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CD Reviews

The young and the restless

New albums by Drake and Eminem explore two ends of the hip-hop hype cycle

Drake takes on the perils of fame on his new album, “Thank Me Later.'' Drake takes on the perils of fame on his new album, “Thank Me Later.'' (Stephen Lovekin/Getty Images)
By James Reed
Globe Staff / June 18, 2010

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He’s the ascendant Canadian-born rapper and actor who became the toast of hip-hop on the strength of his online mixtapes. In the other corner, we have a titan who was the top-selling artist of the past decade before losing his way and staging a comeback last year.

They live on opposite ends of hip-hop’s pendulum, but rappers Drake and Eminem could learn a lot from the other on their respective new albums. “Thank Me Later,’’ Drake’s official debut released earlier this week, presents an engrossing portrait of his brisk rise and how he’s struggled with it. He’s had barely a taste of it, but already Drake writes about fame and its trappings with more than a whiff of suspicion.

What he couldn’t have known is that Eminem’s “Recovery,’’ which is out on Tuesday, bookends “Thank Me Later’’ almost like a cautionary tale. Eminem has been at the top and knows it’s a long and lonely drop to the bottom — a motif that gives “Recovery’’ its occasional bite (while riffing on the album’s blatant self-help title).

Drake, the 23-year-old rapper born Aubrey Drake Graham, makes no apologies for his overnight success, but he also has a hard time believing it. “I know way too many people here right now/ That I didn’t know last year,’’ he sings on “Over.’’ On the opening “Fireworks,’’ with Alicia Keys chiming in on the chorus, he’s even more candid as he addresses his critics: “Lookin’ down from the top/ And it’s crowded below/ My 15 minutes started an hour ago.’’

Confessions like that make “Thank Me Later’’ an arresting listen, as self-referential as it is universal. With “So Far Gone,’’ last year’s EP that spawned the hit single “Best I Ever Had,’’ Drake rode a wave of hype that could easily have eclipsed his debut. Staring down great expectations, he holds his own and warrants the buzz on “Thank Me Later.’’

He’s got some of hip-hop’s marquee names behind him: his mentor Lil Wayne, Jay-Z, T.I., The-Dream, and Young Jeezy, all of whom make cameos without ever snatching the spotlight. He’s also learned from Kanye West, whose “808s & Heartbreak’’ gives the album much of its glacial pacing and icy synth arrangements (“The Resistance,’’ “Karaoke’’).

If his life sounds too good to be true, Drake is the first to admit it. “I know that [people] would kill for this lifestyle/ I’m looking forward to the memories of right now,’’ he raps on “Unforgettable.’’

Still, Drake knows he has a lot to learn, and Jay-Z even plays the sage soothsayer on “Light Up,’’ warning him about the pitfalls of his new lifestyle: “Drake, here’s how they gonna come at you/ With silly rap feuds trying to distract you.’’

Where Drake is paranoid about his success, Eminem has lived through his to the point of feeling like a caged animal. On “Going Through Changes,’’ Eminem cuts close to the bone as he recounts hitting bottom. Holed up at home popping methadone pills and hating his reflection in the mirror, he realized his own fans were laughing at what he had become. It’s a brutally poignant self-portrayal from an artist more known for shock value.

Eminem cuts a ferocious presence on “Recovery,’’ by turns defensive and vulnerable. On “Cold Wind Blows,’’ he spits his rhymes like he can’t stand the taste of them in his mouth. But a few songs later, on first single “Not Afraid,’’ he’s in a redemptive mood. “We’ll walk this road together/ Through the storm/ Whatever weather,’’ he sings, blandly, on the chorus.

When Eminem is on, though, he’s untouchable. “Talkin’ 2 Myself’’ is a fascinating admission that he’s struggled being out of the public eye. “On the verge of going insane/ I almost made a song dissing Lil Wayne/ It’s like I was jealous of him ’cause of the attention he was getting,’’ he confesses, adding that West’s popularity bothered him, too. (Obviously Eminem wasn’t too upset about Lil Wayne because he enlists him to rap on “No Love’’ over a sample of Haddaway’s “What Is Love.’’)

When Eminem defends his legacy on “You’re Never Over,’’ it’s clear that he could be relevant again. In the meantime, perhaps it’s time for Eminem to step aside and let Drake take the spotlight — assuming that’s where he wants to be.

James Reed can be reached at jreed@globe.com.