Last year Adele shook the airwaves with "Someone Like You," the hands-down winner for saddest song on Top 40. In 2012, the leader in the cry-in-your-pillow sweepstakes is Drake, with the smoldering title track to "Take Care."
Even with a pulsing undercurrent of a dance beat, the song is a dark, downcast tearjerker that encompasses the wide world of Drake, in that it employs a Gil Scott-Heron song remixed by Jamie xx of indie band the xx. On top of that you have the superstar power of Rihanna, who sucks you into the pain vortex with the sighing hook, "I've loved and I've lost."
Drake, a husky-voiced rapper who taps into that Scott-Heron-style talk-sing, manages to come into the song, indeed, like he's been hurt by someone else. He's good at that.
"I don't live a sad, miserable life or anything like that," he clarified in a recent teleconference. "I've said that countless times over and over again. I'm a happy individual -- I just don't live like in a bubble. I try and really describe what's going on around me, good or bad."
Aubrey Drake Graham is off to a strong start on that account. The rapper, who does his first headlining gig in this area Saturday at the First Niagara Pavilion with the Club Paradise Tour, doesn't fit the mold of the rappers who are generally topping those kinds of big summer tours, either in his approach or his background.
Sweaters aside, for starters, he's Canadian, and if Canada ever gets a Rap Hall of Fame, he'll be the first one in, possibly with K-OS. Like Mac Miller, he's also one of the few rappers who went to Hebrew school for a bar mitzvah. His Jewish mother, after a divorce that shook his little world at age 5, raised him on her own in a well-to-do Toronto community. His father, whom he spent a few summers with in Tennessee, was a Memphis-based drummer who played with Jerry Lee Lewis, and a source of disappointment for Drake as a kid. His uncle, Larry Graham, played bass for Sly Stone and Prince.
At 15, Drake was a high school cutup who had a friend with a father agent. He got him a role on the Canadian TV show "DeGrassi: The Next Generation" as Jimmy Brooks, a basketball player disabled when he was shot by a classmate. He appeared in 138 episodes, from 2001-09, then suddenly, well, graduated. "I can't really say I left that show," he once told Vibe. "One day we came in and all the names were just changed on the dressing rooms. Everyone got cut."
Fortunately for Drake, he was on a dual track, having self-released a 2006 mixtape, "Room for Improvement," that featured guest spots by rising stars Trey Songz and Lupe Fiasco. He described it as "pretty straightforward, radio friendly, not much content to it." In a TeenNick interview from that time, he cited his influences as rappers Jay-Z, Clipse, Talib Kweli and Mos Def and singers Anthony Hamilton and Maxwell. His dad had also turned him on to Al Green during a long ride from Toronto to Tennessee. In 2007, he released a second mixtape, "Comeback Season," and caught the ear of Lil Wayne, who called him Drizzy, flew him to Houston for a meeting the next day and worked on a few songs that would appear on "So Far Gone," a mixtape that he often refers to as his first album.
Starring in a TeenNick drama is not the ideal launching pad for hip-hop supremacy -- and some hardcore rap fans won't take him seriously -- but Drake was making it work as a Wayne/West hybrid with a heavy R&B influence.
"You know, those are two guys that I definitely look up to and to be regarded as a mesh between those two guys is definitely a good thing 'cause I love both of their music," he told Complex in 2009. "When it comes to influencing my music, I'm also influenced by just great writers, all the music that's outside of the rap or R&B genres."
Rather than project the typical hip-hop vibe, Drake also set out to play down the shameless materialism while dealing with relationships in a manner real people could relate to. He's often talked about a text he got from his friend Oliver, after they were talking about women in a brazen manner, in which Oliver said, "Are we becoming the men that our mothers divorced?"
In 2009, the bidding war over Drake ended in a joint deal between Lil Wayne's Young Money, Cash Money and Universal Motown. That summer, he joined Wayne and Soulja Boy on the America's Most Wanted Tour, which stopped at the First Niagara Pavilion on July 30. The next night, the tour ended for Drake when he fell on stage and tore his ACL, requiring surgery.
His debut album got pushed back from late 2009 to June 2010, advanced by three Top 20 singles, starting with the celebratory club track "Over," dealing with his rise to fame ("ridin' through the city with my high beams on"). "Find Your Love" was an up-tempo love song with a click track reminiscent of Kanye's work on "808s & Heartbreak," a big influence on Drake. The third single was the more brassy "Miss Me," a track with Wayne. The album, "Thank You Later," topped the charts, selling 447,000 copies in its first week, and was second only to Eminem's "Recovery" as the top-selling hip-hop album of 2010. Drake launched his Light Dreams & Nightmares Tour that fall with Clipse.
Along with his own single, Drake has been called on to do dozens of features on other artists' tracks, including Wayne, Rick Ross, Jamie Foxx and Mary J. Blige. Coinciding with the Light Dreams tour, his memorable (and mathematical) feature on Rihanna's "What's My Name?" topped the singles charts.
He titled his recent album, "Take Care," because he really did "take care" in making it, and it can't be absorbed in one or two listens. It's a sprawling 18-track, 80-minute collection with minimalist production and a weary, downbeat mood dealing with busted relationships and the trappings of fame. The first single, "Headlines," with a synth line that sounds like cellos, opens with him rapping, "I might be too strung out on compliments/Overdosed on confidence."
"A lot of 'Take Care,' it's down, you know?" Drake said on the conference call. "I think a lot of that had to do with being back home in Toronto and just trying to get reacquainted with a life that I had before and the difficulties with that, but at the same time, trying to express excitement and joy. I'm in a very, very different place than I've ever been."
Along with Rihanna, on the title track, he's joined by Nicki Minaj (on second single "Make Me Proud"), Lil Wayne, Andre 3000, Rick Ross, Kendrick Lamar, The Weeknd and Stevie Wonder, on a sweet and well-placed harmonica solo.
The Club Paradise Tour puts him back in some of the venues where he opened for Lil Wayne, with an aggressive young cast that includes J. Cole, Waka Flocka Flame, Meek Mill, 2 Chainz and French Montana
"I think that this tour is really about each individual act and what they bring to the table," he said. "They've got a lot of different elements with hip-hop music. Even with myself you get a flip side of singing and melody and R&B. I was really trying to cover all bases and bring the most exciting young refreshing acts to the stage all together in one place, one night."
"Take Care" certainly doesn't help load a set with upbeat summer jams. In terms of performing his more personal and intimate songs on the stage, he said, "Any piece of music that I put out, I'm proud of the emotion, something I went through in my life, and it's not painful. I mean, sometimes it's tough to do songs like 'Look What You've Done' when my mom is at the show or my dad's at the show. It gets kind of awkward for me to talk about such personal feelings in front of other people. But at the same time, it's also a beautiful thing. I get the records to come to life and I know people are listening to what I'm saying."