One surefire way for pop music-makers to assert they've reached the pinnacle of their profession is to announce they're not going to bother appealing to the masses anymore.
Kanye West did it earlier this year with the aggressively abrasive Yeezus. Now Canadian rapper-singer Drake is here to tell us that he now occupies such an exalted position that he will no longer stoop to pandering.
"This is nothing for the radio, but they'll still play it though," the 26-year-old former teen actor proclaims on "Tuscan Leather," the six-minute chorusless opening track of his third album, Nothing Was the Same (Cash Money 1/2). "Cause it's the new Drizzy Drake/ That's just the way it go."
He may be exaggerating the music's austere qualities: There are plenty of catchy cuts on Nothing Was the Same, starting with straight-out-of-the-'80s "Hold On, We're Coming Home," in which he sings the sticky chorus himself.
Drake's self-confidence is not misplaced. Indeed, his success in navigating the macho rap game, despite a reputation as a melancholy softie, is demonstrated by his appearance on two other major new releases on the hip-hop/R&B continuum.
On Kiss Land (Republic ), by his Canadian homeboy Abel Tesfaye, who records as The Weeknd, Drake shows up to trade rhymes on "Live For." It's easily the liveliest cut on the major-label debut by Weeknd, a once-mysterious singer now popular enough to headline an indoor venue such as the Susquehanna Bank Center in Camden, where he'll perform Friday.
Drake's place as an elite rapper with broad pop appeal is confirmed by his presence as one of two guest rappers on The 20/20 Experience 2 of 2 (RCA ). That's the second album this year - the second one more than 70 minutes long - from singer-actor Justin Timberlake.
The former 'N Syncer's first 20/20 album has sold 2.3 million copies, making it the most successful release so far of 2013. He makes room for cameos only by emcees who measure up to his luxury brand. Along with Drake's verse on "Cabaret," the only rapper to turn up on 20/20 2 is Jay Z. (JT plays the Wells Fargo Center on Nov. 10 and Feb. 25.)
Nothing Was the Same is far from flawless, and Drake is sometimes a lazy rapper. (Lamest lines, from "The Language": "[Expletive] going platinum/ I looked at my watch, it's already platinum.") And as he veers between wallowing in loneliness and proclaiming greatness, some listeners will find him insufferable.
But the emcee born Aubrey Drake Graham, who starred as a wounded high school athlete in the Canadian TV show Degrassi: The Next Generation, is at his most compelling on Nothing Was the Same.
Produced largely by longtime associate Noah "40" Shebib, the album is driven by spare, blunted beats on arrangements that never overplay their hand. Drake's persona is, as always, more sensitive and guilt-ridden than your average rapper. As he tells a Hooters waitress in "From Time":
Girl I thought we had it all planned out, guess I up the vision
Learning the consequences of my selfish decisions.
Not that Drake is always a nice guy. He can be vindictive, even while portraying himself as deep: "I wish you could love people and use things," he raps, "Instead of the other way around." His flow is naturally melodic, and when he works up a head of steam ruing another lost love on "Wu Tang Forever," or enumerating, to the extent of TMI, his own family's failings in "Too Much," he raps with conviction that makes us care about his travails.
That's more than can be said for The Weeknd's Kiss Land. Here, one of the key figures of the alt-R&B renaissance largely loses his way. Tesfaye made an intriguing entrance when he released three mixtapes in 2011, initially keeping his name secret. Each was marked by spare, spooky production and an otherworldly voice with a Michael Jackson quiver.
Along with Frank Ocean and Miguel - and with the assistance of Drake - Tesfaye established himself in the vanguard of a movement that eschewed overly slick production. He built a mainstream audience for himself when the mixtapes were released as last year's Trilogy.
The unfortunately titled Kiss Land isn't a concept album about a world where Hershey's chocolates grow on trees, or one ruled by a tongue-wagging Gene Simmons. Instead, the 10-track set turns up the volume on the quietly askew confidences shared so seductively on Tesfaye's earlier releases, and fashions a song cycle about his life on the road - almost always a bad idea - since unexpected fame whisked him away. It's an uncertain follow-up that with a few exceptions, like the self-critical "Adaptation," suffers in comparison to its triple-header predecessor.
Timberlake's 20/20 2, by contrast, maintains quality control. This 20/20, like the first, produced by Timberlake's frequent collaborator Timbaland, is full of lengthy songs that spend more than six minutes luxuriating in syncopated grooves that stretch out into lengthy codas.
After seven years as a movie star, Timberlake - who plays a folksinger in the Coen Brothers' upcoming Inside Llewyn Davis - clearly had a surfeit of musical ideas stockpiled. Like everything he does - check out his "#Hashtag" comedy routine with Jimmy Fallon that went viral this week - this 20/20 is highly accomplished.
You can't help being impressed by his talents. He's a first-rate bandleader and an agile singer.
What's missing is a spark of genius. Timberlake is a traditionalist, really. Most of what he does derives from either Michael Jackson or Prince. There's even a entertainingly ghoulish groove here, called "True Blood," that's a nod to "Thriller." Double albums - or two linked ones, in one year - usually signify an artist intent on making a major statement, for better or worse. (Often the latter.) JT doesn't seem to harbor any such grand ambition. Hearing him emulate his heroes so ably makes you nod your head in approval, but rarely drop your jaw and say, "Wow."