Album review: Drake, "Thank Me Later," and Bert Jansch tonight
Drake, "Thank Me Later" (Universal/Motown)
If the soul-sapping seductiveness of crack and cocaine -- selling them and consuming them -- was the major theme inspiring much of the best hip-hop from the '90s until early in the new millennium, an argument can be made that during the last few years, the most talented and innovative rappers have been chronicling an even more destructive and pervasive addiction in these new digital times: the allure of celebrity.
Toronto-born Aubrey Drake Graham already is tabloid fodder: After graduating from Degrassi Community School -- he played the wheelchair-bound Jimmy Brooks in the teen TV series "Degrassi: The Next Generation" -- Drake began to generate major buzz with a series of mix tapes, hit singles, and eventually an EP that won fans and collaborators such as Kanye West, Jay-Z, and Lil Wayne, who became a mentor of sorts. Finally signed to Universal Motown after a ferocious bidding war, the 23-year-old artist is at long last delivering his full-length debut. And it's no surprise that he's rapping about what he knows: the intoxicating rush of fame, and the hollow loneliness and alienation at the core of a life obsessed with it.
Rappers are supposed to brag about the bling and the stardom, and they should never apologize. Not Drake; he spends much of these 14 tracks questioning his place in it all, and whether it will last. "Money just changed everything, I wonder how life without it would go," he raps in the opening song, "Fireworks," which features Alicia Keyes cooing on the choruses. "From the concrete who knew that a flower would grow/Lookin' down from the top and it's crowded below/My 15 minutes started an hour ago."
By the ending track, "Thank Me Now," the star is even more wary of the machine that's propelling him forward: "At this point, me is who I'm trying to save myself from." Take that, celebrity tabloids, reality TV, Twitter, Facebook, and all the other elements of Solipsist Nation.
In addition to a level of lyrical introspection that takes West's groundbreaking 2008 masterpiece "808s & Heartbreak" to the next level, Drake boasts the musical strengths of seamlessly switching from a laidback and enticing if sometimes monotone flow to a smooth and soulful R&B croon. And in place of the flashy productions that his big-budget roster of talent could have provided, he wisely opts to showcase these in spare, minimalist settings: a little thumping drum machine, a floating wash of synthesizers, a tinkling grand piano. In such Spartan surroundings, it's a testament that he never loses the listener's interest or yields too much of the day to the superstar cameos, and not even the occasional vocoder can ruin the mid-tempo, melancholy mood he creates.
By no means a party disc, "Thank Me Later" is something better: a hip-hop album that challenges us to think and feel. "One thing 'bout music, when it hits you feel no pain," Drake raps in "Over," before proceeding to offer his own review: "Two thumbs up, Ebert and Roeper." Well, I cannot speak for my movie-reviewing former colleagues at the Sun-Times, but this debut definitely gets a "buy it" from this reviewer.
You might not be familiar with the name Bert Jansch, or that of his best-known band, Pentangle, but you've certainly heard the musicians this British singer and songwriter has influenced over the last five decades, a long list that includes Jimmy Page and Robert Plant, Richard Thompson, Neil Young, Nick Drake, Johnny Marr, Bernard Butler, Beth Orton, and Devendra Banhart and the rest of the so-called "freak-folk" scene, to name but a few.
Raised in Edinburgh, Jansch began to fuse folk, blues, and jazz in the London clubs of the early 1960s, and he started his solo career with a self-titled album in 1965. In 1967, he formed the acoustic folk supergroup Pentangle with John Renbourn and others, then returned to a prolific solo career that has ranged from 1973 to the present day, with his most recent release, "The Black Swan," coming to us in 2006 courtesy of Chicago's Drag City record label.
Jansch is making a rare appearance onstage in these parts tonight at Martyrs, 3855 N. Lincoln, after an opening set by Meg Baird at 8 p.m. Tickets are $15. (Jansch also is appearing at Eric Clapton's Crossroads Guitar Festival at Toyota Park on Saturday, but given what scalpers are charging for those tickets--and what is sure to be a shorter set in a worse-sounding setting--trust me, Martyrs is the place to see him.)