For a little over a year, Drake has maintained a heart-shaped design at the front of his hairline. He’s sported the unrepentantly goofy hairstyle with the vigor of a method actor unwilling to abandon their character. On social media, the 34-year-old musician appears in a variety of photos with the cartoonish embellishment affixed atop his head like a Looney Toons character. It reads as the rapper’s longtail public relations effort for his sixth studio album, Certified Lover Boy, which was released last week. In another playful turn, the album’s cover art, designed by British artist Damien Hirst, features a dozen pregnant women emoji, naturally in a variety of ethnic shades.
And yet the songs on Certified Lover Boy inspire none of the lighthearted whimsy that Drake’s haircut and album cover suggest. Save for the delightfully campy “Way 2 Sexy” — which features a music video replete with nineties-style animation — Drake is at his most melancholy throughout the album. His focus, as the title suggests, is indeed on love. But across an endurance-testing 21 song tracklist, it appears as out of reach for Drake as at any point in his career.
By now, we’re used to this. The forlorn loverboy is unable to attain that which he so desperately needs. Drake’s brand of lovesick rap did indeed give us the current generation’s brood of moody male musicians. You could even argue that he’s responsible for the archetypical “Fuckboy,” so burdened by a singular experience with their own emotions, they make reckless decisions with the feelings of others. The album’s cover art might as well be in reference to a significant portion of the existing male population. In the album’s description, Drake calls the record a “combination of toxic masculinity and acceptance of truth which is inevitably heartbreaking.”
There’s plenty of toxic masculinity on display. (“I remember that I told you I miss you/that was more like a mass text,” he raps on “Papi’s Home.”) But this is the same Drake that crooned, “I should have put you somewhere no one could find you” to a bygone lover on last year’s “Desires.” Up to now, he’s been able to balance what could charitably be described as cringe-worthy lyrics with a kind of warm-hearted pathos. The quest, throughout his oeuvre, has been true love. Who can’t relate to that?
Now, like on album-opener “Champagne Poetry,” he’s uninterested in even that. “My soulmate is somewhere out in the world just waiting on me,” he defeatedly relents. Drake’s boyish openness about the desire to love and be loved has corroded into bleak cynicism. “My heart feel vacant and lonely,” he continues on the same verse. To his credit, Drake’s flow is as limber as ever, and his bars manage to possess a stream-of-consciousness feeling. Less like he’s freestyling and more like he’s working fervently to uncover something. Unfortunately, what bubbles to the surface is a wave of anger that weighs down the entire record.
Drake’s much-publicized feud with Kanye West, to whom the album devotes a great deal of subtle and not-so-subtle energy, appears to have corrupted much of what he does so well. The album’s bloated tracklisting comes in part because of how many songs serve no purpose other than to air out grievances between millionaire celebrities. The 21 Savage and Project Pat-assisted, “Knife Talk” is serviceable, sure, but sounds more like a B-side from one of Drake’s constellation of playlists, compilations, and mixtapes. The same goes for the overly dramatic “Love All,” in which Jay-Z tosses loaded barbs directed at his onetime collaborator Kanye. It carries all of the intensity of high school bickering, but with somehow even lower stakes. Kanye and Jay-Z apparently don’t get along anymore. Drake recruits Jay for a track in which he says some coded insults about Kanye — who cares!
The album suffers from this unfocused overabundance of voices. There’s no logical reason for a Drake and Kid Cudi collaboration in 2021, and yet there he is on “IMY2,” which inexplicably follows the transcendent “You Only Live Twice,” a pitch-perfect distillation of Drake and Rick Ross’s chemistry, and one of Lil Wayne’s most spectacular verses in years. Instead of relishing in the song’s triumphs, we’re subject to Drake needlessly attempting to match Kid Cudi’s signature, and at this point grating, moan. All to seemingly prove a point about the amount of pull he has within the industry.
It’s ultimately a shame since Certified Lover Boy could have very well been Drake’s best record. Sonically, it’s his most impressive offering to date. For years he and longtime producer Noah “40” Shebib have constructed a palette of sounds that coalesce beautifully here. The sample selection — from the opening track’s flip of The Gabriel Hardeman Delegation’ “Until I Found the Lord,” to “Way 2 Sexy’s” sample of Right Said Fred’s “I’m Too Sexy,” and “N 2 Deep’s” intoxicating reconfiguring of the Houston rap anthem “Get Throwed” — make for some of the more exciting beats anyone’s rapping over right now. Drake’s affinity for lush, spacious production, allows the genuinely compelling moments on the album to shine.
Take the heartbreaking “Pipe Down,” which finds Drake getting as close as he does on the record to what’s really bothering him. The conflicted posturing — vacillating between cold-hearted soldier and deeply lonely and hurting human being — comes crashing down, and production outfit Working on Dying is there to catch him. “Writing down these feelings, it’s been overdue/Don’t know how many pens it’s gonna take to get over you,” Drake sings, managing to imbue a bit of real introspection onto the record. The song is followed by the angelic “Yebba’s Heartbreak,” a sparkling and slow-rolling interlude in which the West Memphis singer and songwriter Yebba delivers a love-drenched ballad — “How much better can I show my love for you/Than say “I do, I do, I do” she sings.
Before things get too real, however, Drake’s back with “No Friends In The Industry,” an obvious bit of tough-guy rapping that finds Drake in exhaustively overwrought territory, volleying vague threats and promises of retribution to everyone and no one in particular. For his part, Drake is rapping at a new level throughout CLB, and it’s worth noting that, as bland as it is by now, these are some of his best tough-guy raps which, perhaps depending on your level of toxic masculinity, is a good thing.
The two-song stretch between “Race My Mind” and album highlight “Fountains,” featuring the Nigerian singer Tems, provides a glimmer of a different album. With both songs, Drake finds an enduring balance between his newfound cynicism and his bleeding heart. On “Race My Mind,” he and 40’s lifelong chemistry congeals into something as intoxicating as the muse in the song’s inebriant of choice. Midway through the track, Drake’s signature tempo shift arrives like a well-executed pump-fake, the result of years of practice.
On “Fountains,” we’re served the afro-pop ethos that made for so much of Drake’s best music in the past decade. Tems, a superstar in her own right, brings the song to new emotional heights, “I got nothing to admire, taste certain/Baby, longing you make me feel something,” she sings. For all of the memes that Drake’s West African accent engenders online, the vocal affect forces something genuine out of him. That it takes almost the entire record to get a taste of Drake’s admirably effortful naija accent is a crime in itself.
It’s difficult to know how big of an impact the whole Kanye beef had on the actual final product, but one wonders what a controversy-free Certified Lover Boy might have sounded like. On moments like “Fountains,” Drake offers a keen reminder of why he’s loved by so many people all over the world. If only he could convince himself of that fact.