Drake is the patron saint of passive aggression. You burn his candle when you’ve been wronged, when you’ve been dumped, when you feel like you get more attention for mistakes than accomplishments. In exchange for your devotion, he gives you protection against the hordes of doubters and haters, real or imagined, that stand in the way of your personal peace. It’s a lucrative business. Snark is the internet’s love language. Cutting up is more rewarding than burying the hatchet. Discernment is exhausting, but smoke is free. Drake is the artist of this moment because we’re all waging the same unwinnable war for unilateral respect his songs do. We all feel hated and underestimated. 50 Cent blew up when we needed to feel invincible; Kanye West fed a hunger for impulsiveness. Every era gets the rapper it deserves.
Ever since he worked the violence out of his system on Scorpion, Drake has been mellowing out. “Going Bad,” his long-awaited reunion track with Meek Mill, reminded us that these two make better creative foils than adversaries. The remix for Summer Walker’s “Girls Need Love” was entertaining Ouroboros, a pretty Drake-ish tune gaining an audience with 6 God himself. “Life Is Good” upheld the hit streak with Future. “Money in the Grave,” “War,” and “Omerta” offered mob-boss recidivism. “Toosie Slide” reset the balance. The gap between Scorpion and his upcoming sixth album resembles the run-up to Take Care. There are a lot of one-offs that sound like keepers. Instead of letting these songs live on YouTube or SoundCloud — as non-album gems like “Free Spirit,” “Club Paradise,” and “Dreams Money Can Buy” did for many years — Drake has collected 14 songs that have been floating around this year, Care Package–style, as Dark Lane Demo Tapes. Drake loosies run the gamut between genuinely inspired, cool but cast off, and cloyingly cute. He can make anything chart; the question for a collection of stray singles and unreleased songs known to attentive fans is how much the artist applies himself. Dark Lane, the shortest Drake solo project (not counting the non-canon EP version of So Far Gone) abates the excess of Scorpion with a quick batch of mostly sturdy tunes, appetizers for a cooped-up audience hungry for the rapper’s next main course.
Dark Lane is the stylish training montage before a fight. Drake’s tightening-up routines. “Toosie Slide” is cute as an exercise in sparking line dances in the club that totally would’ve worked if not for everything being closed right now. But it sticks out as obvious chart fodder in a way Drake singles haven’t since the early days. “Not You Too” aims for the kind of hazy, druggy R&B that worked for “Diamonds Dancing” and “My Side” and lands, albeit too close to the sound of “Fire and Desire” from Views. (Faint backing vocals from Chris Brown that never end in a proper verse are the rare instance where one of these songs seems not entirely finished.) “Desires” takes too much after Future as it considers hiding a love interest where dudes can’t find her, like they do before the final fight in a bawdy ’90s action movie. “War” has the same problem it did in December, which is to say that the U.K. drill cut leans too far into the roadman accent that caught (too much) flak on his last mixtape, 2017’s underrated More Life. The advantage to packaging material that’s been floating around the net in some form as a bunch of demos is getting the listeners to think about process instead of holding high standards for finished product. Drake’s the outlier in the J. Cole–Kendrick Lamar–Travis Scott–Nicki Minaj axis of 2010s–20s A-listers still making liberal use of non-album formats like mixtapes and EPs to tide fans over in the time he takes to make proper albums. (He remains a student of Lil Wayne in that respect.)
Absent the odd misfire, Dark Lane is quintessential Drake in the way it condenses complex feelings into concise quotables for Instagram captions, and skips around styles to position him at mainstream rap’s ideological center. You think he’s spit the Drakest line ever in the opener “Deep Pockets” when he says, “Minding my business, building a business, et cetera,” until he follows up with, “Inspired by a few, but my mind really drives itself, just like Tesla,” this after saying he ran “pyramid schemes just like the Egyptians.” Later, he kicks off the first verse of “Time Flies” saying he “just caught a shorty off a Finsta.” When he’s not doling out peak Drake bars, he’s holding court with rap influencers. The Playboi Carti collab “Pain 1993” sees Drake make good use of Carti’s flow, while Carti channels Young Thug. Thug shows up on “D4L Freestyle” with Future, rekindling the chemistry of More Life’s “Sacrifices” and “Ice Melts” and What a Time to Be Alive at once. “Demons” spotlights New York rappers Fivio Foreign and Sosa Geek and proves Drake’s up on Brooklyn drill as well as the U.K. stuff.
Drake comes out of Dark Lane looking very present, tracking trends from New York to Atlanta to Toronto to London, from the inner city to the internet. It’s the quality he most takes after Jay-Z, who was savvy enough in the ’90s to work with rappers from New Orleans, Philly, and Atlanta as well as New York. As much fun as it can be to hear Drake try out different flows on cuts like “Landed” and swerve through future warm-weather jams like “Time Flies,” the best moments on his newest are always the ones where he gets personal. “When to Say When,” which samples Jay’s Blueprint stunner “Song Cry,” comes in hot with a bold Jesus year lyric — “33 years, I gave that to the game / 33 mil, I’ll save that for the rain / 500 weeks, I fill the charts with my pain / 500 mil, and I’ll fall back in the Six” — and shares lessons from the road to riches pitched halfway between career advice and big snark for the people gunning for his spot. Months removed from the vengeance of Scorpion, Dark Lane speaks honestly if a little coarsely about mistakes. Late in the album, “Losses” and “From Florida With Love” talk about moving differently when a bad situation leaves you vulnerable, the former in the wake of a breakup and the latter after a robbery. “Florida” is the kind of song you hope Drake leans more toward in his dad-rap phase, a point where there’s more to live for than the thrill of seeing what happens next. A change would do him good.
But what if, 14 years in, it’s a mistake to expect an artist who built a very lucrative thing for himself to keep mucking with the formula? Do we keep looking for him to become something he’s never shown any interest in and start rapping urgently about world affairs and spouting off woke politics or whatever, or do we settle for the fact that we know what he’s capable of, and he does it capably? Maybe Drake is like Starbucks, a creature comfort people cling to because it’s sweet, simple, accessible, and unchanging. We don’t want Adele to stop writing songs about love, and we don’t ask Lil Wayne to stop making scatological puns. We love Future’s capers. That’s their thing. Bittersweet, hubristic confession is Drake’s. Can that be enough?