Drake is home in Toronto, recording at his longtime producer Noah "40" Shebib's studio. The vibe is industrial yet cozy: exposed brick, low lighting, plenty of high-grade weed and virtually no decoration aside from a vinyl copy of U.K. dubstep crooner James Blake's debut on a windowsill. "This is home," says Drake, wearing a T-shirt, black jeans and work boots. "If I'm in a big expensive studio, it starts messing with my head about what kind of music I should be making."
To a degree, that's what happened with his 2010 debut, Thank Me Later, which sold 1.4 million copies and transformed Drake from mixtape phenom to platinum-certified star. "In no way am I not proud of it," he says, "but I think I got caught up in making it seem big and first-album-ish. I was a bit numb, a bit disconnected from myself. I wasn't able to slow down and realize what was going on around me."
He's taking a more deliberate approach with Take Care, toiling over the sort of intricately observed lyrics that made his breakthrough mixtape, 2009's So Far Gone, so thrilling. Tales of next-level conspicuous consumption (he shouts out celeb chef Thomas Keller's French Laundry restaurant, where he dined on a recent Napa Valley wine-tasting trip) butt up against memories of middle-class striving (he references renting luxury cars he couldn't afford). Adds Drake, "The whole process has been about slowing life down and really pinpointing emotions."
He cues up several tracks in various states of completion, all of which sit squarely in the sparse, somber register that's become his trademark. "Shot for Me," the likely album opener, is a marvel of melancholy bravado: He sings "B*tch, I'm the man" in a moan that undercuts the brag, over a beat (courtesy of Shebib) that pairs aching synthesizer notes with an exhilarating barrage of high-hats. Other highlights include "Free Spirit," featuring Rick Ross and the refrain "Tat my name on you so I know it's real," and "The Real Her," a narcotically woozy love song with detuned pianos and a Lil Wayne guest spot. Drake is also looking forward to collaborating with Abel Tesfaye, a.k.a. buzzy R&B gloomster the Weeknd - and, if he gets his wish, veteran beatsmith DJ Premier, Florence and the Machine's Florence Welch, and the xx's Jamie Smith. "No matter who's on it, it goes through the Drake filter," Shebib says. "He's so hands-on about how everything sounds."
Many rappers tout their effortlessness, but Drake is proudly perfectionist. Several of the verses he's written for the album are still missing their last two bars. "If your writing is strong enough, those lines dictate what the hook is gonna be about, how you're gonna go into the second verse," he says. "You need the exit moment, you know? 'And the crowd goes wild...'"
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This story is from the August 4, 2011 issue of Rolling Stone.
Photo by Hyghly Alleyne and Lamar Taylor