Ever since Drake first exploded onto the mainstream stage in 2009 with his groundbreaking EP So Far Gone, he’s been a magnet for capital-D Discourse, as fans struggle to hash out his place in the rap world and whether or not there’s any deeper meaning behind his existence.
To those people, I say: “Give it a rest.”
Pardon me for getting meta for a bit, but the album cycle for Drake’s new album, Certified Lover Boy, has just been exhausting — and for me, it has only highlighted the many, many shortcomings of the way we talk about albums in the social media/streaming era.
As for the album itself, it’s, well, a Drake album. It’s by turns boastful and maudlin, filled to the brim with vapid, faux soul-searching and spite for exes, and features all the exuberance and sonic scene sampling you’ve come to expect from The Boy. The standouts highlight his self-awareness (“I’m Too Sexy” featuring Future and Young Thug features a Right Said Fred interpolation so on-the-nose, you wonder how any of them can draw breath to utter their tongue-in-cheek rhymes), Drake offers up a plethora (nay, an entire encyclopedia) of caption-able, petty, passive-aggressive Drake-isms (“Girls Want Girls” and its infamous “lesbian” line), and the producers craft the inescapably catchy, murky soundscapes that have been his signature since ’09 (“TSU” is a favorite).
Either this stuff works for you or it doesn’t. No amount of flowery language or bullying will cajole you into changing your opinion — and maybe that’s the problem. It’s more of the disposable, pleasant, middle-of-the-road pop-rap of the type Drake perhaps had the biggest hand in popularizing — why can’t that be enough?
Because it hasn’t seemed to be enough to just enjoy the biggest rap albums of the day lately. No, having a Take has become paramount to having an opinion and you absolutely must have a Take about everything all at once. So much of the initial response to Drake’s release has focused on its relation to another album that came out recently: Kanye West’s much-hyped Donda. From the respective rollouts to speculative “beef” between the two former collaborators to comparing their streaming numbers less than a week since the release of Certified Lover Boy, so little of the discussion focuses on the music that it almost feels like the music itself is just an afterthought.
Within moments of CLB dropping on streaming services (shortly after an announcement that it would arrive later than usual — a seemingly pointed jab at Kanye’s inevitable tardiness), fans were already calling it album of the year, a classic, trash, or comparing it to Kendrick Lamar’s as-yet-unannounced follow-up to DAMN. Mind you, these were people who couldn’t possibly have listened to much more than the first song or two before making such pronouncements. Hyperbolic or facetious as they may have been, they added more fuel to the dumpster fire that is rap discourse.
Picking a side and adamantly defending it is the stuff of Stan wars on Twitter but it is utterly bonkers behavior to me. I’ve always thought that if people needed competition so badly they could join an adult league. They have those for just about any sport, game, or hobby you can think of, and it would be infinitely healthier than arguing with strangers on the internet about something that is just supposed to be entertaining.
Meanwhile, there are so many tweets and essays and reviews and think pieces about why Drake needs to talk about something else other than women who’ve hurt him. Why? That’s like, the overwhelming majority of what pop music has focused on for the last fifty years. I’d rather see some acknowledgment given to Drake’s nods to the breadth of that history, his efforts to preserve and highlight regional heroes like Project Pat and OG Ron C (sampled on “TSU,” prompting an outcry because of the prosaic ways copyright law forced an R. Kelly songwriting credit into a song that doesn’t feature R. Kelly in any significant way). That’s needed; just see the way “Who is Project Pat?” inflamed and informed the discussion for a few hours after the album’s release.
Drake’s songwriting is staid? Okay. “Race My Mind” is about a booty call, absolutely, but the song is constructed around a deft Rick James reference. “Give It To Me Baby” is as old as Drake himself; this subject isn’t new or unique to him. If anything, it’s timeless, and has been relatable since before drunk texting was even a possibility — a possibility Drake uses his songwriting to reflect, because songwriters talk about the world around them. It doesn’t even have to be recent or even Drake talking about himself at all! The assumption that it is shows how much we limit writers, especially those in rap, to autobiography. It’s also pretty telling that when it comes to rap, we default to “beef” and “keeping it real” — constructs that are intrinsic to hip-hop culture, yes, but seemingly exaggerated and constraining when applied to every single major release. These storylines keep popping up in relation to rap and rappers and I think that says a lot about how we see the people most associated with the music.
A friend pointed out on Twitter that at some point, analysis became punditry, and nothing has backed up that argument like the way the Discourse surrounding major releases has devolved into a repetition of the same tired Twitter tropes. There’s no digging, there’s little appreciation, and we seemingly can’t even agree to disagree without things getting contentious. When everybody is competing to have the “most woke” outlook, you can’t help but have these ostensibly progressive debates about representation of women on these albums that actually flatten and denigrate much-needed discussions. (Why are we counting? What’s the correct quota of female features? Why do the women need the approval of or cosigns from these overgrown manchildren in the first place?).
It’d be great if music was just fun again. Or if, instead of feeling like we all have to weigh in on the biggest names, we could plug our favorite alternatives. Little Simz dropped a truly fantastic project the same day as Certified Lover Boy. What if all those people who want to hear more women’s voices in rap supported that album instead of arguing all day about whether Certified Lover Boy was “better” than Donda or insisting that Kendrick Lamar would blow both out of the water? The most frustrating part is that, in reading Drake’s Apple Music description of his latest album, it became really obvious (if it wasn’t already from the ridiculous album cover and the month of back-and-forth trolling between him and Kanye) that he’s been in on the joke the entire time. We should be laughing along, not getting mad because he gave us exactly what we want.
Certified Lover Boy is out now via OVO/Republic Records. Get it here.