To hear Drake tell it, his toxic trait is that he loves too hard, cares too much, wants it all and can’t have everything.
He’s been dissecting emotional entanglements, social media culture and the unglamorous realities of celebrity life with equal rigor for more than a decade, but for once, Drake doesn’t seem too worried about nuance.
For better and for worse, Certified Lover Boy sounds like vindication, too busy enjoying the spoils of victory to dwell on what it took for Drake to get here or how quickly he could lose it all.
CLB is a commercial juggernaut that sounds incredible but says very little. That’s bad news for OVO diehards who enjoy Drake at his most introspective but great for the casual listeners who love “Jumpman” and “In My Feelings.” It isn’t difficult to see why it’s on track to be his biggest album yet.
While Drake spent the years since his debut establishing his personal sound, listeners have become accustomed to the Canadian rap titan’s various tics. As a result, CLB can feel formulaic, as if checking off boxes on an executive producer’s clipboard.
Despite the frequent predictability, it’s exciting to see a consummate professional at work, swinging his weight around to sample Biggie, Right Said Fred and The Beatles, paying homage to Houstonian strippers for the millionth time and rapping circles around JAY-Z for the sixth.
The probable Kanye West disses on “No Friends In The Industry” should keep tabloids and blogs happy for a few weeks (“Better find ya someone else to hit with all that smoke n-gga/And all them tweets and all them posts”), but it’s Drake’s haughty braggadocio that will be captioning B-list A&R Instagram posts for the next few months (“When I signed my first deal, that shit came through a fax”).
Or consider “Pipe Down,” a spiritual successor to the Cheesecake Factory fights of “Child’s Play.” A soulful beat from Working On Dying provides a lush backdrop for Drake to gaslight and gate keep, admonishing an unnamed lover whose ex “fell off twice,” saying “you’re the reason we cannot communicate.”
Questionable relationship advice aside, inside Drake there are two wolves — comedian and Casanova — and “Pipe Down” not only marries the two, it makes the union look easy. “Said you belong to the streets/But the streets belong to me” is already a romantic gut punch; the addition of Future’s memeified “she belong to the streets” is just icing on the pound cake.
But the sugar rush doesn’t last. “TSU” is overstuffed, with a minute-long Swishahouse intro incorporating a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it sample of noted sexual predator R. Kelly. The song itself is gorgeous, built around ephemeral synths that feel like steam off of a ski chalet hot tub. But it’s hard to feel good about a song with an R. Kelly credit in 2021, no matter how it got there.
CLB is dedicated to “a combination of toxic masculinity and acceptance of truth that is inevitably heartbreaking.” But being generally shitty to women is nothing new for Drake, who’s long treated fame and money as exculpatory; Baka Not Nice was arrested on human trafficking charges and Drake rewarded him with a record deal (Baka ultimately pled guilty for assault and a weapons charge, though he continues to protest his innocence). If a man says he loves Rihanna but keeps working with Chris Brown, it’s hard to call him anything except a misogynist.
Unlike previous rounds of emotional bloodletting, CLB is largely uninterested in accountability. Drake used to worry about the new men his exes were entertaining (“Hotline Bling”) or question his own culpability in messy situations (“Redemption”), but the newfound security of knowing he’s the biggest rapper in the game precludes any opportunity for reflection. “Nice for What” wasn’t exactly a feminist manifesto, but it’s still jarring to hear the same guy ask women, “How much I gotta spend for you to pipe down?”
Meanwhile, “Fucking Fans” has all the charm of someone who only apologizes because they got caught. Drake has confused oversharing for poetic specificity before (Courtney from Hooters on Peachtree had to nuke her social media accounts after “From Time”), but it’s particularly shameless to say, “Hard to justify the women I was into/Especially when the whole entire world wished they had you,” let alone on an ostensible apology to Rihanna for past infidelities.
