What happens to a Drake deferred?
Drake never really goes away. Since his star turn in 2009 with his So Far Gone mixtape, the Toronto titan has turned himself into a one-man factory of music. Whether it’s via official albums (Thank Me Later, Take Care, Nothing Was The Same, Views, Scorpion) Soundcloud loosies (“0 to 100/The Catch Up”), a “playlist” LP (More Life), collaboration projects (What A Time To Be Alive), culled together outtakes (Care Package, Dark Lane Demo Tapes), guest appearances (“Amen,” I’m On One,” “Life Is Good,” etc.) or his Scary Hours digital EP series. Drake has used his ubiquity over the past decade to transform the sound of pop music writ large, all the while expanding his personal real estate on the charts. His melange of melody, rap and crooning as he explores the inner-working of his psyche has went from innovative to becoming de rigueur for the next generation of rappers (Young Thug, Lil Uzi Vert, A Boogie Wit Da Hoodie, to name a few who’ve sampled from the Book of Aubrey Graham). For all this effort, he was honored as the Artist of the Decade by Billboard earlier this year, where he gave a memorable speech. “I rarely celebrate anything,” he told the audience. Instead, he offered advice about his come up. “It’s being so unsure how you’re getting it done, that you just kind of keep going in hopes of figuring out the formula. Feeling so lucky and blessed that the fear of losing it keeps you up at night.”
He closed by adding that he’s spent an “incalculable amount of hours trying to analyze what I did wrong.”
It was the type of introspection provided by time, which Drake rarely affords himself between recording, releasing and performing new music. Let alone his global travels, dating life and growing business portfolio. He lives the kind of on-the-go lifestyle that made Chance The Rapper once tweet “I can’t be the only person that wakes up wishing he could hang out with Drake more. The guy looks like all he does is have a good time.”
Which brings us to Certified Lover Boy, Drake’s recently released album. The project had been long-in-the-works, but derailed first by the Covid-19 pandemic and then by Drake injuring his knee. For the first time since his meteoric rise and reign, he had to take a seat amid quarantine.
What would proper reflection bring to a Drake album?
A mixed bag, it turns out. There’s the usual catnip for Drake critics, who call out his material for being vapid and repetitive. There’s also, however, a man trying to peel away the layers of armor he’s amassed on his way to the top just to feel a thrill again.
On the album opener and one of the project’s best numbers, “Champagne Poetry,” Drake recounts his success, a theme he’s turned over in song before, but here he infuses his bars with the leeriness of someone who isn’t exactly sure who he’s lived his best life for.
“Nothin' tell the truth like the eyes will/ Lived so much for others don't remember how I feel,” he raps over a sparsely programmed drum track backed by a woozy sample of The Singers Unlimited’s “Michelle” pitched by Masego to create a hypnotic soundscape. By the time he gets to the third verse, the underbelly of the track changes, giving the song a charge that spurs Drake to flash his teeth in rhyme. “I'm bigger now than before/ Co-parent of the year, we figured out a rapport/ No fair what Drizzy made on the second leg of the tour/ How could anybody tell you the truth when they misinformed?”
A funny thing happened to Drake on the way to the throne. He clawed his way to get there, but his dominance also cleared the path for him to be anointed without much confrontation. His 2014-2015 run between his OVO Soundcloud material and If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late proved to be his forceful move toward ascension. By the time he got to 2016’s Views, he misplayed his hand and his self-imposed coronation came off more like an extraneous victory lap. He instead was challenged by Meek Mill and Pusha T, among others. To paraphrase Jay-Z, they only celebrate you when you reach the top, then you have to spend the rest of your time fighting off the competition.
Drake has recalibrated a few times since then and on CLB, he has a fire about him as he makes his way through a list of enemies he never calls out by name but his lines are so direct they might as well have name tags attached to each bar (Swizz Beatz catches a heatseeking missile on “You Only Live Twice”). Lesser foes fare no better, either. Somewhere in between lies Kanye West, who Drake once idolized, later became competition to, and lately just seems to co-exist with. The superproducer is the target of a takedown on “7am On Bridle Path,” which is less a dis song and instead a brutal, four-minute long, definitive account of Ye’s fall from grace. It further cements Drake’s time and place series of tracks as his most muscular in his deep catalog, be it from his mixtapes picks or prickly guest appearances.
The best material on Certified Lover Boy is filled with the tension of Drake pushing back and redrawing boundaries. The bear can’t poke itself, so instead Drake draws new lines that he dares anyone to cross, whether as a taunt or even a flirtation. It’s not just that he can’t let a past flame simmer on “IMY2” (“You told me I was a phase”), he’s the one holding the kindling to keep the flicker going (“OK, fine, I miss you too”). Thematically it’s ground that he’s tread before, but you wonder if the U-turn is less because he’s uninspired and more because he found inspiration in the unpredictability of the response.
He’s not alone in his traction; longtime producer 40 and a cadre of beatsmiths work together to compose new arrangements and homages in sound that skip across genres as if they were driving in a Delorean while creating them. “N 2 Deep,” “Knife Talk,” “Fountains,” and “Get Along Better” are among the finest productions Drake has worked with in his career. (On the R&B front, Drizzy has rarely fizzled, a fact affirmed yet again with “Race My Mind,” as stellar of vocal performance by Drake as you’ll find.)
Where Drake stumbles, ironically, is with the material that serves as the spine to Certified Lover Boy. Because what’s a certified lover boy other than a rebranded fuccboi? He has a reputation as a lady's man for his looks and an empathy toward women. Too often on this set, rather than examine the intertwined feelings that make relationships rise and fall, he positions himself as the victim of fruitless hookups. In the past, Drake made himself the sympathetic figure in these situations, deservedly or not, rap crooning about his failings or the consequences of leading too fast with his heart as he’s left to pick up the pieces alone. These observations may or may not have been keen, but they offered a perspective rarely heard from men in music, especially in hip-hop. Instead, on tracks like “In The Bible,” he chastises a lover over her past dating history after he’s already rejected her. Similarly, on “Pipe Down,” he uses virtue as a cudgel against a one-time interest.
In an interview with Apple Music ahead of the album’s release, Drake explained his project would be “a combination of toxic masculinity and acceptance of truth, which is inevitably heartbreaking.” Be that as it may, Drake eschews real accountability from track to track on CLB. He might not have always painted the entire picture in earlier works (who really does when looking back at relationships?), but at least he was willing to tangle with the complexity of his actions. That inward view would elicit deeper emotions from Drake, from regret to shame. He leans into the toxic part too much here as if he’s not deigned to answer for his own complicity, which not only makes him a bad ally but an unreliable narrator at best and simply cruel at worst.
At this point in his career, after six studio albums, but with perhaps more publicly-available material than all but a handful of rappers, Drake is who he is: a global superstar, with an almost automatic penchant for cranking out chart-toppers that become streaming behemoths, chockfull of lines that are fodder for social media captions capped off by music videos that make for meme-worthy moments. Asking him to dig deeper or praying for a classic rap album is an exercise in futility. Listen closely, though, to Certified Lover Boy and you hear the strains of a man making a breakthrough as he navigates his place in life by returning to moments (and feelings) that made him who he is today.
And isn’t that what we’ve all been hoping for ourselves the past 20 months?