On “Marvins Room,” the emotional apex of Drake’s career-making sophomore album Take Care, he rapped “I don’t think I’m conscious of makin’ monsters outta the women I sponsor ’til it all goes bad.” It might not have meant much at the time, but it signaled a developing coexistence between self-awareness and self-indulgence in Drake’s music that would become his thesis statement. This mix led to the creation of what many have called “Drake-isms,” generally consisting of bars destined to live on as memes. Whether these lyrics refer to his ailing love life, reactionary one-liners to claims about his personal life, or the incessant need to remind himself he’s the greatest to ever do it, only Drake could pull them off with his trademark goofiness, and even then, they’re still quite corny, but that’s the point.
Drake promised a return to his old self on For All The Dogs, his fourth project of the decade, meaning more slow jams and musings for the perfect romance. While the old Drake managed to carefully confine his clichés across his albums, on Dogs, he doubles down on them even at his saddest.
“Fear of Heights,” retells his contempt for his failed attempt at love with Rihanna but also asks very important questions like if this new girl’s “pussy can do the dog.” He didn’t write this sentiment, instead borrowing from The Cramps’ 1985 song “Can Your Pussy Do The Dog?” But the conviction with which he raps might convince himself he had. The track’s blazing second half continues his run of self-indulgence. He’s still bitter about Pusha T (“Don’t tell me you’re scared of Lil’ Drake / Don’t tell me you’re scared of Lil’ Aubrey”), and even… Esperanza Spalding, because he’s clearly running out of people to put in his burn book.
And yet, Drake’s dedication to dramatically emphasizing the corniest lyrics makes the album far funnier than it should be. On “Bahamas Promises,” he sings about broken pinky promises and how this woman put the “no in ‘monogamy.” Later, on “Drew A Picasso,” he passionately croons “I want to die,” almost like he’s a high schooler who just got publicly rejected by his crush in the cafeteria. On both of these tracks, Drake uses his goofiness as a weapon. He can sell his pain through solid harmonizing and pristine moody production, but it’s hard to take him fully seriously when he insists on not being the bad guy because he’s cracking jokes. It works as captions to clown, but not really as music.
It’s not all fun and games for Drake. He still wants to prove he’s current and can stand with the best of them. For the most part, he holds his ground. Cash Cobain brings out a strong raunchy side of Drake on “Calling For You,” while Yeat’s pulsing chorus on “IDGAF” gives Drake breathing room to express his nastiest thoughts (“Whole gang fucked her eastbound and they down just like Danny McBride”). One of the album’s biggest tragedies, however, is burying its best song, “Rich Baby Daddy” deep into the tracklist. Drake sounds particularly invigorated, as if he’s playing catch-up to Sexyy Red’s anthemic chorus and SZA’s confident and self-assured verse. It’s clear Drake doesn’t want to be one-upped by his guests, and that’s when he sounds at his best, as if an invisible force is coming to steal his crown.
Just as easily as Drake finds his footing with certain collaborations, he falls apart with others. “First Person Shooter” with J. Cole sees the two rappers trading bars about their supposed GOAT statuses, but it feels less like a Michael Jordan versus LeBron James debate and more like Carmelo Anthony versus James Harden. When he isn’t fighting his insecurities about his place in the rap pantheon, he’s finding new lanes in which to forcibly insert himself. “Gently” is Drake’s second attempt at making reggaeton but he sounds lost singing in Spanish alongside Bad Bunny. “Amen,” not even his best song with this track title, bizarrely employs Teezo Touchdown to do the harmonizing. Considering Teezo’s appeal is on the quirkier side of Hip Hop, Drake sounds behind and even, uncomfortable.
Scattershot as the features may be, Drake still opts to tackle the majority of the album on his own, which have some highlights. “Away From Home” is Drake at his best, offering the only real glimpse into maturity. Conductor Williams handles the boards on “8am In Charlotte,” the latest entry in the timestamp songs, featuring another solid display of rapping — despite being marred by a slew of lazy geographical puns at the end of the first verse. Even opener “Virginia Beach” sounds refreshed thanks to a lively flip of Frank Ocean’s “Wiseman” and a memorable chorus.
If nothing else, For All The Dogs proves Drake is an expert troll. He’s just as online as most of Twitter. He’s seen all the memes, jokes, and parasocial assumptions of his character. Drake’s use of corny bars per twenty songs is at an all-time high but the more you run the album back, the more it feels by design. Is Drake the greatest satirist out right now? Maybe not, but his ability to get a reaction out of people for the stupidest lyrics remains unparalleled. If anyone else sang “They say love’s like a BBL, you won’t know if it’s real until you feel one” on the same track that features a Sade Adu outro, it would lead to a heavy sigh and swift delete. For Drake, it’s just another song. Maybe people are just tired of the act.