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‘Certified Lover Boy’ follows Drake’s classic formula – but is it enough?

The album has some shining moments, far too many missteps and one giant elephant in the room

You’ve probably heard this saying from an elder at some point in your life: “Every person in your life has a season.” The premise being that you have people in your life who fit specific moments or eras in your journey and when that time is over, they sometimes are no longer needed. You just don’t fit anymore.

Like that early 20-something friend you had when you were a bachelor who took kamikaze shots with you, club-hopped and said things like “there are more fish in the sea” when you messed up a relationship. But time went on and I got a family and a mortgage and a job while my friend was still out drinking his night away and partying with women fresh out of college. You want that friend to grow up, partly out of a desire to see him reach his potential and also out of selfishness to have something to relate to him about. Because his stories were getting as boring as your stories were getting to him.

Eventually, the calls become less frequent and the distance is too vast to bother closing. The season has ended.

About a year ago, I came to the conclusion that I had outgrown Drake’s music. Drake, who at 34 is just six months younger than me, was still making music for 20-somethings who want to post stories about fake friends, go through their date’s phone at Cheesecake Factory and send passive-aggressive texts to their exes. And while I loved his music when I was 22, it just wasn’t compelling for someone our age. It felt like time to say goodbye.

In January, though, Drake released a three-track EP called Scary Hours 2 with songs that felt like we were finally seeing Drake grow into a full-fledged human being instead of a one-man hitmaker factory. He rapped about scheduling sex, stretching and taking his son to parent-teacher conferences. The EP also featured Drake rapping rapping — going on four-minute rampages to remind the world that, even though he’s been able to conjure up a melodic chart-topper, he’s still one of the most skilled emcees in the game. It seemed like any full-length album follow-up would be a new, matured Drake.

But then came Certified Lover Boy. The title and troll-y album cover by British artist Damien Hirst featured emojis of 12 pregnant women. It’s a move that pokes fun at people who say he makes too many “girl songs” and a promise that he won’t stop making them. And, in his mind, why should he stop? Even though the style may be played out for people our age looking for a little substance, the formula has been undeniable for so much of his decade-plus reign. Drake is the most prolific nonproducer hitmaker we’ve ever seen, logging more top-10 Billboard songs in history.

In the past, us wanting more from him has been more about personal preference than any indication his music isn’t as successful or anything less than perfect for clubs, pregames and Instagram captions. However, Certified Lover Boy is the first time Drake seems more comfortable being introspective and giving true insights into his psyche than he is cranking out fodder for Billboard Hot 100. Unfortunately, the album has too much of the latter.

There’s a classic album somewhere in Certified Lover Boy. The bloated 21-track album — a clear play to streaming that values volume of listened-to tracks more than full album cohesiveness — is at its best when Drake is angrily trying to remind everyone why his name is always mentioned with barsmiths such as J. Cole and Kendrick Lamar. Part of that anger can be credited to his passive-aggressive nemesis Kanye West, who has been needling Drake for the past two years. Drake’s frustration and directness are, interestingly, the most intimate picture we get of what makes him tick.

On “7 am on Bridle Path,” he snarls, “why the f— we peacemakin’, doin’ the explanations/ If we just gon’ be right back in that b—- without hesitation?” In a response to an insult Swizz Beatz lobbed at him months back on Instagram Live, Drake shot back, “Yeah, I never did you nothin’ and you play like we family, huh?/ Next thing, you wanna shoot me down, it can’t be love.”

The fact is, Drake doesn’t trust himself and the success he’s built up to keep him at the forefront of the collective cultural psyche if he strives for new challenges.

The opening track, “Champagne Poetry,” feels like Drake is getting to something deeper. The pressure, from waxing poetic on therapy sessions, his parents’ divorce and raising his son, is palpable. When he does give us these personal, raw insights, it feels exciting. Drake is never going to rap about the social justice issues of the day, and expecting him to is an act of futility, but emotional and honest reckoning is still a form of depth, and it’s one he is more than capable of showcasing. Yet these fleeting excavations only make his insistence on retreating to his safe, riskless sweet spot even more frustrating. The fact is, Drake doesn’t trust himself and the success he’s built up to keep him at the forefront of the collective cultural psyche if he strives for new challenges.

Certified Lover Boy presents the first time Drake seems to be straining to make the cross-generational hits, leading to some truly awkward and sometimes gross results, namely in the way he’s trafficked in nice guy misogyny that’s been a staple of his music and only becoming more pronounced as he and his longtime fans have aged.

“Race My Mind,” for instance, is simple slut-shaming, controlling behavior from a guy who’s angry his love interest is posting pictures on Instagram and enjoying her life: “Maybe I just handled you too softly.” It’s no less toxic than anything Future raps, but it’s packaged in the form of a soft ballad and Drake’s manicured persona as a light-skinned ladies’ man.

