I can't believe with what Aubrey Drake Graham gets away with. For a second, look past his background. Look past the fact that you don't see a lot of half-Jewish Canadian people in hip-hop and never Degrassi: The Next Generation alumni, at that. I want you to even ignore his his grumbled-about ambivalence toward fame, which is the thematic center of his proper full-length debut, Thank Me Later. (By the way, Drake's alternating celebration and loathing of the bizarre societal ideal that thrusts real human beings into a luxurious, paranoid world, in which they can't even trust themselves and thus hire teams to just tell them how to be, is as nuanced of a statement as you'll find in contemporary pop music, complainers be damned.) Forget the baggage and just listen to what an anomaly he is. He raps like he's repressing a squeak, his voice frequently flirting with shrillness (that's made even clearer when he contrives a more booming delivery -- on the braggy single "Over," he goes for butch but just sounds hoarse). Later's uniformly gorgeous production is often muted and filtered ("somnambulant" is how Sean Fennessey describes it in his excellent review). This leaves Drake's relatively high voice as the main source of treble in his own universe. Drake also takes part in a practice that is essentially a requirement for female rappers (Missy Elliott, Nicki Minaj, Eve, Queen Latifah, Lil' Kim, Lauryn Hill) but rare amongst male ones -- he sings. And it's not just Autotuned warbling like Wayne's or Kanye's, it's not the sing-songy duo-tone of Kid Cudi, it's not the melodic chanting of 50 Cent -- Drake, in fact, doesn't just sing, he croons. This seems bold in a genre that seems to equate singing your own hooks with sucking your own dick -- it's economical, yes, but you still end up with a dick in your mouth.
In a world that idealizes hardness, Drake has a bag-of-cotton aesthetic: soft on top of soft. (New York magazine goes as far as to mock his very moniker for belonging "on eighties soft-rock radio.") He largely rhymes (and croons!) about his feelings, and at times is exponentially introspective ("I'm looking forward to the memories of right now," he admits). He openly talks about remorse over not calling his grandmother, and seems uncannily in tune with women's psyches ("You say you droppin’ 10 lbs., preparing for summer / And you don’t do it for the men, men never notice/ You just do it for yourself, you the fuckin’ coldest"). I'm not saying he's gay, but I am saying that, "I love Nicki Minaj / I told her I’d admit it / I hope one day we get married just to say we fuckin’ did it,” is totally something a gay dude would say. And again, like the female rappers he resembles more than his male predecessors, he seems keenly aware that soft must be balanced with hard somehow (at least sometimes) -- in the one Later track that pretty much everyone agrees is amazing, the baby-making duet with The-Dream, "Put It Down," Drake tempers his otherwise drag-queeny command with a real man's curse: "Put those fuckin’ heels on and work it, girl."
Based on the uniformity of sound and what comes out of Drake's mouth on Later ("singlemindedness" is how Zach Baron puts it), this isn't some dudey dude having an emo moment a la Kanye. This is Drake. His otherness is his essence. Masculinity traditionally has been defined by big, bold lines ("A man does this and not that..."), and Drake's musical m.o. is to push boundaries, balance and blend (Fennessey's assessment that Later is the sound of Drake making "this odd little album about figuring out who he is" is key). It's ballsy to sound this neutered in hip-hop.