Drake is a true Jedi master at the ancient art of lowering expectations. If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late is one of Drake’s best albums, but Drake calls it a mixtape, not an album. More Life isn’t even a mixtape; it’s a “playlist.” The brand-new Dark Lane Demo Tapes is an album-length collection of Drake songs. It includes a #1 single, and it will presumably dominate the album charts for at least a couple of months. And yet Dark Lane Demo Tapes doesn’t even merit playlist status. Per Drake’s Instagram, Dark Lane Demo Tapes is simply “some leaks and some joints from SoundCloud and some new vibes.” Drake’s actual next album is coming this summer. Drake is merely furnishing the world with new vibes because he has new vibes to spare. If we’re bored by another hour of Drake grumping about exes over turgid slow-trudge sadness beats, we’re holding this thing to unrealistic standards.
As gamesmanship, this is an impeccable move. Drake gets to make music without energy or personality or purpose, and that music gets to dominate, in the way that all Drake music dominates. Drake’s imperial phase has now stretched over nearly a decade, and even his throwaways are pop hits. As a pure commercial force, he’s put together a titanic and historical run. And by artificially labelling his own music as an afterthought — by referring to these arena-rap fugues as “demo tapes” — he’s insulated himself from anyone worrying that he’s fallen off. He gets to suck in peace. I almost respect it.
But let’s be clear here: Dark Lane Demo Tapes sucks. It’s a triumph of branding and of absolutely nothing else. Even at his worst, Drake has always been one of the world’s sharpest, most observant students of the evolving rap world. He’s spotted emerging trends and absorbed them, bloblike, into the whole of his being. He’s found sparks of energy wherever he could. On Dark Lane Demo Tapes, that simply doesn’t happen. Drake makes a couple of small, halfhearted attempts at updating his formula — doing Brooklyn drill with Fivio Foreign and Sosa Geek on “Demons,” doing squeaky stop-start Playboi Carti things with Playboi Carti on “Pain 1993.” But these attempts are listless, bloodless nothings. Drake sounds like he’d rather be anywhere else, doing anything else. These songs are the Drake equivalent of punching a clock. He knows he has to be on top of this stuff, but the big-dog swagger that he usually brings to these moments simply isn’t there.
Instead, Drake remains deep in his Drake Zone all throughout Dark Lane. Think of the Drake Zone as the musical equivalent of the gaudy, ugly empty mansion that Drake showed off in his “Toosie Slide” video — sparkly, morose, full of references to Drake’s own personal mythology. When Drake recites bits of his origin story on Dark Lane — hearing “Lollipop” while sitting with Kobe Bryant on Lil Wayne’s bus, getting his Cash Money chain stolen, using a photo of the ugly mansion that he now occupies as his home screen — he sounds like he’s talking about Bruce Wayne’s parents in Crime Alley. It’s like he considers these tiny personal moments to be parts of our shared cultural heritage. Maybe they are.
A decade ago, Jay-Z spent his verse on “Light Up,” a song from Drake’s debut album Thank Me Later, offering Drake career advice. On the Dark Lane track “When To Say When,” Drake raps over the same sample that Jay famously used on “Song Cry,” and he uses it to give career advice to unnamed young rap stars: “Bet you got some niggas that’ll love you till the bitter end/ Bet you got somebody that’s just smarter than your other friends/ Give them a percentage, see what happens to your blessings then.” But Drake’s not offering this advice up benevolently, the way Jay did. Instead, he’s resigned to the idea that the younger rapper won’t listen. He says this is the reason he’s fucking the younger rapper’s girlfriend: “And it’s not because I set it up to try and get revenge/ It’s because you niggas insecure, you ain’t made men.” He sounds so sad about it.
He sounds sad about everything that involves women, which means he sounds sad most of the time. The whole not-an-album album could be one long subtweet to one ex, or to any number of exes. Again and again, Drake bellyaches about the idea that the women he’s fucking might want things from him: Butt implants, Lasik surgery, commitment, emotional connection. He whines about the demands of women who he hasn’t even met yet: “Problem is, I meet a girl tonight/ Then I go and treat her too nice/ Galleria credit card swipes/ I don’t even know if she a wife.” He gets horny for Instagram-model types, and then he judges them for being Instagram-model types: “You believe in angles more than angels.” (Who in their right mind believes in angels?) He quotes Eminem, at length, on the subject of women coming and going on various different days of the week.
