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Drake, the sad boy, pop-rap hit single machine, is back. Really, it’s like he’s never been away. Everything a fan would want from a Drake album is here on Certified Lover Boy. That’s kind of the problem.
The precocious superstar has always worn his desperation to be liked – by both his peers and his fans – on his sleeve. The result? All too often, a blatant self-awareness that wrings any authenticity from his music. Drake wants to cater to everyone and anyone. On Certified Lover Boy, it totals up to a broad, base level, bloated slog through nearly 90 minutes of him replicating the formula that has made him both a chart topper and a meme God – a status he references on Beatles-sampling opening track, “Champagne Poetry”.
There are moments of electricity. “Knife Talk” with 21 Savage and Project Pet is a seriously infectious bit of road rap. Over producer Metro Boomin’s piano wizardry there’s a sense that Drake is striving to be more than the metronomic, punch line spitter he’s known as. “7am On Bridle Path” is an exercise in just what the Canadian can do when he relaxes into focus. On this particular song, the sniper scope is aimed at longtime frenemy Kanye West, who appeared to post Drake’s address on Instagram last month. “Give that address to your driver, make it your destination/ Instead of just a post out of desperation/ This me reachin’ the deepest state of my meditation/ Why you over there tryna impress the nation?/ Minds runnin’ wild with the speculation,” Drake raps, mocking his one-time idol and collaborator. Simultaneously solipsistic and self-effacing, he reminds us on this track of a past greatness, one that has been on the wane since 2013’s Nothing Was the Same.
Kid Cudi collaboration “IMY2” is an exercise in vulnerable masculinity. Cudi swoons over scattering hi-hats as the pair swap harmonised bars. It borders on transcendental. But the highlights only emphasise the emptiness of the rest of the album – at 21 tracks long, that’s a whole lot of filler. There are rote punchlines so grating even Eminem would balk at them, none worse than “Say that you’re a lesbian, girl me too” on the bisexual fetishising of “Girls Like Girls”. “Way 2 Sexy” turns Right Said Fred’s “I’m Too Sexy” into a strip club trap anthem that will have you wishing you were locked in a warehouse with Mr Blonde. Not even Future, capable of pulling off the most ridiculous of lines, can save his partner in rhyme here.
Elsewhere, it’s much of the same. “No Friends in the Industry” seems to have been made with the sole intention of being 2021’s most used Instagram caption. “Love All”, which features Jay Z is drumless inertia. “Get Along Better” is the exact song people who hate Drake think every Drake song sounds like.
There is also an R Kelly-sized elephant in the room. On “TCU”, the accused sexual predator – currently on trial in New York – is credited as a composer because the song interpolates the sound effects from his 1997 hit “Half on a Baby”. It marks a nadir in hip hop’s apathy towards women that the two biggest releases of the year (Certified Lover Boy and Kanye West’s Donda dropped within days of each other) seem to near-on delight in hosting accused abusers. The Kelly sample seems particularly egregious given Drake is a noted fan of the late singer Aaliyah, whom Kelly illegally married when she was underage. Drake even has a tattoo of her on his back, and appeared on a posthumous collaboration, “Enough Said”, in 2012.
Certified Lover Boy’s greatest crime is just how bland and boring it is. There’s very little here that Drake has not done better or more emphatically elsewhere; his album is deprived of any kind of experimentation or insight. He rose to the top baring his soul. Now it feels like there’s no soul to bare.