How Drake Pushed Producers To The Forefront On 'Nothing Was The Same'
Hagler, Jordan Evans, and more collaborators speak on the album's impact five years later.
It’s an age-old tale that the more successful you become, the more present jealousy and paranoia become in your life. It takes shape in the form of crumbling friendships, inferiority complexes, and blatant disdain for growing accomplishments. And in music, the more successful you become, the louder your critics roar.
With the mainstream success of both 2010’s Take Care and 2011’s Thank Me Later, by 2013, Drake was no longer known as "that rapper from Toronto"—he, alongside the October’s Very Own brand, became household names. Winning Best Rap Album at the 55th GRAMMY Awards would not only solidify that, but also welcome the newest chapter in his life and a panegyric of himself titled Nothing Was The Same.
On his 1979 single “Wake Up & Live,” Bob Marley said, “Life is one big road with lots of signs. So when you riding through the ruts, don't complicate your mind. Flee from hate, mischief and jealousy. Don't bury your thoughts, put your vision to reality.”
With a microscopic eye on his every move, NWTS subsequently marked the time for Drake to flee from the growing hate and mischief around him, and put his vision to reality. Setting the scene for what was to come atop a rented billboard in Toronto, Drake released NWTS' lead single and video “Started From The Bottom” with one clear message—if you weren’t down for his leather flat cap (“Replacement Girl”), don’t come around now that he’s rolling in an opulent white blizzard-ready Bentley convertible.
Albeit its mainstream success, “Started From The Bottom” raised eyebrows in the hip-hop community, and particularly in Toronto, as to what “bottom” the former actor started from. The answer? A cringe-worthy, rat-infested studio, for starters. “Despite what anybody thinks about Drake and them making comments about how he didn’t ‘start from the bottom,’ he did start from the bottom—we all did," longtime collaborator and producer Boi-1da told HHDX in 2013. "We all started from a place that was not where we are now. A lot of people to say that, but it’s not easy for a rapper to come from Degrassi and to make it mainstream as one of the biggest rappers in the world."
With no set release date in place, Drake continued to reign supreme over rap with his features throughout the year; DJ Khaled’s boisterous “No New Friends,” Snoop Dogg’s socio-political “No Guns Allowed,” and finally, an appearance on The Weeknd’s “Live For” which dispelled volatile rumors that the two Canadian artists and collaborators had a falling out.
But for fans, NWTS was the prize they were waiting on, and for music critics, it was the make-or-break album that would have to prove his worth, and more importantly, his staying power. In one tweet on August 21, the Toronto rapper broke his silence: “New Album Date… NOTHING WAS THE SAME SEPTEMBER 24TH… www.ovosound.com."
Undeterred by an album leak thought to threatened sales, NWTS made its debut at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 album chart, and still sold over 650K copies in its first week, becoming the second largest music sales week of 2013.
In a Billboard cover story, Drake described NWTS as more than just an album, but a movement. “The goal is to continue to push the culture forward and form a team that can really contribute some great music to the world. My ears are definitely out. I'm looking to hear the next wave,” he said.
Though he already proved to have the golden ear with The Weeknd’s breakout success, the “next wave” of Drake’s sound would put a focus on its producers. Putting together a mix of already-established producers and up-and-coming beatmakers, NWTS not only brought a new sound in Drake’s discography, but provided a breakout platform for new names: Mike Zombie, Majid Jordan, Nineteen85, Hagler, Jordan Evans, especially.
Balancing light soulful melodies with bellowing bass-lines, samples of Whitney Houston and Wu-Tang Clan alongside tenebrous features from the likes of JAY-Z and Big Sean, NWTS straddles the line of narcissism, romanticism, and, true to Drake’s music, unconcealed emotions.
“I feel like a lot of people are going see the growth on Nothing Was The Same because he took it to another level. As an artist, he just grew up, and this album is showing what’s going on with him now in a different, new way,” Boi-1da told Rolling Stone.
In an interview with The Fader, Nineteen85 explained the making of "Too Much. “I tried a bunch of different beats. Anything more than a clap sounded like... too much,” he said. “There’s an honesty in the way Drake raps on it that we don’t often hear from him—he’s touching on personal topics, like family," he later told Billboard. "The beat [which features a hook from Sampha] works with what he’s saying. It’s one of the songs that’s not as fun, that brings different emotions to the music."
For Jordan Evans, Boi-1da’s co-producer on “Pound Cake,” this was his first opportunity to “step in front as a lead producer” and prove what he could do.
“It was a catalyst for my career. I graduated into a world class group of Toronto producers who I’m proud to call my peers,” he says. Similarly to Nineteen85’s approach on “Too Much” and “Hold On (We’re Going Home),” Evans’ minimalistic approach to “Pound Cake” made it a paramount record on the album. “There are four sounds in that beat: kick, snare, sample and keys. There isn’t even a bass-line—that song is an exercise in less is more. Every element is perfect and there’s nothing there that isn’t needed. The verses are poignant, both artists at the top of their game. I feel like 'Pound Cake' is a time stamp in Drake’s career. In his first collab with Jay, he was in a different place—more of a mentor relationship. 'Pound Cake' felt like two titans standing on the same podium, looking each other eye to eye. I think for that reason, it’s one of the most important songs in his catalog. To be able to do my thing on a song that means so much to the culture is an incredible feeling.”
“Furthest Thing” co-producer Hagler echoed a similar statement. “NWTS was the nucleus to my craft and career," he says. "It was proof that it’s ok to be different and not con-form to whatever’s current. When I first heard the record ['Furthest Thing'] I was like this is special. It was different sonically and it really hit home. Drake touched on topics that were relatable—‘the furthest thing from perfect like everyone I know’—it doesn’t get any realer than that line,” Hagler says.
Celebrating Nothing Was The Same isn’t an exclusive party just for Drake, but also a celebration of the producers behind it. For some, it launched their dreams, as we’ve seen with Hagler’s continued success (i.e. Drake’s “Trophies”) or with Jordan Evans’ collaborative vision behind Daniel Caesar’s Freudian. For others, it launched careers, as we’ve see with Nineteen85’s work with DVSN or MajidJordan’s own artistic journey. And for some others, it gave them a space to challenge themselves.
"Nothing Was The Same feels like you’re being inducted into a secret society.” Evans says. “It doesn’t feel like the year it came out in or any year really — it feels timeless.”
Stream Drake's Nothing Was The Same in its entirety here.