This motherfucker. I woke up this morning, and I was upset. The energy around Drake has been truly dark lately. The anhedonia. The self-indulgence. The persistent dwelling on petty grievances. The open, vulnerable reveling in his own worst confirmed-dickhead-bachelor romantic tendencies. The endless diminishing-returns dominance. The too-big-to-fail corporate omnipresence. The fake accents. The wounded-bully demands for empathy. The declining commercial fortunes of rap itself, which are enough to make Drizzy Drake look like the captain of a sinking ship. The sense that this guy simply will not go away. And here, on the morning of his fourth album in just over two years, this guy is making me contend with 23 songs over 85 minutes? Fuck this guy. And yet here I was, singing a different tune by minute 85. This motherfucker got me again.
Every Drake album comes with the customary storm of TMZ headlines, and For All The Dogs is no exception. Drake knows that he commands a certain level of cultural attention, and he capitalizes with stunt after stunt. This time, it’s apparent shots at Rihanna and A$AP Rocky, an extremely brief drop from Sade, and a line about 21 Savage’s green card that seems to be true, since Drake and Savage were just in Toronto together last night. There could be more headlines, too: The kinda-cute rap debut of Drake’s son Adonis, the continued baiting of Pusha T, the sample of an old Frank Ocean Tumblr loosie that opens the album. But the most telling TMZ headline might be the one that doesn’t come from the album itself: Drake saying that he’s about to walk away from music for a while.
On his SiriusXM show Table For One this morning, Drake claimed that he’s “been having the craziest problems, for years, with my stomach” and that he plans to “lock the door on the studio for a little bit — maybe a year or something, maybe a little longer.” It’s not exactly uncommon for a major star to take a year-long break from making music after releasing an album, but that’s not Drake. Drake lives in the slipstream. Over the past 15 years, he’s barely ever turned off the firehose. We’ll see if Drake does what he says, if his health issues are so bad that he’s really willing to leave the game alone for even a single year. If he really is taking a break, then it makes sense that he’s leaving the world with one last overwhelming blast of Drakeness first.
All the Drake-iest of Drake-isms appear on For All The Dogs: The passive-aggressive toxic-relationship talk, the blatant co-optation of rising rap trends, the boldface-name collaborations, the slip-sliding between rapping and singing, the general triumphal poor-little-rich-kid depression-fog, the long stretches in the deep doldrums, the uncomfortable levels of self-disclosure, the narratives that are both aggravating and compelling, the genuine skill that’s so persistent that you might take it for granted. It all comes to the question: How do you feel about Drake? There are so many reasons to hate the guy, and there are so many reasons to love him. They’re all here on For All The Dogs.
So: What do you want from a Drake album? Drake has been wondering about this for years, which is how you end up with a daring-on-paper misfire like Honestly, Nevermind. Drake followed that one up by teaming up with 21 Savage for Her Loss, his best display of straight-up rap chops in years. But before Drake teamed up with SZA on “Slime You Out,” his last couple of event-singles fell short of the #1 spot. (Drake is very conscious of his place in the Billboard record books. On “First Person Shooter,” Drake says, “I’m one away from Michael, n***a, beat it.” The math checks out. If you count his features on Rihanna and Future tracks, Drake has 12 Hot 100 chart-toppers. Michael Jackson has 13, if you don’t count the Jackson 5 songs.) Drake is in absolutely no danger of losing his spot atop the rap pyramid, but he’s having the same problems connecting that everyone else is these days. Drake spent the summer touring arenas while Taylor Swift, Beyoncé, and his stylistic cousin Morgan Wallen played stadiums. Drake noticed.
We should briefly discuss “Slime You Out.” It’s a bad song. The combination of Drake and SZA made the song an obvious no-brainer #1 hit, but that thing drained all the life and enthusiasm out of me. It’s Drake at his worst, indolently sing-rapping about all his most egregious fuckboy tendencies over a beat that sounds like lukewarm water. That song had me dreading the arrival of For All The Dogs. Now that the album is here, part of me wonders if Drake was artificially lowering expectations. There’s plenty of the “Slime Me Out” Drake on For All The Dogs, which sometimes feels like a fucked-up concept album about what it’s like to spend lots of money on multiple women and to think you’re owed something. But the album has flashes, and maybe the flashes stand out because you have to wade through dreck to get to them.
