Premature Evaluation

Premature Evaluation: Drake Certified Lover Boy

OVO/Republic
2021
OVO/Republic
2021

In August of 2021, an artist named Certified Lover Boy released an album called Drake. The artist in question sounds nothing like Drake, but it’s not for lack of trying. Drake’s whole musical vocabulary — spaced-out synth beats, grumbly flexing, ruminative singsong hooks — has simply become the way that mainstream rappers communicate. I don’t know if Certified Lover Boy wants to be a mainstream rapper, but I do know that he wants to evoke that feeling. (A lyric on album opener “Drake”: “I feel like Drake.” Sure you do, buddy.) This album’s entire existence is a straight-up hilarious postmodern scam, an attempt to collect streaming-revenue runoff by confusing any impressionable marks who typed “Drake” and “Certified Lover Boy” into their Spotify search bars in the past month. These days, Drake is so big that he’s got his own mockbuster.

In September of 2021, Drake began his new album Certified Lover Boy by using a chipmunk-soul sample of the Beatles’ “Michelle” to talk about his cashmere knits for the nighttime boat ride and his friend Oli with the first edition parked up roadside. Drake’s song “Champagne Poetry” is really built on a sample of a sample of a cover; the song’s co-producer Masego used sampled the 1972 Singers Unlimited cover of “Michelle” on his own 2017 song “Navajo.” “Champagne Poetry” simply tweaks the “Navajo” beat. Still, Drake’s use of that sample is the musical equivalent of opening your summer action movie with a global-destruction CGI setpiece, especially since, thanks to that sped-up effect, it really does feel like we’re hearing a Beatles sample.

Even without a direct Beatles sample, “Champagne Poetry” works as a vulgar display of power from a man who recently claimed to have more slaps than the Beatles. But “Champagne Poetry” also works as a display of Drake’s colossal cornucopia of resentments and insecurities. The song is six minutes of high-pitched croons and self-lacerating humblebrags; it’s the kind of thing that Drake used to use as an album outro. Here, Drake puts all his silly self-pitying bullshit up front: “Career is going great, but now the rest of me is fading slowly/ My soulmate is somewhere out in the world, just waiting on me/ My chef got the recipe for disaster baking slowly/ My heart feel vacant and lonely.” Maybe that’s a power move, too. You can never tell with this guy.

Drake has arguably reigned atop rap’s A-list for more than a decade, longer than anyone else in history. Drake himself is eager to remind us of this: “When I signed my first deal, that shit came through a fax/ That should let you know how long I been out here running laps.” Even if you cannot stand Drake — a position that I understand, even if it’s not one that I hold — then you have had to contend with him if you have any interest in engaging with popular music. There, Drake is the omega. He somehow figured out how to turn passive-aggressive simpering into stadium spectacle, and you could probably rap along with a two-hour set of the man’s hits through sheer osmosis. Drake does not have more slaps than the Beatles, but he’s closer than anyone would like to admit.

From a distance, the rollout for Certified Lover Boy looks like one bungle after another. Drake announced the album almost a year ago, making a trailer video and shaving a stupid-looking heart into his hairline. Then he pushed it back, releasing a bunch of stopgap singles that (of course) became massive hits. The cover art sucks farts. Because of release-date proximity, Drake and his old frenemy Kanye West reignited their old cold-war feud. Without mentioning his name, Drake returns to the subject of Kanye West again and again on CLB, mainly to remind West that the two are not peers and to issue cryptic threats: “I could give a fuck about who designing your sneakers and tees/ Have somebody put you on a Gildan, you play with my seed.”

The thing is: Drake is right. Donda and Certified Lover Boy are two overlong blockbuster-rap statements from two of rap’s aging overlords. They’re both full of moody synth tones and fake humility. They’re both crowded with guests, and plenty of those guests show up on both albums: Jay-Z, Lil Baby, Kid Cudi, Lil Durk, Travis Scott, Ty Dolla $ign. Both albums have come out, with plenty of advance pageantry but no advance singles, within one week of each other. It’s impossible not to compare them, and yet it’s not close. A few listens in, and it’s already clear that we’re going to be hearing these Certified Lover Boy songs again and again in the months to come. I cannot say the same for Donda.

Drake never once leaves his comfort zone on Certified Lover Boy. In fact, Certified Lover Boy might be an album about Drake’s comfort zone. When the album arrived last night, Drake described Certified Lover Boy as “a combination of toxic masculinity and acceptance of truth which is inevitably heartbreaking.” That’s a baffling combination of words, but I’m pretty sure it means that Drake spends the album bitterly bitching about exes while presenting the barest veneer of self-awareness, as if to take the edge off of that bitching. This is not exactly novel territory for Drake. A full decade ago, Drake released Take Care, a beautiful extended mood-piece about what it’s like to be a terrible boyfriend. Even as a 34-year-old father, Drake has not switched up his style even a little bit. The bad-boyfriend blues are here to stay.