Every guest brings their A-game, though that’s less rewarding from JAY-Z and Giveon than it is from 21 Savage and Yebba. Lil Wayne and Rick Ross build a time machine to 2012 on “You Only Live Twice” and Drake still hogs the limelight, showing off the Rafael Nadal Richard Mille, grinning ear to ear the whole time. “Way 2 Sexy” with Future and Young Thug doesn’t just match the club demon highs of their last collaboration “D4L,” it blows them out of the water.
Even operating at their best, many of the guests feel shoehorned in and out of sync with the album’s rhythms. Giveon’s syrupy outro to “In the Bible” undercuts an incredible advertising pitch for India Royale Cosmetic by Boyfriend of the Year Lil Durk. And Tems collaboration “Fountains” doesn’t quite gel like previous forays into African pop music with WizKid and Black Coffee, providing ample ammunition for those who see Drake as a musical colonialist.
JAY-Z verses in 2021 bring to mind an aging racehorse limping towards the glue factory. “I don’t want no friends no more, not many understand me” sounds like a 2005 MySpace bio rather than the complaints of a billionaire mobster. His melodramatic verse punctures the moody atmospherics of “Love All” and egregiously fumbles a particularly thoughtful Drake verse in the process.
Guest appearances from Lil Baby and 21 Savage are similarly wasted on CLB, particularly disappointing from an artist who previously excelled at slotting new collaborators into his albums’ thematic worldview. The features here feel like a Marvel Cinematic Universe cash grab, sprinkled in because fans really want to see Drake team up with Kid Cudi and Travis Scott posts excellent streaming numbers.
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Album closer “The Remorse” fails to stand up against its predecessors (State of the OVO Union outro tracks such as “The Ride,” “Paris Morton Music 2” and “Do Not Disturb”). But the humbly stated shoutouts to 40, Noel, Niko, CJ, Chubbs and Mark are endearingly direct. When he says, “Even with [the] salary, you can’t put no prices on that/There is no salary cap, there is no payin’ [them] back,” the gratitude in his voice is palpable.
Certified Lover Boy radiates contentment in all things: fights with Instagram models, unsettling rap beefs and getting up-charged by Jacob the Jeweler. Former idols have largely retreated from the limelight, whether in dignity or ignominy. Peers such as Kendrick Lamar and Travis Scott have pivoted into auteurism and corporate cronyism respectively. At this point, Drake isn’t competing with other rappers but with pop superstars such as Taylor Swift and Beyoncé (CLB’s first-week sales are projected to potentially outdo Lemonade, though Folklore will likely remain the year’s biggest release).
Despite the petty antics surrounding the album’s release, Certified Lover Boy is unstressed and unbothered. It’s an album by a man who has to laugh loudest and longest, a man who has to be in on the joke because the alternative is being the punchline. It feels like stretching out next to the world’s largest residential pool, or wearing an emerald-encrusted Patek Philippe, or doing shots at Tao, carefree and wealthy as emoji meme art by Damien Hirst.
Expect more vacant luxury from Drake in the future: he’s finally given up on trying to be better. He’s overdosed on confidence, drunk on champagne, done with apologies and accepted the lonely truth. He’s the last rapper left standing at the top.
The work it took to get here cost everything. The resulting heartbreak was inevitable.
Clb got me so mad I’m finna finally listen to Daytona. Need to hear someone slander him.
— The Real Big Elly (@UncleTrini) September 5, 2021
Imma Drake fan but more of a MUSIC fan….this album is magnificent! A little bit of everything you expected from Drake 💎💎💎
— IT’S RICHIE… (@RICHIE_SWAVEY) September 4, 2021
dang I guess Drake did it… lol my ex texted me saying “Pipe Down” was for me 🤣
— Mambacita. 🥰✨🦂 (@JasxXxArleth) September 4, 2021
CLB is the best project to me since NWTS from Drake
— D. Will (@ItsDWill) September 4, 2021
“CLB” is “Magna Carta Holy Grail” levels of bad, something so truly devoid of quality that ppl are still processing how it could’ve happened before we all collectively agree to never speak of it again pic.twitter.com/A6Ki4KSRTY
— plant based king (@artschooldrop) September 4, 2021