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The Hollow Prestige of ‘Certified Lover Boy’

Drake can still operate on a level that few other artists can, but on his new album, it feels like he’s stuck in place

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Drake doesn’t change for the world; the world changes around Drake. Like an artifact encased in amber, the Toronto rapper’s DNA persists through time, wars, pandemics, and climate change. Aubrey Graham perseveres no matter how many strippers retire, exes get married, or old friends turn to new enemies. His arrested development isn’t a bug of the machine, but the main feature. To expect anything else from our current cultural overlord is to miss the point. You either enjoy the spectacle of a 34-year-old man shaving a heart into his scalp or you don’t. Growth is usually reserved for and morally hoisted upon the self-aware and financially strapped masses, while our most riveting idols exist to remain stagnant.

Thus Certified Lover Boy, Drake’s sixth studio album and first since 2018, is at once an awe-inspiring monument to the financial wonders of stasis and an unintentional examination of an artist uninterested in the idea of maturation (or perhaps incapable of it). Across 21 songs and 86 minutes, CLB vacillates between a perfectly fine if inconsequential album from a great artist to a stunning display of unconscious self-parody. Like the Marvel Cinematic Universe, a new Bachelor season, death, and taxes, Drake’s success often seems inevitable and too big to contend with in any meaningful way. Every hit is more massive than the next, each meme begets another, and each new album is destined to strangle a variety of charts in commercially gruesome ways. The aesthetics change, but the underlying formula rarely does. It’s as if the lessons gleaned from the creative fumble of 2010’s Thank Me Later were burned into his cerebellum, and in the wake of such a misstep, he hardwired a certain level of undeniable quality into his music. Even at this current creative nadir in Drake’s discography, the projects may be uneven (Views), bloated (Scorpion), or forgettable (Dark Lane Demo Tapes), but they’re never outright bad. A double-platinum song like “Laugh Now Cry Later” would be another rapper’s biggest hit, but for Drake that distinction doesn’t even make it worthy to go on the very album it was meant to promote.

In typical fashion, on Certified Lover Boy, Drake distills the highly unrelatable (being a beloved multimillionaire at the top of music) into the very identifiable (humans feeling slighted by other humans). The peak of the album is easily its first two songs. Over the Beatles-via-Masego-sampling intro, “Champagne Poetry,” Drake breaks the fourth wall by mentioning his status as king of misguided IG captions, before making his place on rap’s throne sound wildly depressing and isolating:

Under a picture lives some of the greatest quotes from me
Under me I see all the people that claim they over me
And above me I see nobody

A song later, on “Papi’s Home,” Drake turns an emotionally resonant 1995 Montell Jordan song about a deadbeat father reuniting with his son into a petty treatise in which he apologizes for abandoning his musical sons. If that sounds too subtle, Drake also invites Nicki Minaj—the queen of “you bitches is my sons” bars—to consecrate the affair. These songs are theatrical, wry, and acrobatic without bogging themselves down in self-seriousness, which are all hallmarks of Drake’s best work. Unfortunately, all of that goodwill crashes to a dramatic halt a song later.

CLB is besieged by thousands of small, petty, and avoidable cuts. When the project goes off the rails, it’s usually because of a choice that Drake would have wisely sidestepped on any other album. The first misfire arrives on “Girls Want Girls.” The downtempo Oz and Ambezza-produced song is classic Drake fare—a faux-romantic ode to hitting on a bevy of faceless women—but it’s the centerpiece of the hook that remains the most puzzling. “Say that you a lesbian, girl, me too,” is a cringe pickup line that no cisgendered man has ever sold throughout recorded history, so it’s inexplicable why Drake thinks he would succeed where so many others have rightfully failed. Despite this, the song appears to be the album’s early breakout hit, posting the best first-day numbers for any track in the history of Spotify (The Ringer’s parent company). That says as much about us as it does Drake. You’re not supposed to question the puppet master of modern romance. It’s easy to give the artist responsible for soundtracking a decade’s worth of risky texts and passive-aggressive IG captions a pass, because his charmingly vulnerable recklessness was always part of the brand. Alas, things don’t get much better from there.

As obvious as it is to say at this juncture of Drake’s career, he’s never been a bastion of progress or female empowerment. And as a general guiding principle, we should live our lives expecting very little from celebrities, but that said: Gotdamn, Drake. The first major controversy surrounding CLB came when fans and critics noticed an R. Kelly credit that appears on “TSU.” The song begins with a sample of Houston DJ Ron C speaking over R. Kelly’s 1998 single “Half on a Baby,” despite the fact that the Chicago singer is currently on trial for federal sex trafficking and racketeering charges. In response to an Independent article posted on Instagram, Drake’s chief collaborator, Noah “40” Shebib, tried to clear up the confusion:

“r Kelly’s voice isn’t even present but if we wanted to use Ron c talking we were forced to license it,” 40 wrote. “Doesn’t sit well with me let me just say that. And I’m not here to defend drakes lyrics, but I thought I would clear up that there is no actual r Kelly present and it’s a bit misleading to call him a co think we would stand beside that guy or write with him is just incredibly disgusting.”