In fact, if anything, Drake now depicts himself as an even worse boyfriend than he did on Take Care. Here, for example, is how Drake now seeks to end an argument: “I don’t get how you’re yelling at me/ How much I gotta spend for you to pipe down?” Here’s how he attempts to re-classify past statements of devotion: “I remember that I told you I miss you, that was kinda like a mass text/ I remember that I told I loved you, that was really in the past tense.” Here’s how he rebuffs someone trying to make things better: “Posted that pic you sent me, it wasn’t recent enough/ How I’m supposed to wife it? You not Ayesha enough.” This is how he reassures an ex: “Trust me, this ain’t ’bout revenge/ But now I get along better with your friend.” Terrible! All of it! The worst!

But would anyone ever want to hear an album about Drake being a good boyfriend? That would be unspeakably boring! Even after all these years, there’s something darkly compelling about Drake’s slimebag persona. On Certified Lover Boy, Drake repeatedly namechecks George Clooney’s champagne brand. God knows that’s probably the result of some kind of corporate backroom deal, but Drake has latched hard onto a version of Clooney’s pre-Amal incurable-horndog-bachelor vibe. Of course, George Clooney was a movie star, so he wasn’t out here reading his shitty texts in public. Drake pulls back the curtain on all of that, and he does it prettily.

Certified Lover Boy is a pretty album. Many, many producers have contributed to the LP, but Drake’s old collaborator Noah “40” Shebib set the template. Drake and 40 know that Drake’s voice works with a specific set of sounds: glassy keyboards, minimal drums, snatches of old R&B melodies that sound like they’re drowning in digital glop. That sound can be boring, but when it is, it’s boring in a slick and professional sort of way. In the past, Drake has drawn from up-to-the-moment sounds, integrating them into his whole style. On Certified Lover Boy, he does nothing new, but his already-established sound palette is large enough to encompass Houston screw and moody synthpop and Memphis fight music and ebullient afropop and confessional post-soul. (Drake’s brief flirtation with UK drill appears to be over, and I’m fine with that.) Even the guests on Certified Lover Boy are, for the most part, longtime Drake collaborators like Future and the Weeknd, whose uncredited vocals linger in the background on “N 2 Deep.”

But if Certified Lover Boy is simply Drake doing things that he’s done before, he sounds a whole lot more locked-in and alive than he did on past blockbuster slogs like Scorpion and Views. At 86 minutes, Certified Lover Boy is overlong and indulgent, and there are plenty of songs that I never need to hear again. But there are bangers on the album, too, and they’re spaced out enough to keep the momentum from dying. My own personal favorite Drake is Tough Drake, the puffed-up shit-talker from “Energy” and “0 To 100” and “Nonstop.” That Drake doesn’t show up on CLB until seven tracks in. But when Tough Drake does show up, he recruits Future and Young Thug to flip Right Said Fred’s “I’m Too Sexy” into a victorious exultation. I love that shit.

Tough Drake gets his moments on Certified Lover Boy. Some of Drake’s flexes are just beautifully outlandish. A diamond popped out, and he almost swallowed $60,000. He’s got the cleaning staff planning on extorting him. With the ho ratio, he’s like David Caruso. His wishes come true without blowing eyelashes, and he’s up in Bron’s crib with fishbowl wineglasses. He’s got the Drac in the studio, and he doesn’t just mean that he’s in this bitch.

I love the florid paranoia of “No Friends In The Industry.” I love “Knife Talk,” which imports an entire Project Pat verse from a Juicy J solo track, throws it over plangent pianos, and then gives us Drake and 21 Savage trying to do the Project Pat flow themselves. I especially love “You Only Live Twice,” the old-school soul-sample throwdown where Rick Ross brings weary old-gunslinger gravitas and Lil Wayne sounds like he’s ready to bite your face off. (Wayne, we learn, would like you to “shove a eightball up her pussy like a fetus” for him.)

This is the grand bargain with Drake. When he feels like it, the guy can rap, and he can make anthems. When he doesn’t feel like it, his drowsy bad-faith breakup songs are still more compelling than they have any right to be. You don’t have to engage with either side of Drake. There are plenty of good reasons to stay far away from Certified Lover Boy. (“TSU,” for instance samples the portentous string intro from R. Kelly’s “Half On A Baby” and gives Kelly songwriting credit — a truly insane and indefensible decision, especially when any other portentous string intro could’ve accomplished the same thing.) Drake will continue to dominate the charts for the foreseeable future, with or without your help. But if you do tap in and engage with what Drake’s doing, it become clear that he’s on top for a reason. He knows what he’s doing.

Listening to a new Drake record on headphones is like walking through a serene, spacious, extremely expensive piece of modern architecture. It’s antiseptic and soulless, and the air conditioning is probably on way too high, but it’s impressive, regardless. What can I say? The motherfucker makes hits.

Certified Lover Boy is out now on OVO/Republic.

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