We’ve argued in the past that, when it comes to hip-hop, Drake really did start from the bottom. When it comes to the Polaris Music Prize, is it the same?
The Prize—historically (and typically hollowly) criticized for being too “indie,” too white, too safe–has twice now had Canada’s biggest rapper on its shortlist. People think he’s too popular for the prize. Too rich. The critics who are able to get at the core of the mandate—to recognize the best album regardless of these factors, and regardless of the oft-mentioned fact that no hip-hop act nor anyone so commercial has ever won—and properly assess the album are, maybe more than on any other release, divided. Is Nothing Was the Same uninspired, unrelatable, and boring? Or is it, simply, the best album of the year?
Polaris jurors Michael Barclay and Joshua Ostroff sound off for and against Nothing Was the Same.
By Joshua Ostroff
“This is nothin’ for the radio, but they’ll still play it though / Cause it’s that new Drizzy Drake, that’s just the way it go.”
It’s a testament to Drake’s cultural dominance since first making a million off a mixtape that music snobs can dismiss him as mainstream. Not because he’s not—even Kanye (KANYE!) admits Drake’s the current king—but because mainstream didn’t sound like this before he took it over.
Drake’s unprecedented commercial success also presents his biggest challenge when it comes to the Polaris Music Prize. While intended to reward the year’s best Canadian album on artistic merit alone, this becomes harder when an artist is this ubiquitous and polarizing.
The grand jury will need to push past preconceptions and focus exclusively on Nothing Was The Same, a full-length triumph in an era where albums matter little and in a genre where they matter even less.
Yes, NWTS benefits from having two of the best singles in recent memory—distilling his sing-rap sales pitch into hard-edged hip-hop anthem “Started From The Bottom” and neo-retro R&B jam “Hold On, We’re Going Home.”
The rest of the album better synthesizes this dichotomy as he seemingly subconsciously switches between flowing and crooning like an Acadian flipping between French and English. But he also bounces between self-aggrandizement and self-deprecation, hilarious one-liners and therapeutic verses, the aggressive flexing on “Worst Behavior” to the parental concerns permeating “From Time.”
NWTS nonetheless remains cohesive thanks to OVO house producer Noah “40” Shebib, who delves ever deeper into dark, swirling sonics and spectral samples, resisting the allure of club beats and pop plays to stick with the melancholy music they’ve made their signature.
This award is ultimately about albums that boast the highest artistic integrity and that‘s an apt description of NWTS’s collection of quotables, confessionals, and autobiographical admissions.
In Polaris terms, Drake may have started from the top but that doesn’t change the fact that he’s here—and he brought the best album of the past year with him.
By Michael Barclay
When Nothing Was the Same came out in October, I wrote: “As always when discussing Drake, I feel like Jonathan Franzen muttering to himself, cursing the existence of Twitter at a party where everyone’s standing around looking at their own phones and laughing. Clearly I’m missing out.” No doubt I’ll feel this way the morning after the Polaris Prize, which I’m pretty sure Drake will take this year.
I don’t hate Drake because he’s Drake: what he was and what he is and who he hangs with matters not a whit when I listen to his music. As a Torontonian, I would love to love Drake, being the proud ambassador for my hometown that he is. I’ll grant him this: Nothing Was the Same is 10 times better than Take Care, mainly because Drake is rapping like he’s out to prove something, like a battle MC, like he wants to prove he’s more than a winning smile with a smug drawl and shitty rhyme schemes.
Even I, however, will vouch for “Started From the Bottom.” It’s genuinely catchy, driven by a bare-bones beat—far funkier than pretty much everything he’s ever done—a minor-key ostinato and Drizzy’s laconic flow. He keeps it simple, direct, and it works. He keeps it more than simple on the silky smooth “Hold On We’re Going Home,” with a melody consisting of little more than the same four sequential notes (the verse has three [C#, B, A]; the chorus adds one more [D]). I suppose one has to admire the craft; my very first piano exercise, at age five, was a similarly catchy ditty—it was called “C-D-E.” And what about the chorus of “you’re a good girl and you know it”—doesn’t that sound like something completely patronizing that Bieber would sing?
The album opens with the lyric, “Comin’ off the last record, I’m getting’ 20 million off the record. Never mind the piss-poor rhyme crime that repeats the word “record”: the full stanza in question is, “Comin’ off the last record, I’m getting’ 20 million off the record / just to off these records, nigga / that’s a record.” That’ll get him in the Guinness for laziness.
The best rappers dazzle with wordplay and syntax and clever construction and make me think, “Wow, did he just say that?” Drake, on the other hand, routinely stops me and makes me think, “Why did he just say that?” (Favourite examples this time out: “She just want to run over my feelings like she’s drinking and driving in an 18-wheeler / and I’d allow her / talk about pussy power.” Or, “Rich enough that I don’t have to tell them I’m rich.” #notsohumblebrag.)
I’d rather give the Polaris to Basia Bulat or Tanya Tagaq, but Drake deserves to win the Polaris only so that we can finally shut up about who will or will never win the prize—which is almost 10 years old now. It will be the first hip-hop album to win and the first massively commercial smash hit to win, perhaps finally validating the prize to those who think it’s some kind of indie rock circle jerk. Maybe a metal band or a solo folk artist or an 80-year-old-man will win it next year, and in 2016 we can drop our tribal allegiances and just talk about the music—perhaps for the first time.
Check out the rest of the Polaris 2014 short list here. Watch this year’s Gala, hosted by Jay Baruchel, live here on AUX.TV on Monday, Sept. 22 at 7:00 p.m.
[magazine month=”September” year=”2014"]