On ‘Certified Lover Boy,’ Drake Continues to Complain About His Endless Success

Is it better to be boring or uneven? Both are admittedly reductive characterizations of the music of Drake and Kanye West, but in this week of long-delayed, extremely high profile album releases, it’s the choice that hip-hop fans are facing. Where “Donda” took some bigger swings with less overall success, Drake’s “Certified Lover Boy” is indisputably more consistent without necessarily making a greater artistic impact, enhancing his legacy, or otherwise blowing up the internet with “ZOMG” reactions. The problem that both performers face is that they are in some ways too big to fail, as much as anything because they are insulated artistically (much less financially) from truly trying something new, much less delivering something that will jeopardize their place in the pop culture firmament. But with more bangers by quantity (and generic quality) than his competitor, Drake probably wins their album release showdown, even if “Certified Lover Boy” hardly burnishes more than the Canadian rapper’s all-time chart placement.

A quick glance at the album page on Apple Music leads with a statement that the record is, or maybe explores, “toxic masculinity and acceptance of truth which is inevitably heartbreaking.” Not that Drake isn’t capable of actually drilling into those issues, the rapper seems to be insulating himself from criticism he’s already received, and he may subsequently attract, about his continued focus on troublesome females, success that produces disloyalty or rivalry, and the larger reckoning that rap music needs to have about its treatment of gender roles. “Champagne Poetry” hardly offers a manifesto to refute this possibility as he opens the record with typical “fuck the haters” bravado (“I been hot since the birth of my son / I remain unphased, trust, worse has been done”) before arriving at the self-pitying realization “Think I got to scale the love back ’cause / I need you, I need you, I need you.” Drake’s problems are only of the champagne variety, so if he’s going to do more than repeat boilerplate braggadocio, he’s going to have to do better than this.

On “Daddy’s Home,” he doesn’t set the bar any higher: though he mentions his biological son, he uses the term “Daddy” in reference to his cultural stature, reminding the world how real and successful he is in a landscape full of “Rap niggas doing weak features for a pop artist ’cause they popped down.” Technically speaking, “Girls Want Girls” probably qualifies as the first track to even overlap with Drake’s mission statement, but the song’s chorus (“Starin’ at your dress ’cause it’s see-through / Yeah, talkin’ all the shit that you done been through / Yeah, say that you a lesbian, girl, me too”) encapsulates toxic masculinity and does nothing else with that premise. As Lil Baby insists he’ll control his romantic life (“Can’t imagine no bitch curvin’ me”), Drake weakly equivocates before pivoting into more celebrations of his Drakeness, and it’s an appropriately underwhelming gesture.

With “In The Bible,” he complains about being judged by a woman for his sexual past as he does the same to her; but is this a character, or is it him interrogating his own double standards? The answer matters, but don’t look for it from Drake. His statement continues just to sit there, expressing ideas without saying anything, while his songs maintain plausible deniability. That Damien Hirst “designed” his cover feels like another conscious act of trolling, that he could enlist the UK’s richest living artist to create bland emoji wallpaper that a two-year old could replicate with five minutes and their parent’s phone. He recruits Lil Durk, Jay-Z, Travis Scott, Future, Young Thug and more for guest verses, and they offer more personality, and more substance, than he does about these themes, and it’s inexcusable.

On “Love All,” for example, Jay-Z wastes no time showcasing his own authority, but he demonstrates how “This ain’t the same Shawn that you knew once;” his boasts exude the controlled air of an elder statesman who doesn’t have to rush into the fray, and he further underscores the need to keep beefs on record, saying, “Niggas gotta chill with talking gangsta.” But even if Future lacks Jay-Z’s life experience, at least his chronicles of high price-tag purchases and liaisons with women on tracks like “N 2 Deep” and the Right Said Fred-sampling “Way 2 Sexy” are unapologetic; for better or worse this culture of objectification has metastasized in hip-hop, but it’s clear from that preamble (much less his endless verses talking about the struggles of being successful) that he desperately wants to be liked. 

At 21 tracks, this record is almost as overlong as Kanye’s, but it’s up to your appetite for Drake to determine if the sameness of its production is a good or bad thing. For sure it’s got more beats, which will guarantee more hits for him; but there are few clear dancefloor fillers that will endure for longer than this album cycle. The Right Said Fred sample on “Way 2 Sexy,” for example, is just shameless enough to charm listeners, but it remains to be seen if it will earn classic status in his discography. And “You Only Live Twice” featuring Rick Ross and Lil Wayne is the kind of song that Jay-Z used to turn out two or three times per album, but that may also be why it feels oddly out of step with the sound of radio singles right now. On the other hand, “Foundation” featuring Tems offers an afrobeat gem that highlights how Drake can be creatively adventuresome, even if he doesn’t bother to flex that muscle very often. 

Ultimately, “Certified Lover Boy” is fine, not to damn it with faint praise. For as much hubbub as he generated around its release, delayed from January until this week, it feels very much like a placeholder for Drake — which is to say, it will hold his place in the industry and nothing more. Then again, maybe Drake has already proven that he’s an iconic artist on his earlier albums; but basic job security has never especially produced great work, and again he’s reached a point where it’s probably worth less to him to risk it than try for true greatness. Listening to “Certified Lover Boy,” you can’t help but wonder if that’s a truth he’s ready to accept.

Certified Lover Boy” releases on Sept. 3 on Apple Music.