Even if Drake and his team want nothing to do with R. Kelly the human, it’s still impossible to untangle the fact that “TSU” brings attention and possible financial benefit to R. Kelly as a business entity.

On Apple Music, Drake described his latest album as, “A combination of toxic masculinity and acceptance of truth which is inevitably heartbreaking,” and it’s this statement that feels the most perplexing. Drake’s music is good for many things, but unpacking the detrimental effects of modern masculinity with any type of nuance is not one of them. The best example of this arrives on CLB’s penultimate track, “Fucking Fans.” The song is supposed to function as a quasi-apology to an unnamed ex-lover, but the lyrics devolve into something so mean-spirited and cruel it’s surprising that it made it to a major label release. Instead of someone in the room mercifully deleting the ProTools file of “Fucking Fans,” listeners spend four minutes hearing lyrics like:

I was out here fucking fans, I was shameless
Yeah, and I know that
You was at the crib reading stories that they sent you
Most of that was bullshit but some of it I did do
Hard for me to justify the women I was into

The best Drake songs illuminate more about their author than they do about the people around him. “Fucking Fans” falls so flat because Drake revels in his celebrity-fueled depravity instead of saying anything meaningful about it. CLB’s worst moments are when Drake seems divorced from reality. In what world does comparing the parking lot of the United States’ most popular high school to a strip club seem like a worthwhile pursuit?

Throughout CLB, Drake is unwavering in his need to ignite the internet’s meme factories instead of simply making passable songs. Drake stooping as low as to build an entire song around Right Said Fred’s 1991 hit “I’m Too Sexy” is a depth I never thought I’d see him go, and no Kawhi Leonard–assisted music video can convince me otherwise. The “Get Throwed” (“N 2 Deep”) and “Niggaz Ain’t Barin’ Dat” (“No Friends in the Industry”) samples are more entertaining for the flips than anything Drake does with them. Even the album cover featuring 12 pregnant-woman emojis feels divorced from anything resembling a coherent vision or aesthetic viewpoint. But when the album cover inspires thousands of memes, the gambit clearly paid off.

And then there’s the Kanye feud of it all. At this point, Drake and Kanye’s spat is like watching The Prestige. They’re two magicians past their primes eternally dueling over minor slights and melodramatic transgressions the world moved past long ago, and if they have to hurt André 3000 along the way—as they did with this weekend’s “Life of the Party” kerfuffle—then so be it. Both men can’t help but exist as two sides of the world’s most insufferable and lucrative coin. And while Kanye avoided addressing the beef directly on his new album, Donda, opting instead to make vague threats on Instagram by posting Drake’s home address and group chats with Virgil Abloh, the feud seeps into nearly every crevice of Certified Lover Boy. That comes most prominently on “7am on Bridle Path,” when Drake devotes four minutes to a beef that’s ruined more albums than it’s helped. Is Drake correct that Kanye is “over there in denial”? Probably. Has it been many moons since we’ve seen Kanye “comin’ correct”? Absolutely. But there’s not much fun in wading into a decade-long beef where nearly everyone on the outside is in agreement.

The most revealing and worthwhile moment on CLB happens far too late. On the album’s last song, “The Remorse,” Drake spends nearly six minutes in a pride-filled screed, relitigating years worth of slights. He calls a radio personality “lemon-faced” for ever doubting him and sends subliminals to Kanye the next. And yet, it’s the softer moments, like Drake remarking that his friends have made full-time careers out of keeping him together, or the reality that even the most successful rapper in the world can be convinced that his time is almost up, that cut deepest. It’s a clear-eyed assessment of the type of paranoia inherent in sitting at the top of your craft for so long; it’s only a matter of time until you’ll be thrust back down.

CLB is a prisoner of one of the world’s most successful illusions and maybe that’s its cardinal sin. We no longer judge Drake’s albums against his peers, but against his own legacy. Drake is still among the most talented rappers in the world, and on spurts throughout his sixth studio album, it’s clear that he’s still operating on a level few reach. But in the words of Michael Caine, “Making something disappear isn’t enough; you have to bring it back.” By the end of Certified Lover Boy it’s hard to tell what (if anything) Drake can return to us. After years of staring in wonder at how a former soap opera star transformed into the most successful rapper alive, that isn’t enough. The same magic trick can’t work forever.