Drake

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"My 15 minutes started an hour ago," raps Drake at the beginning of Thank Me Later. This is not the way debut albums tend to begin. But the former teen actor faces higher expectations than any fledgling pop star in years; his main subject right now is how badly freaked out he is about how omnipresent he's about to become.

Until recently, Aubrey Drake Graham was best known for playing disabled ex--basketball player Jimmy Brooks on Degrassi: The Next Generation. But last spring he abruptly entered the pop world's consciousness under his middle name with the monster hit "Best I Ever Had." Since then, Drake's been a fixture near the top of the R&B charts, on his own and with the likes of Lil Wayne, Trey Songz and Timbaland. But rather than coming out blazing, Drake begins Thank Me Later by cautiously feeling out his new environment, regretting lost loves and wondering what happened to his old self. Even on his latest hit, "Over," swaggering verses are undercut with a self-doubting chorus: "What am I doing?" he repeats.

What he's doing is building a particular kind of connection with his audience that few hip-hop stars have been able to pull off. Drake has a winning combination of machismo, wit and introspective vulnerability, sometimes in the same verse. ("I've always liked my women book- and street-smart/Long as they got a little class, like half-days/And the confidence to overlook my past ways.")

"I wish I wasn't famous," he croons elsewhere on the album. Luckily, success can't spoil him, because he's built his career around regretting its inevitability.