, I guess I'm cool with being Pippen.."Then, just when you think you know where Drake is going theme-wise, he switches up with the Slakah-the-Beatchild produced "Share", which was way too short in my opinion. Suddenly we have almost an underground hip-hop feel to this mixtape. He further propounds this point with tracks like "Don't You Have a Man" featuring Little Brother, "The Last Hope" featuring Toronto's Kardinall Offishall and Andreena Mill, and my absolute favorite, "Think Good Thoughts," featuring Phonte' of Little Brother and Elzhi of Slum Village. I don't know if it's the 9th Wonder production with that Anita Baker sample or just the flow of this track, but I never get tired of this song. Honorable mention, intro on the track, Drake says:
"They claim that us rappers are materialistic, they say that we lack substance."*cough* Even the southern sounding, "Must Hate Money" with Rich Boy is official. By this point in the mixtape, you are in hip-hop euphoric overload!
Now, I know what some people will think. Why haven't I discussed his singing? Because Aubrey's immersion from Wheelchair Jimmy to Drake didn't include his crooning skills just yet. Yes, he was solid without the emo monochromatic songs he's become known for today. In fact, he seemed content to let other people sing. Tracks like, "Asthma Team," "Do What U Do," featuring the Clipse, and "Easy to Please," featuring Richie Sosa, Drake appears to almost have a chip on his shoulder. As if to say, aww, you all thought I was playing with this rap shit? However, before the listener can go all Onyx on someone, he switches it up again with the laid back, "Faded" and even gets romantic with the Robin Thicke track, "Teach U a Lesson", where his bars fit so perfect, you would think he was originally on the track. Even the closing track, "Man of the Year" where we see the first collab with Lil Wayne, doesn't ruin the feel of the mixtape. It's solid, consistent and with substance. Damn Drake, what happened?
SO FAR GONE 4.9/5
So, this seems to be when everyone else caught on to Drake. This is the mixtape that had labels bidding for him. This is what put him on the Young Money tour, and even garnered him his own tour. This was a personal stretch for me because I am just not here for Lil Wayne. Like, at all. But I surprisingly tolerated him on this mixtape and even found this one in heavy rotation. So Far Gone, if I may borrow from Mike C., is when Drake and Aubrey met up on wax. Now we meet this introspective, somewhat emotional, sensitive rapper who also sings. I had to play this a lot with Comeback Season to remind myself of the Drake that I had begun to really like. 40's solemn beats, Drake's monotone melodies, somehow it worked. The fact that he even chose to tap samples from Swedish indie-rock star Lykke Li, and the infamous, yet underground Santogold, I knew this was going to be a different record. Off top, "Successful" was the track on the mixtape, that everyone was talking about. That haunting beat, (again provided by 40), with Trey singing about money, cars, clothes and hoes. The only thing not perfect about this track is Lil Wayne. His bars are just weak on this track to me. The song with Drake, Trey and Drake's dad on the answering machine was enough. 40 managed to create a solid track that featured Drake, not Draubey, yet it had the same feel as "The Calm", "Houstatlantavegas" and "Lust for Life". The one song that feels slightly out of place is "Let's Call it Off" with Peter Bjorn & John. I never could understand why this was even on the mixtape, other than Drake digs the song. As eclectic as "A Little Bit" and Unstoppable" are, they both fit on So Far Gone. Almost every great LP has a string of tracks that are so perfect, you may even just listen to those set of tracks. On So Far Gone, it starts with "November 18", the Houston-ode that really put UGK, DJ Screw, Lil KeKe back on people's mind. Then we slide into "Ignant Shit", which is probably Weezy's strongest bars on this mixtape. I don't know if it was because Drake came so hard on this, but Lil Wayne didn't disappoint on this Hov/Isley sample. Keeping the same melody, we go into the ultra-smooth slow track, "A Night Off" featuring Lloyd.
I have to laugh mentioning this track. All I can hear is Joe Budden doing a YouTube video playing this song over and over talking about, if he was single (he was with Tahiry at the time), he would play this loud in the V (car) and pick up chicks at the club. The same dude who made Lil Wayne step his rap game up, is providing a sex tape-esque soundtrack for guys to pick up women? That's funny to me. Next, we have the star of the mixtape. Just in case you were still unsure about whether Wheelchair Jimmy could actually spit, "Say What's Real" is pretty convincing. Drake saved his best bars for this track and unapologetically spits almost without breathing at one point. I remember riding down Lakeshore Drive and hearing this song blasting out of like three different cars.
"Don't ever forget the moment you began to doubt, transitioning from fitting in to standing out."
"Cause I just see my ex-girl, standing with my next girl, standing with the girl that I'm fucking right now."
"So if you find the Blackberry with the side scroll, sell that motherfucker to any rapper that I know."Yeah, bars for days on this one. Just when I think the run of great tracks is over, I find myself singing along with Lykke Li's and then Drake's vocals on "A Little Bit", which flow quite well together. No need to be embarrassed if you find yourself singing the chorus dreamily out of the blue. It is a very catchy song. However, it is the bass-heavy Boi-1-Da-produced "Best I Ever Had" that got Drizzy on the radio. Whether you dig this track or not, it is very well produced and had girls from coast to coast rocking sweats and pony tails. It also had guys telling their girl, "you the fuckin best," without getting slapped. To round out this stretch of perfection is "Unstoppable" featuring Santogold. This was another track that Wayne stepped up for. The beat was perfect to throw 16 bars on, it was energetic and before long, many up and comers were dropping their own freestyle to this song. Then, they realized that this was another one of those Drake said about 1000 words in three minutes without breathing and there were several epic fails.
"Even when I'm laying on my back, I'm never backing down."Not to go into a track-by-track of the mixtape, "Uptown" with Bun, literally put him back on the map.
"Hardly home but always reppin, you hardly on and always second."This is another blast at ignorant levels in the car song. "Sooner Than Later" and "Bria's Interlude" highlight Drake's singing skills, with Drake upstaging Omarion on the latter track. And we get the full effect of Draubrey on "Brand New" which also garnered some radio play. But, for me the final track, which was added almost 24 hours after the mixtape was released on the OVO site, is the track that sums up where Drake should've headed on his first album. The Coldplay-sampled, "Congratulations," which I would listen to sometimes to get amped up when I bowled on a league.
"I'm still myself, suicide bars, I kill myself, charge it to the game, I'll bill myself, and I don't feel y'all, but I feel myself."
"I hug and kiss the drum kick, I put the beat in my back pocket and just sit, but you could never be my ass, pause..."
I was going to give thoughts on Thank Me Later, but with the exception of "Fireworks" and "Light Up," I hate to say it, but that album just wasn't very memorable.
I will give honorable mention to the DROUGHT IS OVER: FRIENDS WITH MONEY mixtape, which featured a lot of the tracks from his official mixtapes, and it also featured this little gem:
In all, the perfection that was Comeback Season makes this Drake's best project. If we were judging straight up Drake tracks, this wins, but it also wins across the board. If we're judging Draubrey, then So Far Gone wins, but it comes in a close second to Comeback Season overall. All of these efforts were solid, promising and the direction Drizzy should've gone in before he sold his soul to Young Money. Maybe one day, this talent will make an appearance again, until then, I'll just press play on the nostalgia!