At one point, Drake taunts an ex like this: “See me these days, I never got on a sad face.” You can practically hear his sad face on the recording as he speaks that line. That’s the Drake we get on Dark Lane Demo Tapes: The tired-of-having-sex Drake, the Drake who resents his own wants and the women who briefly satisfy them. To be fair, that’s the Drake we’ve been getting since before the guy had a major-label contract. In the past, though, Drake has used revved-up personal charm and intricate sonic architecture to make that persona compelling. On Dark Lane Demo Tapes, he can’t be bothered. “500 weeks, I’ll fill the charts with my pain,” Drake raps on “When To Say When” — as if he really believes that his pain is really what’s been driving the success of all these records for all these years.
Even at his most boringly dejected, Drake still has a way with a hook, and Dark Lane Demo Tapes plays out with a smooth, frictionless ease. That’s something that hit-hungry young Drake disciples like A Boogie Wit Da Hoodie haven’t managed. But all the best moments on Dark Lane Demo Tapes come from people who are not Drake: Fivio Foreign and Sosa Geek excitedly barking all over their big-shot moment, Giveon doing James Blakean sadboy falsetto yips, Playboi Carti sounding like a baby alien and melting into a Pi’erre Bourne beat, Future yelling vroom-vroom noises. (The Future/Young Thug collab “D4L” is the only song that even approaches the energy of prime Drake.) Those moments are brief respites. The bulk of Dark Lane Demo Tapes is a monument to Drake’s own morose entitlement.
Maybe that’s smart. Maybe, with all of us out there jumping out of our skins from quarantine boredom, this is a new golden age for morose entitlement. A while ago, I wondered whether anyone would or should care about the Weeknd’s romantic woes in a new global-pandemic era. We now have our answer. The Weeknd — Drake’s Toronto frienemy and perpetual brother in bummed-out-in-the-bottle-service-section pop-star blues — is doing great. Drake will probably do great, too. Complaining about his dominance now feels like complaining about Congressional inaction. Yes, it sucks, but you can’t do anything about it, and you’re just going to get on everyone’s nerves if you bring it up again. It’s a fact of life. After all, Drake told us to expect nothing with this album. It was one of his campaign promises. Can we even be mad at him for delivering the nothing that he promised?
1. YS – “Zone 6″
I’m pretty sure YS is not named after a Joanna Newsom album, and yet country-folk agrees with him. Maybe someone should buy him a harp.
2. Preservation – “North Bridge” (Feat. Navy Blue)
As a producer, the Ka collaborator Preservation has absorbed all of RZA’s gifts for shaping samples into mythic textures. (He has absorbed none of RZA’s neck-snap drums. Somehow, he doesn’t need them.) Preservation’s forthcoming album will feature Ka, Billy Woods, Mach-Hommy, Roc Marciano, Your Old Droog, Quelle Chris, Nickelus F, and Tree. I can’t wait.
3. King Von – “Grandson For President”
Those evil “Knuck If You Buck” synth-tones will never die, and they will never stop making me happy.
4. Chief Keef – “2nd Day Out”
Gucci Mane’s “First Day Out,” from 2009, is an untouchable modern rap classic. On “2nd Day Out,” Chief Keef, a onetime Gucci protégé, links up with longtime Gucci producer Zaytoven and does everything he can to recreate that magic. He gets more of it down than you might expect. Consider this a timely reminder that Chief Keef has one of the greatest rap voices in the world.
5. Kevin Gates – “Still Hold Up”
More pent-up guttural intensity from one of the masters of the form. Kevin Gates is in a real groove right now. And when he says he’s not a coward, he has plenty of evidence to back him up.
IT WAS ALL GOOD JUST A WEEK AGO
I now understand why its so important for Young Metro to be able to trust you. https://t.co/aZVC0Xhbig
— This is an Ahsoka Tano Stan Account (@TheOTAPShow) April 29, 2020