Drake, in Search of an Enemy Besides Himself

At this point in Drake’s career, there are songs about the throne, and songs about the bed. Each milieu comes with a price. The first is about hard power: Remaining at the top means outmaneuvering enemies, building up an invulnerable enterprise. The other, in Drake’s hands at least, is about soft power — most often, the path to conquest is through humility, and sometimes awe. Rarely do the two modes meet.

Which is what makes the concluding verse of “Race My Mind,” from Drake’s new album “Certified Lover Boy,” such a jolt. In the first half of the song, he’s singing, but his affection is starting to curdle; it’s a serenade to a woman who’s listening to other things. Midway through, the song shifts away from sweet plea to indignation, and Drake turns to rapping.

He sounds frustrated, dismissive, a little anxious: “Don’t you dare hit me back with no ‘k, sure’/Soon as I tell you that you the one I would wait for/You too saucy, too flossy, you moved in and moved off me.” The woman he’s craving is spending time with lesser competitors, and it’s scrambling Drake’s two vectors of control: “Know who you be around, I know that they teaming up/Telling you you better off leaving me in the dust.”

It’s a fevered rush of affront, and by far the most alert Drake sounds on “Certified Lover Boy,” his sixth studio album, and first in three years. Historically, his approaches have been hard to argue with — he has fundamentally rewritten the template for pop music over the last decade. But on “Certified Lover Boy” they have been polished smooth, become maybe a little shopworn. This album is better in the dark. Better in the car. It demonstrates how sonically rigorous even the most casual, tossed-off Drake songs are. But its storytelling doesn’t always hold up to strict scrutiny.

This is particularly true in the songs about women: the silly “Girls Want Girls” with Lil Baby, “Get Along Better” with Ty Dolla Sign, the lightly grim “___ Fans.” Rather, what really gets Drake steaming on this album are naysayers and adversaries, especially evident in the 11th-hour rhymes about Kanye West, with whom Drake has been lately — and historically, and forevermore — locked in a tangle. (More on these Oedipal shenanigans later.) “Certified Lover Boy” will make its debut at No. 1 next week with the biggest opening-week numbers for any album this year, replacing West’s “Donda,” which just did the same.

Throughout his career, Drake’s nimbleness has made him one of pop’s most consistently inventive stars, willing to absorb and reinterpret any number of regional and global styles. There are sonic bright spots when he nods to Houston (the OG Ron C intro on “TSU” and the sample of Bun B’s “Get Throwed” on “N 2 Deep”) and Memphis (the sampled Project Pat verse on “Knife Talk,” its elastically chewy flow pattern ably mimicked by 21 Savage), both long-running fonts of inspiration. And sometimes Drake calls back to older versions of himself — the piano motifs at the beginning and end of “The Remorse,” the album closer, directly nod to “Marvin’s Room,” the ne plus ultra of Drake’s magnetic toxicity.

But “Certified Lover Boy” is his least musically imaginative album, the one where he pushes himself the least in terms of method and pattern. Apart from the lite Afrobeats number “Fountains,” with the feathery Nigerian singer Tems, most songs here hew to the familiar narcotic synths and claustrophobic samples that underlie much of his music. This album might mark something like the beginning of the end of the Drake era, except that the Drake era is simply all of pop music now, and his innovations have become the work of, well, everyone else.

Drake is aware of this, of course — no one both performs, and watches himself perform, with the same intensity. Some of this album’s sharpest lines are about how Drake, the entity, functions out in the rest of the world. “Under a picture lives some of the greatest quotes from me,” he raps on “Champagne Poetry,” about your Instagram captions. “I apologize for my absence, I know I left you without a name to drop/I don’t know how I expected you to get your clout up and get your money up,” he taunts on “Papi’s Home.”

But also Drake is the primary engineer — his image is not happenstance. Which is why the video for “Way 2 Sexy” (which samples Right Said Fred) is designed for memes, though it feels halfhearted. And his deep-sigh line about being a lesbian on “Girls Want Girls” is aimed not at the progressives who have lambasted it, but those in search of a cheap wink.

The way Drake steadily manicures his public image couldn’t stand in more stark contrast to how West manages his, and that’s the primary reason the current tension between them feels so asymmetric. West’s lashings — including leaking Drake’s alleged home address — have been primal, broadsides against an impertinent child. But Drake is a father, too, and there’s been something chillier and more strategic about how he’s handled the recent back and forth. “Give that address to your driver, make it your destination/’Stead of just a post out of desperation,” he raps on “7am on Bridle Path,” a lightly deflated but acutely barbed accounting of learning to fall out of love with your mentor.

The day after “Certified Lover Boy” was released, Drake leaked “Life of the Party,” an unheard song by West that included some ranting lines aimed at Drake. But the song, which features a majestic verse from the rarely heard Andre 3000, was something approaching spectacular, and also profoundly emotional — in trying to paint his nemesis as hubristic, Drake instead painted him as vulnerable, the good kind.

The truth is that this isn’t really a battle, at least not one fellow artists feel compelled to take sides in — several appear on both “Donda” and “Certified Lover Boy.” And that’s not the only thing these two albums have in common: they’re summary statements of a once forward-thinking but now widely accepted worldview, not wild reinventions. Perhaps bored with battling themselves, the two superstars have turned to battling each other. But that won’t heal what’s within.

Drake
“Certified Lover Boy”
(Republic)

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