Before Drake aroused the internet with the long-awaited release of his sixth studio album Certified Lover Boy on Friday, he had already polarized—if not perplexed—much of Twitter with its Damien Hirst cover art released days before, featuring rows of pregnant-woman emojis of varying skin tones, hair colors and colored tops against a white background. Responses to the unconventional but not entirely unfamiliar graphic design, reminiscent of the British artist’s signature rainbow-colored spot-painting series, ran from staggered (“he can’t be serious”) to comical (Drake’s head Photoshopped on a child using a coloring book) to hyperbolic (“the worst cover art known to man”). While the artwork leaves much to judge aesthetically, the unambiguous imagery coupled with the unabashedly cheesy, self-poking title works as a wink for the kind of Drake fans and surveyors of pop culture who can appreciate a wink, utilizing a level of self-awareness and humor to shape Drake’s own mythology.
It’s hard to think of a more obvious and easy route for the Canadian artist to take than self-parody after the most tumultuous period of his career—one that included several beefs, an involuntary baby reveal, and inevitably resulted in triumph. If Drake could rap about his depression over unexpected fatherhood alongside bounce anthems on Scorpion just a few months after Pusha T outed his now 3-year-old Adonis, it makes sense that, after three years, he could publicly relish his biological effect (literal or imaginative) on women and make it a part of his romance-obsessed ethos as a rapper, like a Greek god of love and fertility.
But Certified Lover Boy, a 21-song LP with hardly anything new to relay to listeners, doesn’t feel like a thought-out progression in a narrative arc, let alone a distinctive marker for this time in his career. After all, Drake isn’t known so much for meticulously curating his image and reputation like his mega pop-star peers Beyonce and Taylor Swift, but rather rebounding effortlessly from public setbacks thanks to his ability to drop universally beloved, infectious hits. If anything, this latest album mostly displays the dangerous flip side to that level of coziness. Certified Lover Boy is an hour-and-a-half-long victory lap without the residual excitement and motivation from a previous triumph.
Of course, a Drake project would be unrecognizable without some—or a lot—of his signature self-pitying, lamenting the side effects of fame, and relations with the opposite sex. So maybe a full-on self-congratulatory album was never really on the menu—not that the rapper wastes any opportunity to put himself on a pedestal. But where trouble with his label Cash Money infused If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late with tension and unprecedented scandal made his vexation on Scorpion feel palpable, Drake’s generic relaying of his perpetual industry woes, trust issues and lady problems don’t make for a compelling listening experience even when he’s making interesting choices sonically.
That’s the unfortunate fate of the peculiar, rhythmically off-center “Champagne Poetry,” which employs a sample of The Beatles’ “Michelle” (as featured in Masego’s “Navajo”). If not for the hook, the opener would otherwise be a soporific state-of-the-union address—in which Drake tersely recalls babygate and boringly reminds us that he’s still the king of Instagram captions. Subsequent tune “Papi’s Home” is deflated by a half-hearted delivery and toothless jabs to his unnamed peers despite a clever usage of Montell Jordan’s lyrically somber “Daddy’s Home” to allude to the rapper’s parental positioning in the game.
However, it only takes a brief appearance by Nicki Minaj, a self-proclaimed mother of industry children, to remind us that this sentiment has been expressed in more interesting and cutting ways. Similarly, “7 Am on Bridle Path,” which interpolates a cheer sample to energizing effect, is a frustratingly polite diss track aimed at his current rival Kanye West (“I could give a fuck about who designing your sneakers and tees / Have somebody put you on a Gildan, you play with my seed”). Considering their adjacent album releases and the spectacle of their years-long beef, one would expect threats slightly more cutting than selling bootleg Yeezy T-shirts.
“Way 2 Sexy,” featuring Young Thug and Future, finds Drake in another playful and experimental mood, employing the slowed-down hook to Right Said Fred’s “I’m Too Sexy” in an unexpected and almost comedic fashion. Drake has always leaned into his heartthrob status in the public, but the homoerotic undertones of three men rapping about how sexy they are, often with Fred Fairbrass’ deep, seductive voice beneath them, made an otherwise ridiculous song far more engrossing.
Likewise, it’s Certified Lover Boy’s impressive slate of co-stars that ultimately make the album engaging where Drake is not. By track 5, the underwhelming “Love All,” despite an appearance by Jay-Z, we understand the limited extent of Drake’s enthusiasm on this record, and the contributions of the featured artists become more demanding of our attention. For example, Travis Scott practically steamrolls Drake with an effortless range of flows on the enticing “Free Trade.” The same for Lil Wayne on “You Only Live Twice,” which, to be fair, he is wont to do. Other appearances include Rick Ross on the same song, Kid Cudi, Lil Baby, Lil Durk, Ty Dolla $ign, rising R&B star Giveon, the Nigerian artist Tems and singer-songwriter YEBBA, who provides a soul-crushing interlude.
Despite the album’s title and reference to Drake’s career-long interest in the topic of romance, Certified Lover Boy is deeply and unabashedly unromantic. It’s a well-recognized habit of Drake’s to spend the entirety of his love songs expressing his disappointment in his female partners, particularly for behavior he does himself. This routine hypocrisy reaches new heights on “In The Bible,” where he irritatingly assumes the perspective of someone’s evangelical dad, reprimanding a woman for her partying lifestyle (“Lay your ass down then that liquor get you fired up / Turn up every day, girl / It don’t say that in the Bible”).
On “Race My Mind,” he opens by complaining about a woman who denied him sex and concludes that she’s “not Ayesha [Curry] enough” to wife. “Girls Want Girls” has already become the most talked-about track on Twitter for the standout line in its chorus (“Say that you a lesbian, girl, me too”). Aside from the fact that the song is a snooze, it’s more embarrassing than amusing to hear a grown man memorializing his experience of shooting his shot with a lesbian woman in a song and speaking about this particular community like a local phenomenon (“Girls want girls where I’m from”). And the otherwise fun and breezy “TSU,” about a sex worker the rapper solicits services from, is soured by an unfortunate sample of “Half on a Baby” by R. Kelly, who is currently on trial for allegations of sex trafficking and sexual assault.
In a blurb for Apple Music, Drake vaguely describes the album as “a combination of toxic masculinity and acceptance of truth which is inevitably heartbreaking.” It’s unclear how Drake is approaching the topic of toxic masculinity on this album and whether he even understands the term. The penultimate song “Fucking Fans,” in which he discusses his past infidelity—and still manages to scold his ex’s reaction—is a rare moment of self-reflection, albeit surface-level, where he comes to terms with the fact that he’ll never treat a woman properly as opposed to figuring out how he can maintain a relationship. It feels like the most insightful and urgent “love song” on the LP, inadvertently illustrating how Drake’s exhausted the one-sided sob stories that have brought him to this point in his career and that he hasn’t really lived up to his self-given moniker after all.