In “Girls Want Girls,” he sings that he’s a lesbian because he likes girls, too. It’s cliched, canned sophomoric lazy droning over a phoned-in “Drake R&B Song-Type Beat.” “Way 2 Sexy” is just as bad, with its sampling of Right Said Fred’s “I’m Too Sexy” and its play at ironic comedy that is cacophonous as it is unfunny. It’s a disappointing addition to the library of classics Drake and Future have made together. With that said, these two songs are going to still be all over the radio and clubs and parties for the rest of the year. Drake dominating airwaves is a guarantee at this point in his career. Even his worst songs have the formula for Billboard supremacy.

It’s no less toxic than anything Future raps, but it’s packaged in the form of a soft ballad and Drake’s manicured persona as a light-skinned ladies’ man.

But his attempt to be something for the older millennials and the Generation Zers has also landed Drake and Certified Lover Boy in avoidable controversy.

As soon as it dropped, fans and many on social media noticed that R. Kelly had been given a writing credit on the song, “TSU,” leading some to speculate that Drake and R. Kelly, who is on trial for sex trafficking and has been accused by dozens of women of sexually assaulting them when they were underage, collaborated on the track. In actuality, the song includes a sampled intro featuring Houston DJ OG Ron C speaking while R. Kelly’s “Half On A Baby” plays in the background. As a result, R. Kelly and his song had to receive credit. In a vacuum, this is a harmless bit of music-minutiae that’s rather common (Megan Thee Stallion had to do the same crediting of R. Kelly when she sampled Juvenile’s “Rodeo” song, which sampled R. Kelly’s “Bump N’ Grind”), but it’s a curious decision on Drake’s part, especially in light of recent concerns over his interactions with underage women.

In 2018, then-14-year-old Millie Bobby Brown raised red flags when she mentioned that she and Drake text and say they miss each other. Then in the fallout of the Surviving R. Kelly documentary, video of an old bit Drake did at his concert surfaced, showing him asking a girl her age, finding out she’s younger than 18 and kissing her anyway. So the option to have a song called “TSU,” named after historically Black Texas Southern University, clearly directed at early 20-something Black women, and have R. Kelly anywhere near that song, is either an inexcusable blunder or an act of intentional defiance. Drake and producer 40, who released a statement explaining the sample’s inclusion while deriding R. Kelly for his accused indiscretions, could have either cut the intro or had OG Ron C record something new.

Rap is a young person’s game and you have to wonder how long before Drake and his dominance start to weaken.

The “TSU” debacle is only even more glaring when, on the otherwise stellar “Papi’s Home,” Drake also raps: “Sierra Canyon parking lot lookin’ like Magic City parking lot.” Sierra Canyon being the high school with an elite basketball team whose games Drake has famously attended alongside the likes of actor Michael B. Jordan and basketball great LeBron James — which, of course, he, for some reason, chooses to equate to the parking lot of a strip club.

Ironically, Drake’s appeal to younger audiences either through these slimy coincidences or his childish singles, all reminds you of seeing Drake courtside at one of those Sierra Canyon basketball games: The kids may think it’s cool but the adults are wondering why that increasingly awkward grown man doesn’t have something else he should be doing.

Rap is a young person’s game and you have to wonder how long it will be before Drake and his dominance start to weaken. The cracks and injuries are starting to show. “The Motto” and “God’s Plan” were easy windmill dunks. “Girls Want Girls” and “Way 2 Sexy” feel like he might pull a muscle, even if he is achieving his goal of padding his stats.

It’s becoming harder to justify his insistence on these bits of filler and catered smash singles when his actual honest, heartfelt rap songs are far surpassing everything else he does. Songs such as “IMY2” are just empty calories next to the T-bone steak that “The Remorse” provides. He doesn’t have to completely rid his work of the former (“Get Along Better” and “Fountains,” for example, are standouts). Merely trimming the excess will go a long way. A 14-track Certified Lover Boy would have been a more focused, complete and undeniable body of work.

Certified Lover Boy is Drake planting his flag firmly in the same place it’s always been: He wants to sell the most records ever and be the talk of the internet. His aspirations for being the best rapper ever or alive are long gone, even if the talent is there. But listening to the album makes one wonder what he’s planning for the future, when the DJ packs up his records, the lights come on and the party’s over. He’s equipped to show some honesty, but whether he wants to or not is up to him.

David Dennis Jr. is a senior writer at Andscape and an American Mosaic Journalism Prize recipient. His book, The Movement Made Us, will be released in 2022. David is a graduate of Davidson College.