album review

Everything Is Exactly the Same

On Certified, the Boy’s truest loves are family, wealth, and self. Photo: Drake via YouTube

The first sound heard on Certified Lover Boy, the sixth studio album by Canadian hip-hop heavyweight Drake, is a sliver of the 1965 Beatles song “Michelle” (as performed by Chicago vocal group the Singers Unlimited, as sampled by Virginia R&B star Masego in his 2017 track “Navajo”). If you follow the lore, you know the Boy got a tattoo on his forearm a few years ago depicting himself waving back to the Fab Four, in commemoration of shattering a few chart records previously held by the Liverpool legends. In the event the subtlety of the message in Lover Boy’s intro “Champagne Poetry” eluded you, “You Only Live Twice” recapitulates later: “Not sure if you know, but I’m actually Michael Jackson / The man I see in the mirror is actually going platinum.” Drake is the moment, top two in any conversation about the biggest-selling artist of the era, and not often the runner-up. His official singles rarely miss the top ten; his albums routinely top the charts internationally; his guest spots have the power to break new artists. He’s a weathervane for what’s popular, always ingratiated with the right rappers, athletes, and models, always apprised of the best kicks, kits, jerseys, streetwear, athleisure pieces, and designer gear, of what teams to support, what shows to watch, and whose sounds to dabble in. Drake is the man about town in every town. His albums survey developments in street rap across regions, R&B across decades, and Black art across continents. His sound is the median. This is true of both the way he positions himself to be adjacent to every massive trend and the reality that this is making his art feel safe.

Drake’s regency dovetails with a larger moment in modern pop culture characterized by an endless wave of sequels and revivals for beloved intellectual properties, a torrent of historical documentaries and period pieces, and a focus on the messy brilliance of auteurs, where a unique vision of the present and a dusting of retro vibes are tickets to mass appeal. As much as Drake knows how to rap and write good hooks, he knows his audience loves sage branding exercises, carefully curated nostalgia, expensive gestures, and power plays: the guest bars from Jay-Z, the Michael Jackson sample, the Beatles chop. (This makes leaking Kanye West and André 3000’s shelved Donda collaboration — if we are to believe these Hidden Hills neighbors genuinely hate each other and aren’t just in a cynical theater of mutually beneficial spite — a miscalculation rooted in the idea that West cares as much about the prestige he gets from a collaborator as Drake does, when West clearly has no qualms about cutting talent; still, Kanye posting Drake’s home address, which was already a matter of public record, is the sillier jab.) The better releases gently update formulas, minding emerging sounds on the radio but never displacing the core appeal of a Drake track, that usefulness of the yearning lyrics in his love songs and the lonely egotism we all relate to on a certain level as the protagonists of our own tales, plagued by doubters and haters, real and imagined. It’s a stage play of familiar faces and solvable problems. We know the Boy — and the Avengers and the Justice League and Sonic the Hedgehog and Vin Diesel — will succeed. The only question is how.

A lot has shifted since 2018’s Scorpion and even since last spring’s stopgap B-side collection Dark Lane Demo Tapes: political upheaval, climate catastrophes, millions of tragic deaths worldwide. Inside Drake songs, these troubles fade away. We worry not about the shaky present and the unknowable future but about the recent past, the objects of our scorn and the ones who got away. Drake raps compellingly about memory, about missing old haunts and connections that fizzled, and about yearning for a simplicity he may no longer enjoy. (This is a crucial skill in dismal times, when even the brain-boiling chaos of 2019 is quietly missed.) But since 2015’s If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late, a wintry collection of songs about weathering a growing distrust for business and hookup partners, a chilly arrogance has set in as one of Drake’s default moods, and while it can set the scene for potent tunes — like More Lifes “Madiba Riddim,” Scorpion’s “Emotionless,” or Dark Lane’s “When to Say When” — the crotchety songs sit strangely beside the sweeter ones. Scorpion weaponized this friction, scheduling confrontational cuts like “Mob Ties” and “I’m Upset” on the front end and gradually, over 90 minutes, relaxing into smooth cuts like “Finesse” and “After Dark.” The more aggro tracks were a necessity, fodder for that year’s battle with Pusha-T, but they crowded and displaced the stuff people wanted to hear; “Mob Ties,” “Upset,” and “Nonstop” all charted, but “In My Feelings,” “God’s Plan,” and “Nice for What” out-streamed them by wide margins.

Certified Lover Boy shaves a few songs and a few minutes off Scorpion’s 90-minute, 25-track heft, fitting 21 songs into 86 minutes, a marginal pivot as per usual. What’s true of Drake releases that run over 20 cuts, More Life notwithstanding, is still true here. There are too many songs, too many beat changes, too many competing ideas. In spite of the sprawl, there isn’t very much growth from the last release. If you’d expected this era to skew more toward the singing when you heard last year’s perfect single “Laugh Now, Cry Later” and peeped the baby-pink, heart-embossed Nike bomber jacket released as part of the album’s massive merch spread, you’ve put that to rest. Lover Boy is more like Drake’s Expendables. Every sound is crisp, expensive. Every guest is accomplished and well-rehearsed. But it still feels predictable. Drake’s rapping is impactfully tight. “7am on Bridle Path,” a deluge of subliminals just specific enough to scan as Kanye disses, is gymnastics: “Don’t move like a puto / Could at least keep it a buck like Antetokounmpo / I’m made north of the border like Vito Rizzuto / Throwing parties in Miami, they loving us mucho.” On “Fair Trade,” the requisite Travis Scott two-parter with the jarring shift in momentum, Drake kicks a lilting, pretty flow, and then La Flame works his way up from a narcotized whisper to a slick triplet. On “You Only Live Twice,” something of a sequel to the throwback East Coast rap excellence achieved in 2011 on Take Care’s highlight “Lord Knows,” Drake, Lil Wayne, and Rick Ross trade elite bars, and Wayne runs off with the song, maintaining a killer feature streak this year (one that should not pardon the time he shilled for Donald Trump right before the 2020 election, and yet …). Everyone you’d expect to be here is here. A quick Nicki Minaj cameo marks YMCMB’s “Big Three” present; Partynextdoor reps for OVO Sound on the suitably raunchy “Fucking Fans”; Future and Young Thug bless the plodding but funny “Way 2 Sexy“; Lil Durk makes up for “Laugh Now” vanishing on “In the Bible,” a song that spends five minutes wearing out the novelty of an intriguing vocal turn from Drake; “Girls Want Girls” taps Lil Baby for the follow-up to “Yes Indeed” and “Wants and Needs” and serves reheated lesbian jokes. Day-ones who miss late-album R&B asides like “Bria’s Interlude” and “Cece’s Interlude” will appreciate Lover Boy’s “Yebba’s Heartbreak.”

