Originally published September 24, 2013.
Mark Fisher—the noted blogger known as K-Punk and the author of Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative?—picks up where his essay on James Blake left off, this time deconstructing the Drake dilemma.
So here we are again: life at rainbow’s end. Everything that can be bought, available practically immediately, 24/7: women, food, cars, you name it, you click on it. Every hotel suite can be prepared to your specifications. The only things that are different are the shower controls. It’s all top quality, although naturally you can get down and dirty with the fast food options if you want to, and often (why not?) you do.
Got everything, I got everything… I cannot complain, I cannot (You sure about that, Drake?) I don’t even know how much I really made, I forgot, it’s a lot… Fuck that, never mind what I got
OK, then, let’s get the obvious question out of the way first. if you’ve got everything, why are you so sad?
Surely it can’t be as simple and sentimental as that hoary old chestnut: money can’t buy you love? Come on, is this really where rap was destined to end up: with the rapper as some romcom character, all the braggadocio and super-conspicuous consumption just so much bluster to conceal the boy-lack that the redeemer-woman will make good in the final reel? That old story, again? “Next time we fuck, I don’t want to fuck, I want to make love… I want to trust.” Drake can’t quite believe this routine, can’t quite make us believe it. He knows perfectly well that this sensitive stuff can play as one more pick-up-artist’s ruse… He’s spent so long deceiving and then revealing his deceptions that he’s no longer sure when he’s trying to play us or speak openly, or what the difference is. Crying real tears with one eye, while winking over the latest conquest’s shoulder to the camera with the other. He’d convinced us he was different, but that was a trick, and one that others have caught on to. There’s nothing very brave or unique about talking about your feelings now that “niggas talk more than bitches do.” Is this more honesty, or just an acknowledgement that he needs a new USP?
I got 99 problems, getting rich ain’t one
Listening to Nothing Was the Same, I’m reminded of Judd Apatow’s Funny People. Apatow’s film is defined by a series of hesitations and avoidances. First of all, it seems as if it is going to be a film about a jaded but rich and successful comedian, George Simmons (Adam Sandler), who learns the value of life when he’s diagnosed with a serious illness; then it seems to be about a man who accepts the value of love and family. Yet each time the film seems to move towards these standard generic resolutions, Apatow pulls back. Simmons’ hedonic nihilism re-asserts himself; the threat of death can’t break the bad habits of a lifetime; the love he lost long ago was actually better off lost. He’s not happy being himself but he doesn’t want to be anyone else. Far from relieving this existential dilemma, fabulous wealth means that he has nowhere at all to hide from it.
Nothing Was the Same is characterized by the same ambivalence—a longing to be a new person who can love and trust (with a woman, naturally, charged as the agent of this transformation) together with a recognition that he will never change, that he’ll always be drinking, smoking, fucking, that he’s far from perfect, but neither is anyone else, right? He never really took off the gangsta-minstrel drag for good; instead, he keeps casting it aside, inspecting it, distancing himself from it, before wearing it again. He can’t help himself (or so he keeps telling us). But this oscillation is valuable for what it tells us about rap’s embattled masculinity in general. Drake confirms that the street-strutting bad boy “just looking for head in a comfortable bed,” is the other face of the desperately alone little boy lost crying to his mommy substitute. The boasting brute is always on the run from the helpless infant inside, but, for that very reason, the emotionally broken-down male isn’t an alternative to all the ego-armor posturing, so much as it is its enabling condition. Women are to be publicly disdained, treated as currency in a homosocial bragging economy; in private they are asked to make these wounded men whole again. Is there a track that has exposed the real nature of the male-to-female love song better than Take Care‘s “Marvin’s Room”? The conceit—a drunk Drake leaving a phone message to a long lost love he treated badly but now thinks he wants back—leaves us in no doubt that he was speaking to himself via a fantasized female Other.
Gangsta’s hyperbolically-staged fantasies of omnipotence were always nouveau-riche giveaways, which, like the bling, sang out that these working-class black Americans had not yet achieved the easy way in the world, the casual confidence that are the birthrights of those born to wealth and power. The (gold) chains have always clanked as loudly as Jacob Marley‘s that the struggle to escape servitude has run aground, and that untold riches for a very few were the compensation for the many languishing in inertia, poverty, incarceration. Is “Started from the Bottom”—which we all laughed at: no you didn’t, Drake!—Drake’s commentary on all this? Hear it as an act of imagination, Drake putting himself in the sneakers of those who had to struggle from the depths like he never had to, rather than as some forged autobiography, and it makes more sense. But listen to the sheer weariness that weighs down the track: the heavy tristesse that starts the moment after you’ve reached the top of the tower, as the realization sinks in that there’s no replacing the thrill of the chase. Drake was always expected to be a success, so he was deprived even of that brief moment of satisfaction before the ennui and the paranoia set in. Reaching the top was standard, the least he could expect.
Nothing Was the Same is tangled up in all the confusions of a generation of men faced with contradictory imperatives—the post-feminist awareness that treating women like shit isn’t cool, together with the Burroughsian bombardment of always-available pornography. There’s no point moralizing here, either for Drake or us. Drake’s at his weakest when he half-heartedly attempts some kitschy Hallmark card affirmation of lurve; he’s at his most painfully revelatory when he admits that these impasses, these binds, are just too much for him. He can’t escape these knots because the knots are what he is. His bewilderment about what a man is supposed to be now is the very hallmark of a contemporary heterosexual masculinity that realizes that the patriarchal game is up, but which is too hooked on the pleasures and privileges to relinquish them yet (just one more click on the porn, then I’ll be Mr. Sensitive forever).
On Nothing Was the Same, Drake often sounds like Tony Montana in Scarface: fucking, eating, snorting, is that all there is? But the tone here couldn’t be more different from Pacino’s eighties cocaine histrionics. A glacial fatalism runs beneath everything here, and Drake matters because he makes contact—maybe better than anyone else—with the sense of hopelessness that quietly subsists beneath all the twerking and tweeting, all the twitter and the chatter of 21st century culture. Hear this in the gorgeous electro-downer haze that saturates the album and establishes its tone much more than any of the beats. Yet there’s something beyond the fatalism, too. You can hear it in Drake’s signature move—the transition from rap to singing, the slipping down from ego-assertion into a sensual purring, the relaxing into a lasciviousness that has nothing to do with the localized libido and dumb automatisms of phallic sexuality. Down here, there is a glorious release from the pressures of identity. Rave-like, pitched-up vocals are suspended on placid currents of synth. Voices stop being human, become avatars from a space where subjectivity has been left behind like a bad dream. On the opener, “Tuscan Leather”, Whitney Houston’s ghost is summoned from the hotel bathroom, mutated into some butterfly-fragile chirruping creature singing inside a specimen jar. I’m frequently reminded of nothing so much as the refracted architectures and water sprites of Balam Acab’s Wander/Wonder. When you dive into these electro-oceanic depths, Nothing Was the Same ceases to be a fascinating symptom of all the blockages of the present, and becomes a longing for something new, something strange and lovely. ~