Last month, in response to being doxxed by Kanye West, as their feud escalated while their respective album releases approached, Drake posted the most carefree possible video of himself — chuckling in a convertible, the Toronto night sky gliding behind him, a lover’s heart etched into his hairline, beaming and seemingly even tickled by the threat. On his just-released new album, “Certified Lover Boy,” Drake responds again to West having disseminated his address, this time putting it in words. “Get that address to your driver, make it your destination / ‘Stead of just a post out of desperation,” he raps on “7am On Bridle Path,” easily the most instantly chattered-about track, firing shot after shot at his peer, sounding as unbothered as he looked on camera. Unlike West, whose trail of antics beefed up hype around the release of “Donda,” Drake projects contentment, sending out the message that his own new record will need no such theatrics.
Indeed, despite only a couple direct promotional efforts, the album will bully the charts — as you read this, a dozen tracks are likely climbing over one another like crabs in a bucket, reaching for slots atop every relevant ranking. “Far as the Drake era, man, we in the golden ages,” he raps later on that same “Bridle Path” track. By most measures, he’s right: few artists have maintained a stranglehold on music or culture at large for as long as he has. It is this energy — one hyper-focused on maintaining his reign — that keeps him smiling. It’s also what makes his new album a confirmation of a rapper partially trapped in pop superstar stasis.
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“Certified Lover Boy” is a perfectly fine record — it’s expensively well-produced, like all of Drake’s albums, and easily likable with a decent batting average for a nearly hour-and-a-half record. But it officially stamps Drake’s self-proclaimed golden era as what might also be considered his “playlist era.” In the last five years leading up to this record, Drake has released one official album (2018’s “Scorpion”), but also a long playlist of original tracks (“More Life”), a repackaged bundle of past loosies (“Care Package”) and another collection of “demo tapes” (“Dark Lane Demo Tapes”). The highly successful strategy here is to keep his hold on the culture, while we wait for the real-deal album material. Through that B-side pile, we’ve received a trove of really memorable cuts — songs that shoot straight into playlists for partying, late-night moodiness, and cutting underdog bangers.
Yet “Certified Lover Boy,” a long-awaited album that was delayed by more than a year, exists in the same vein: not as some refined, cohesive work, but an overlong dump of tracks that can be briefly exhilarating, quickly infectious and absent of any noticeable evolution or risk from someone who might credibly be considered the world’s biggest artist. It’s an album that feels like the work of a fan curating an enjoyable but ultimately unadventurous mix of Drake’s works from the last five years or so. “7am On Bridle Path” is a typically strong entry to the AM/PM series (“4pm in Calabasas,” “6am in Toronto,” etc.); “Fountains” is a stale follow-up to his other dancehall tracks, a la “One Dance”; “Girls Want Girls” is another infectiously moody, melodic R&B trap that could be a fresh version of “Time Flies”; “TSU” is a catchier, smoother “Greece”; “Knife Talk” is a lesser version of another 21 Savage collab, “Sneakin’.”
Aside from a lack of fat-trimming — the second half in particular outstays its welcome — there are some nice highs: “N 2 Deep,” for instance, is as adventurous as Drake has been in some time, its first half set over a gritty guitar that feels unintentionally reminiscent of “Jail” from “Donda,” followed by a standard but nevertheless satisfying beat switch to a back-and-forth with Future. Speaking of whom, “Way 2 Sexy,” featuring Future and Young Thug (following up the trio’s 2020 collab, the stellar “D4L”), is perhaps the album’s most polarizing track: the beat is glorious and boisterous, while the core sample (Right Said Fred’s “I’m Too Sexy”) and Future’s chorus are immediately cringey, even as the naturally zanier Young Thug slides in with ease.
“Champagne Poetry” can feel like an at once remarkable and uneven opener: it has the pristine, ambitious energy of most of Drake’s album intros, but its effect is heavily diminished for listeners who are already familiar with the already popular Masego track “Navajo,” mirroring that song’s sample here with a Beatles interpolation. The build-up in the second half of the song is well-orchestrated before becoming suddenly anticlimactic (drums after its high point feel glaringly absent). The bookends of “Champagne Poetry” and the closer, “The Remorse,” make for the only distinction between this official album and his more recent mixtapes. Like most of his intros and endings, these tracks strive consciously for something more epic, more confessional and more somber than the album necessarily merits.
But rewind to the grand, bombastic winter chill of “Keep the Family Close,” the opening song to 2016’s “Views,” and you get the sense that Drake is now not simply past the point of really doing something with his records — he simply doesn’t care to anymore. “Views” saw him anointing himself as an undisputed hall-of-famer, sitting on CN Tower, looking over what he had conquered. What else is there left to do after that but hand-wring over maintaining your territory? It’s why the subsequent “Scorpion” was such a bloated mess — more songs for more charting.
With this album, it seems we are well past the point of expecting something artistically challenging or groundbreaking from Drake. He is, broadly speaking, the most popular rapper in the world, bar none — and it’s clear that over his last handful of projects, he has been fixated, even haunted, by that fact. Everything’s gilded and beautiful at the top, but he also seems a kind of inverted King Midas, cursed by the ever-present fear that something he touches will finally not turn to gold.
It’s a kind of pressure that seemingly has taken a personal toll; lost loyalties and broken relationships hang over these songs, just like they have over past albums. Yet, rather than maturing, Drake has only leaned harder into his heartbroken pretty-boy schtick — from the his heart-engraved hairline to the album’s shameless title to the jokey baby-mama emoji album cover, he seems to have decided to go all in on the modern fuckboy archetype he almost single-handedly cast. If you look more closely, you’ll notice the incongruence of a crooner who is also a 34-year old father wondering how much to pay his lover to shut up (“Pipe Down”). On “In the Bible,” a surprisingly stale track with Lil Durk and Giveon, Drake sings on a dead chorus: “You don’t know love, you don’t love me like my child” — a bizarre defense, effectively hiding behind his son, to explain away emotional stuntedness.
“Certified Lover Boy” becomes much more enjoyable when you look past these inconsistencies and accept it simply as a playlist of pop hits from our biggest pop star. It’s the quintessential record of a prom king who can’t seem to see past the beauty of his own reflection. Fortunately, we also love looking and listening to that character; just don’t expect a lover boy to grow up.
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