For a decade, as fans debated whether or not Drake truly has a career-defining classic in his catalog, the primary argument against him was always that his lack of editorial touch hurt his projects. They were always just a few songs too long, just a little bit out-of-sequence, needed to better balance his seemingly opposing melodic and rhythmic instincts. While this isn’t an argument that his latest mixtape, Dark Lane Demo Tapes, is that classic — it isn’t — it certainly shows that those arguments were well-founded. A Drake willing to kill his darlings is a Drake capable of crafting a project that isn’t just a compelling collection of songs but a cohesive statement, a solid exhibit of evidence in his case for being one of rap’s greatest of all time. With Dark Lane Demo Tapes, Drake finally delivers a concise, thrilling project without the filler.
Dark Lane is also just a couple of songs away from being the project most rap fans hoped they’d get ever since Drake was crowned hip-hop’s savior in 2009 after the release of So Far Gone. Because his big breakout came with the leak of “Brand New” a half-year before, Drake’s fan base has always been split between the bars-first/only purists who heard him shout out Slum Village and Phonte Coleman — and work with both on his 2007 tape Comeback Season — and those who first discovered him through the guts-spilling emo-R&B he pioneered with “Brand New.” While those loyalties have always shifted and clashed, on his latest, Drake comes as close to a platonic ideal as he ever has.
By paying homage to classic rap-first cuts like Jay-Z’s “Song Cry” and Eminem’s “Superman” on “When To Say When” and “Chicago Freestyle” — both released as a double music video a few months before the mixtape was conceived — Drake shows his longtime supporters that he hasn’t forgotten his roots. Meanwhile, as he gives his R&B fans just enough with “Not You Too” and the elongated deliveries he’s best known for elsewhere to keep them on board, he never lets the slower moments overwhelm the tracklist has he did with Views or Take Care. He also gets the plodding, moody heartbreak anthem out of the way early so the rest of the album has a strong, engaging pace.
It helps that he uses some of the more fascinating production of his career here. While it’s widely accepted that Drake makes indisputably strong tracks with his usual partners in crime, 40 and Boi-1da, here he branches out — and not in the culture-vulture-y, affected Caribbean accent way that usually gets him flogged on social media. While he does once again borrow from a pre-existing musical subculture — UK drill, with its sparse drums and airy, eerie synthesizer sounds — the style meshes more readily with his normal voice and flow, keeping him from having to adopt any questionable regional deliveries, the super Top Boy–esque dialect on “War” notwithstanding.
As usual, he shares his stage with both common collaborators and rising stars, with the usual mixed outcomes. While “Desires” with Future gets lost in the wash, “D4L” with both Future and Young Thug is captivating, while Drake spotlights some of drill’s New York contingent — in the form of Sosa Geek and Fivio Foreign — on the futuristic “Demons.” Employing Playboi Carti for “Pain 1993” turns out to be the one misstep, as Carti is nearly impossible to understand with a squeaky, rushed delivery that sounds like he’s on a completely different project. Of course, bringing Chris Brown into any project is always a miss — “Not You Too” doesn’t really benefit enough from his presence to make the potential backlash worth it. Fortunately, Long Beach native Giveon almost makes up for it as a Sampha stand-in on “Chicago Freestyle.”
The most remarkable thing, despite all of Drake’s forward-looking production, incorporation of English slang, and successful TikTok baiting with the infuriatingly catchy “Toosie Slide,” is the fact that, for once, Drake seems to have figured out “When To Say When” (pun intended). Instead of forcing listeners to slog through every single thing he’s recorded over the past two years, he instead brings his butcher knife to the edit bay, chopping the fat and presenting a product that’s easy to digest and earns its repeat listens. We can only hope he keeps the lessons in mind when he releases the follow-up, “official” album he’s been teasing later this year.
Dark Lane Demo Tapes is out now on OVO / Republic Records. Get it here.