As Drake revisits scenes from his musical past, he slips into familiar patterns. “You Only Live Twice” sells Bond-film excess and nods to the motto from “The Motto.” The man who made “No New Friends,” a catchphrase in 2013, hasn’t changed his tune in “No Friends in the Industry.” This is also the sensibility in “Fair Trade”: “I’ve been losing friends and finding peace.” The soulful crooning and harsh truths of Take Care’s “The Ride” return in “The Remorse”: “From the lemon-faced radio host that love to be bitter / To my dogs in the game who wasn’t pick of the litter / For the young G’s out here starting from the beginning / Nobody praying for you when you winning, don’t forget it.” This is also the message of More Life’s highlight “Lose You”: “Winning is problematic / People like you more when you working towards something, not when you have it.” Certified Lover Boy is a patient trickle of Drake lore and fan service that could have come out as is at almost any point along the last decade in his career. The sound is a comforting blend of the aqueous synths, trap drums, and well-placed samples the OVO team and the wealth of international producers in their orbit perfected with Take Care. As with 2009’s So Far Gone, Lover Boy’s sample set is its own taste indicator, flaunting Drake’s love of ’90s hip-hop and R&B, ’00s southern rap, Canadian soul, and American pop. In addition to the Masego-Beatles summit, there are swatches of ’N Sync’s “Sailing,” Bun B’s “Get Throwed,” Charlotte Day Wilson’s “Mountains,” and the intro from Biggie’s Life After Death. R. Kelly gets a credit on Lover Boy’s “TSU” for a section where Houston’s Chopstars veteran OG Ron C speaks over a tiny bit of “Half on a Baby,” a clearance Drake’s longtime producer and engineer Noah “40” Shebib isn’t crazy about, as he explained on Instagram: “Doesn’t sit well with me let me just say that.” It’s a puzzling choice — surely there was another way to get the guy’s voice on the song — that shines a light on the pockets of trouble in an album that flaunts the artist’s appeal to women in its title and in the Damien Hirst piece on the cover, an album that spends as much time scolding the women in the artist’s past as honoring them.

The back end of the album is quieter, and better than the front. Certified Lover Boy finds its stride when it stops fishing for hit rap collabs, and Drake shows off his range. “Race My Mind” is the obligatory breezy ’80s joint, cut from the same cloth as “Hold On, We’re Going Home” and “Feel No Ways.” After that, Lover Boy zips through afrobeats (“Fountains”), contemporary R&B (“Fucking Fans”), gospel-tinged soul (“Get Along Better”), and more, taking after the compellingly unpredictable closing stretches of More Life and Take Care. A close reading of the sultriest songs on Certified Lover Boy doesn’t turn up much in the way of affection. “Race My Mind” seems to be about doting on a crush until the last verse explains that she doesn’t strike him as wife material, but she’s drunk, and he’s just giving her a chance to change his mind — truly romantic stuff. “Fucking Fans” is a lengthy apology for cheating that pivots into rude words for the ex and her current boyfriend, matching the jilted pettiness of “Marvin’s Room.” “TSU” is about loaning money to an old hookup partner who has fallen on rough times since she gave up exotic dancing: “You know you important and shit / You know I’m supporting this shit / We used to do pornos when you would come over, but now you got morals and shit.” A relationship hits turbulence in “Pipe Down,” and he asks: “How much I gotta spend for you to pipe down?” Duetting with Nigerian singer Tems in the slick, stress-free love song “Fountains,” Drake briefly embodies the smooth-talking heartbreaker it looked like he was hinting at when he got the heart-shaped part cut into his hair, a pump fake in retrospect, or else just branding. (Why is this not stacked with duets like “Fountains”?) On Certified, the Boy’s truest loves are family, wealth, and self.

Another way to approach Certified Lover Boy is just to let it wash over you and luxuriate in the gossamer, layered textures underfoot while Drake’s voice pours over the mix, somber notes of frustration pattering like rain. On a surface level, it is gorgeous. On a technical level, it is impressive. It is a trip through a world we already know. There are no surprises in its landscapes. Maybe this is the source of its appeal. Maybe there’s something quite nice about escaping into a universe where the villains are just a lot of people who doubt us and will live to regret it, about returning year after year to visit this theater of wealth and success. But consistency’s cozy. Stasis breeds boredom. Amusement parks add and update the rides. Blockbuster film sequels introduce new characters. Video games sell new maps. As quickly as the musical landscape is changing now, a hybrid trendsetter/trend watcher as keen as Drake should be out on the hunt for new wares. But on Certified Lover Boy, he’s just tending to his garden. It’s lovely. You could conjure it from memory.

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Everything Is Exactly the Same