On many levels, Certified Lover Boy is exactly the kind of record that we have come to rely upon Drake to produce every couple of years. (Over the course of seven mixtapes, four EPs, and now six studio albums, Drake has perfected his go-to formula for hip-hop success, by blending together timely features and feel-good samples with his trademark journal-entry flow.) And the first two tracks aren’t just a statement of purpose: They’re a microcosm of the album overall. Sampling Gabriel Hardeman Delegation’s “Until I Found The Lord (My Soul Couldn’t Rest)“ and Masego’s “Navajo” gives opening track “Champagne Poetry” the cinematic flair that has fueled some of Drake’s best moments. He follows up on that with a message to “all his juniors” on “Papi’s Home,” which delivers the unabashed shit-talking fans historically appropriate for Instagram captions. Between those two songs, the rapper essentially covers all the bases this album cares to traverse.
In the opener, Drake reveals his motive for stepping back into the booth. “It’s the pretty versus the petty boys,” he says within the first minute of “Champagne Poetry,” portraying himself as a lonely industry monarch burdened by fortune and politics, one who must “always censor myself ’cause no matter what, they reporting on me.” But a part of him is fueled by the responsibility. On “Papi’s Home,” with guest Nicki Minaj to lighten him up, he teases his peers: “I apologize for my absence ... I don’t know how I expected you to get your clout up.” That’s followed by a hilarious moment from longtime collaborator Minaj, who supplies us with her cackle and a declaration that she needs to start “collecting child support the opposite way.”
That dance between preoccupied hip-hop don and misunderstood playboy repeats throughout the record. At moments, like in “Fair Trade” with Travis Scott, Drake burns fair-weather friends, saying: “I don’t know who loves me, but I know that it ain’t everybody.” A couple of tracks later, in “N 2 Deep,” he’s lost in a Houston strip club begging a woman to see him “outside of the club, outside the things that a man like me does.”
Throughout the record’s 86 minutes, spread over 21 tracks, there are signs of Drake’s musical finesse. Instead of a laundry list of trendy names, the featured artists making the cut are a satisfying corps of current-gen standouts and reliable return players—all of whom complement his own style. That strategy lends itself to a few album highlights. “Girls Want Girls” should get airplay for years to come, as it has everything you need in a next-gen pop hit: lesbian appreciation, a catchy hook sung by Drake himself, and another effortless Lil Baby verse. “Way 2 Sexy,” besides sampling Right Said Fred to great effect, also succeeds by including well-deployed appearances from Young Thug and Future. And nobody’s going to complain that he busted out the Project Pat sample for “Knife Talk” with 21 Savage—Metro Boomin’s snappy triplet production is the appropriate background for both rappers to play up a gangster fantasy.
Unfortunately, not every choice makes as much sense. Arkansas singer Yebba stuns on the dreamy “Yebba’s Heartbreak” interlude, but it’s not entirely clear why this made Drake’s album instead of her own. “No Friends in the Industry” is technically fine, but feels like a content rehash. Aside from the cookie-cutter beat, the lyrical content (including a not-exactly-unexpected Sha’Carri Richardson reference) is tired. How many more “got a contract, it’s a max” bars can we take? Similarly, “You Only Live Twice”—a sequel to his 2011 track “The Motto”—would have been better suited to the cutting-room floor: Neither of its guests, Lil Wayne nor Rick Ross, were at their best that day, it seems. The production, sampling Michael Jackson’s “Man in the Mirror,” never kicks into a second gear, and none of the three rappers manage to write a standout line.
The entire back half of the album feels a bit thin. Kid Cudi has the potential to transform songs with his syrupy flows, but Drake doesn’t give him enough freedom on the generic “IMY2.” The topic of “Fucking Fans,” meanwhile, feels too much like whining on the yacht to be enjoyable, and it also includes one of Drake’s less successful turns at autotune. Closer “The Remorse” feels more like a cursory mention than a true tribute to the OVO crew. Beyond that, Anthony Hamilton’s vocals are wasted, languishing in the background.
It’s funny that Drake got into an internet scuffle with Kayne West just as the Chicago rapper was preparing to release Donda, which is perhaps the antithesis of Certified Lover Boy both in content and in musical direction. Musically, West made a hard turn into gospel, while Drake has pivoted just as hard into R&B and pop. In terms of content, West, artistically stunted by his self-centeredness, released an unwieldy record that made zero effort to relate to—or explain itself for—an audience. On the opposite end of the spectrum, Drake might be writing for his audience a bit too much, here. It’s starting to feel a little impersonal.
The resulting record is largely another missed opportunity for experimentation from the man many consider the current best rapper in the game. Yes, the theatrics, and introspection, and even a few moments of musical deftness, are there. But overall, it’s nothing to depart from 2018’s Scorpion or 2016’s Views. There’s nothing groundbreaking here. And honestly, groundbreaking doesn’t seem too much to ask from the man who calls himself the Champagne Papi. Regardless of whether or not that standard is fair, the glimpses into true vulnerability we saw in 2011’s Take Care or 2013’s Nothing Was The Same are nowhere to be found here in 2021.