The first thing that should be said about Certified Lover Boy, Drake’s first new album in over three years, is that it’s going to be absolutely huge. It’s a finely calibrated blockbuster, a lavish and star-studded affair that will surely reaffirm Drake’s position as one of the most popular musicians in history. If it doesn’t end up being the biggest album of the year (and it very well might), it’s one that’s going to be all but unavoidable throughout the rest of 2021, provided we’re all still leaving our houses occasionally.
But is Certified Lover Boy actually good? It’s certainly critic-proof: I could point out that the past several weeks have seen well superior rap albums released by both Ka and Boldy James, but that’s a bit like wandering into an Avengers movie on opening night and trying to convince the guy wearing an Iron Man costume to go watch First Reformed instead. Certified Lover Boy has its ups and downs (at an hour and 27 minutes long, how could it not?), but its highest points rank with some of the best music Drake has ever made. Its low points aren’t outright bad so much as they’re just boring, Drake doing the most rote version of Drake™, fan service for people that still thrill at hearing a guy complain about text messages in song. It’s an album that Drake stans will absolutely love, skeptics will intermittently admire more than entirely adore, and haters will probably despise, because that tends to be how Drake works.
Much of Certified Lover Boy finds Drake working with his longtime collaborator, the exorbitantly talented producer Noah “40” Shebib, who’s in top form here. The album opens with “Champagne Poetry,” the first part of which features Drake rapping over a sample of Masego’s “Navajo” (Masego is credited as a co-producer on the track), which itself features Singers Unlimited’s 1971 a cappella recording of the Beatles’ “Michelle.” “Lived so much for others don’t remember how I feel/ Friends that hide places and friends that I hide still/ Still managed to moonwalk straight through a minefield,” raps our protagonist. Halfway through the track the beat flips, perfectly, to a sped-up sample of the Gabriel Hardeman Delegation’s “Until I Found the Lord (My Soul Couldn’t Rest).” “Champagne Poetry” is Drake at his best, a guy that rhymes his ass off over beats whose sumptuous tastefulness perfectly offsets the incessant grievance of the lyrics.
“Champagne Poetry” is the highlight of the first half of Certified Lover Boy, which often seems like it’s going through the motions and sags under an excess of features. “Girls Want Girls” is an ode to lesbianism with a horny seventh grader’s level of intellect and empathy; “Way 2 Sexy” samples Right Said Fred, features workmanlike guest turns from Future and Young Thug, and feels overly obvious all around (it will probably be a massive hit); “TSU” offers yet another tiresome entry in the tiresome canon of Drake dissecting some anonymous woman’s psyche for the dubious edification of his listeners. Much of this feels like listening to someone do the “open up the hatch, here comes the airplane” high-chair routine for a toddler who was up too late vandalizing Kanye’s house.
But then something rather wondrous happens: The second half of Certified Lover Boy, coming out of the lovely interlude “Yebba’s Heartbreak,” is startlingly excellent, a run of tracks that feel more ambitious and inspired than almost anything else that’s come before. “Knife Talk,” featuring Project Pat and 21 Savage and produced by Metro Boomin, is an invigorating detour into trap fundamentalism, all hypnotic and seductive menace; “7am on Bridle Path” is a diss track that’s already being close-read by fans but also features some of Drake’s strongest bars on the album. (“Could at least keep it a buck like Antetokounmpo/ I made north of the border like Vito Rizzouto/ Throwin’ parties in Miami, they lovin’ us mucho/ With the ho ratio, I’m like David Caruso,” name-checking the reigning NBA Finals MVP, a late Canadian crime boss, and CSI: Miami in the same figurative breath.) The album’s most stunning stretch, the one-two punch of “Fountains” into “Get Along Better,” includes no rapping at all, the first track a dreamy, polyrhythmic trance that finds Drake duetting with Nigerian singer-songwriter Tems, the second a roiling soul burner with a throwback 12/8 rhythmic feel, featuring the great Ty Dolla Sign.
It’s this sort of stylistic promiscuity that no one else in contemporary music can pull off quite like Drake, who’s long been less of a purist’s rapper than a rangy pop synthesist that also happens to rap sometimes. Drake was never a visionary musician on the level of current nemesis Kanye West, nor was he ever a virtuosic MC on the level of his mentor, Lil Wayne (who shows up here on the excellent “You Only Live Twice”). But Drake’s defining musical gifts are his open ears and his sponginess for trends: His most enduring quality, paradoxically, is that he’s always changing. He’s a compulsive collaborator, which is one reason that his detractors have often accused him of being a biter. But I think that charge tends to misunderstand his particular artistry, like criticizing a great curator for not painting everything in the gallery themselves.
Drake has been a massive star for well over a decade, but since at least 2013’s Nothing Was the Same there’s been a fundamental tension on his albums, a sort of internal war between his perpetually restless eclecticism and that aforementioned obligation to be Drake™. His most ardent fans see him as a paragon of confessional authenticity, a prophetic figure for the narcissistic religion of male feelings who needs to be constantly defended against critiques ranging from emotional fraudulence to misogyny. But Drake’s best music has often come when the presence of Drake™ is held at a distance: the icy swag of “0 to 100/The Catch Up,” the hallucinatory Timmy Thomas evocation of “Hotline Bling,” the subtly off-handed dazzle of More Life, his 2017 “playlist” that’s still one of the best full-length projects he’s ever made.
Nowhere on Certified Lover Boy is this tension more maddening than the album’s 15th track, “Race My Mind.” The song begins as a lovely R&B ballad, drenched with harp samples and pillow-y synths. It’s a tale about a woman who’s up to no good, told by a man who’s waiting for her at home. This isn’t groundbreaking subject matter in either Drake’s own music or the R&B tradition at large, but the production is gorgeous and Drake sings the hell out of it—it might be the most convincing and focused melodic vocal I’ve ever heard him deliver.
And then the third verse hits, and suddenly we’re subjected to Drake pedantically lecturing this woman about why she’s not good enough for him: She sends terse replies to his texts; she misspells words when she’s been drinking; he’s dissatisfied with the selfies she’s sent him; she compares unfavorably to his friend’s wife. Listening to this is excruciating and practically made me scream: Who fucking cares, dude?! You’re almost 35 years old and still rapping about your iPhone? Who is this for?
That last question is rhetorical: I know who it’s for. I’ve come to deeply resent that particular segment of Drake’s audience over the years, and given the numbingly pro forma nature of material like this, it’s hard not to wonder if, on some subconscious level, Drake resents them too. There’s a seriously great album to be found in Certified Lover Boy, provided you know where to listen and have the wherewithal to excavate it from too much dutiful formula. Next time, I hope Drake finds the motivation to take that step himself.