If you’re successful for long enough, you become less of a person and more of an idea. The name Warren Buffett is synonymous with wealth. Michael Jordan is synonymous with greatness. In 2020, after a decade of releasing albums, soundtracking memories, and breaking enough records, Drake the idea is one of variability.
He’s earned Billboard hits making Jamaican dancehall fusion music (“One Dance”), wedding reception ballads (“Hold On, We’re Going Home”), even Spanish-language rap (“Mia”), which his makes his debut album, 2010’s Thank Me Later, the least-Drake album he’s ever released. It’s an album that eschews vast experimentation in favor of largely traditional song structures and rap stylings, a decision influenced more by the world than the album’s creator.
Thank Me Later was the most anticipated rap debut of the last decade, thanks in large part to the phenomenon that was his 2009 free mixtape, So Far Gone. Before a single second of Thank Me Later was heard, Drake snagged a No. 2 single on the Billboard Hot 100 with “Best I Ever Had” and a No. 6 album on the Billboard 200 with the official So Far Gone EP release. The demand for Drake was so feverish that seven months after So Far Gone’s February 2009 release, he took off 12 of the 17 songs from the mixtape, added one new song (“Fear”) and another that had been online for months (“I’m Goin’ In”), and, over the next nine months, sold 500,000 copies of a truncated mixtape whose full version was free to download until last year.
Everyone wanted a piece of Drake and he felt obligated to give each person the slice they desired. He didn’t craft Thank Me Later solely tell his story.
“It’s just really trying to tell the greatest story that’s never been told, which is the story of a rapper’s come-up, and tell it without being corny or over-bragging or sounding like, ‘Feel sorry for me.’ It’s going to be a very interesting record because I’m really going to have to dig deep and tell stories that people can relate to,” Drake told MTV in October 2009.
Drake wanted to be everything to everyone, a trait he’s refined through the years into an internal homing device enabling him to precisely tap into what makes a hit in different genres. The then-23-year-old newcomer didn’t have that experience or confidence in his talents and succumbed to the piercing criticisms as an emotional artist who sang enough for his rapping abilities to be questioned. Nothing about Thank Me Later is as glaringly different than nearly every Drake album as the imbalance between singing and rapping.
Outside of “Cece Interlude” and “Find Your Love,” two of the last three songs on the album, Drake’s 14-track debut didn’t have any other songs featuring him only singing. That’s practically unheard of for more than half of the Canadian’s genre-defying career. The first four tracks of his most successful album, 2016’s six-time-platinum Views, has as many only-singing songs in its first four tracks. By this point, you would expect the most popular rapper in the world to sound like an R&B artist for a considerable amount of any album he releases. Drake admits Thank Me Later is the only album of his created from expectations.
“That was probably the only one of my albums that was remotely influenced by where I was at in my career at the time,” Drake said in a December 2019 interview on Rap Radar. “It was definitely, probably the one project that maybe had the least personal touches. It was really kind of about, ‘How big can we look?'”
Another one of the more obvious signifiers of Thank Me Later is the preponderance of the ‘supa dupa flow’ over any other rapping style. The supa dupa flow, credited to Big Sean as the inventor by Drake himself, is essentially a simile with a pause where a “like” should be. So, “I’m hot like the sun” becomes “I’m hot, the sun.” The pause often places an undue amount of profundity on one word resulting in unintentionally hilarious punchlines like “It’s going down, basement” and “It’s a parade, Macy’s” because it seemed like every rapper in 2010 was rapping like Big Sean.
Less than two weeks after Thank Me Later was released, Drake was already trying to distance himself from core parts of the album’s appeal. “I never want to use that flow in life again. I wanted to take it off my album because I was like, ‘I shut ‘em down, Onyx.’ I hate the fact that that rhyme is still in there,” Drake said in June 2010 interview.
Even though it’s the least-Drake album, it’s still a Drake album. His quest is to be timeless through lyrics universally applicable enough to border on cliches, in a good way. The same way he may “live for the nights I can’t remember with the people I won’t forget” on Kanye West-produced “Show Me A Good Time” explains why he gets “high as your expectations” on the Rihanna-featured “Too Good” from Views. The same guy spewing platitudes like “time heals all but heels hurt to walk in” on album standout “Fancy” is the same one who “wasn’t hiding my kid from the world, I was hiding the world from my kid” in “Emotionless” on 2018’s Scorpion.
Confidence is often mistaken as protective armor, not the shedding of insecurities. True confidence is worn, not put on, because it’s essentially an unwavering comfort in one’s own skin. However, shedding insecurities often resembles the old clinging on to the new before falling under the weight of inevitability. Thank Me Later is the shedding of a star into a brighter one.