There is life on For All The Dogs. Early in the album, there’s maybe a five-song run where Drake sounds sharp and in-control. He snaps into rage and sample-drill flows without sounding like a clueless old man — no mean feat when you consider that collaborators like Yeat and Cash Cobain are more than a decade his junior. He goes into face-off mode with J. Cole, and it’s genuinely exciting to hear two of rap’s big dogs getting fired-up to test themselves against each other. Elsewhere, Drake has a great time floating over a slippery Miami bass beat with Sexyy Red and the returning SZA. He sings Pet Shop Boys and Florence & The Machine hits on his outros. He lands a lot of stupid lines — “the owls with me like they just put my ass in Gryffindor” — that end up being more memorable and maybe more endearing than the hard ones. And some of the hard lines hit, too: “Not sayin’ I’m the best at what I do/ I’m just sayin’ that it’s me vs. whoever wanna lose/ Pick any one of the who’s whos, I got .22s for new crews.”
Near the end of the album, Drake goes into the mythic memory-fog, dredging up vivid and specific memories on the up-from-obscurity memoir “Away From Home.” There is so much pettiness on that song, and yet it’s all great rap storytelling. Drake isn’t too proud or too magnanimous, for instance, to tell us that he’s still mad about losing the Best New Artist Grammy in 2011: “Four Grammys to my name, a hundred nominations/ Esperanza Spalding was getting all the praises/ I’m tryna keep it humble, I’m tryna keep it gracious/ Who give a fuck, Michelle Obama put you on her playlist?/ Then we never hear from you again like you was taken.” Let the record show that Drake is not trying very hard to keep it humble or gracious, but I love shit like that. Imagine if other generational stars were that open and honest about the stupid bullshit that makes them angry. Imagine if Prince wrote songs that were openly about how he felt about Michael Jackson and Madonna. We don’t get that, but we get this.
To my mind, there are some very good moments on For All The Dogs. There are also plenty of moments that are both boring and aggravating. This is the Drake way. The way the guy talks about relationships is an absolute fucking nightmare. His depiction of transactional sex — “She got a lot that she need, so she gotta drop to her knees/ Then she can go shopping for free” — is gross and exploitative, and it seems sad and numb for everyone involved. Drake says you’re fortunate that you get to experience his largesse: “You lucky that I don’t take back what was given/ I could have you on payment plan ’til you’re 150.” He comes up with lines that are both surly and corny: “I’m tired of your apologies/ You put the ‘no’ in monogamy.” Once upon a time, it seemed vaguely intriguing for a rapper to get this candid about his nastiest feelings. Now, that whole thing has gone beyond novelty and hardened into noxious cliché. It’s like the expensively ugly CGI energy-beam battle that ends every Marvel movie. I know it’s coming, and I hate it, but I sit there and absorb it anyway.
That’s the Drake thing. It’s too big to fail, and it’s still an inescapable cultural force even as its relevance slips. Drake has made great music, and he still could make more, but that’s not what he wants. Instead, inertia will carry him, and the flashes of inspiration will keep people coming back. What do you want from a Drake album, anyway? I’m afraid my expectations are all fucked up. If Drake gives me a couple of joints, it’s enough for me. Once this review is done, I might never listen to For All The Dogs in full again. That’s fine. I’m not even upset about it. I thought Scorpion sucked, but I’ll still throw on “Nice For What” or “Nonstop” every once in a while. The stuff that I don’t like has faded into the mists, and the gems remain. I’m embarrassed to admit that that’s enough for me.
When Views and Scorpion came out, I still thought Drake was capable of making a great record, and I reacted accordingly. Drake has trained me to stop thinking that way. I’ll have fun rapping along to “Fear Of Heights” and “Rich Baby Daddy” and “Away From Home” in the car, and I’ll forget about the rest of it. Drake is inevitable, and even when he comes out with a record this thin, my overwhelming sense is that it’s better than I expected. Against my better judgment, I will continue lavishing too much attention on this motherfucker. You probably will, too. If you’re still reading this, it’s too late.
For All The Dogs is out now on OVO/Republic.