Drake, however, is an artist of constancy rather than surprise. His new “demo tape,” a collection of new songs and ones previously leaked online, really represents a stay-the-course strategy. He has a long habit of putting out non-album albums between his tentpole releases, the next of which he’s said will be out this summer. Dark Lanes Demo Tapes is one of his patchier efforts, but it accomplishes the same goals as his previous stopgap works. It keeps his voice in the zeitgeist. It burnishes his credibility as a rapper rather than as a pop star. And it confirms, instead of complicating, anyone’s long-standing notions about the artist, his culture, or his times.
If this release is indeed a crisis care package, it’s not the kind that’s filled with cookies. His previous album, Scorpion, smashed commercial records with riotously cheerful singles and a juicy narrative about grappling with unplanned fatherhood. Dark Lane Demo Tapes by contrast trends sullen, spare, and rude. The opening beat, on “Deep Pockets,” sounds like something from an Earl Sweatshirt album, which is to say it sounds like a soul record being fed to a garbage disposal. “I’ve seen splatter hit the snow when the blood freeze,” he raps, as if he were Cormac McCarthy. When the chorus comes along, it’s just Drake bellowing into an abyss.
Statements of hardness will always ring a bit false from a guy forever associated with knit sweaters. But Drake keeps glowering because he knows that overdetermined machismo can give cover to profitable silliness. Just look at how the most infectious moments of the album come from guest musicians acting frivolous while Drake feigns seriousness. On “Pain 1993,” Drake rejects the label “sweet” as Playboi Carti pitches his voice to the squeaking register of animated sidekicks. The roiling “D4L” features Future trilling a very funny bird/phone sound that’s made funnier with extreme repetition, helpfully distracting from Drake’s clunker punch lines about a greedy girlfriend. For “From Florida With Love” the producer MexikoDro furnishes a beat that sounds like it was created on a Bop It toy, and it inspires Drake to hit a sneaky-smart, stop-start flow.
Then there’s “Toosie Slide,” the sour confection that hit No. 1 upon its debut. Drake appears to have commissioned TikTok-baiting choreography and then worked backwards from there, but the sound of the song is not in the slaphappy mode of Gen Z social media. The synths recall an ’80s soap; the melody is a mobster’s mumble; “Got a dance, but it’s really on some street shit,” he reassures anyone cringing. The most important component really is the video, which is already a classic of quarantine culture. Drake wears a mask and wanders his questionably decorated mansion, all alone. You’re meant to relate to the isolation but also to covet the indoor swimming pool.
Of course, a blend of loneliness and triumph has defined most of Drake’s appeal over the years. He helped lead the late-2010s turn to homebody pop that now, amid social distancing, feels weirdly prescient. On Dark Lane Demo Tapes, he’s at his most passionate when communicating that other people just aren’t worth hanging out with. “Losses” is a blistering dismissal of a bad friend. “Chicago Freestyle” hypnotically explains the transactional process by which Drake corrals sex partners. On “Desires,” he comes frustratingly close to self-awareness about his own misogyny by marveling at the idea that the women he uses have wants of their own. When he asks, “How the fuck you’ve seen so many beaches?” he’s recycling an ugly cliché from his past hits: negging women who thrive without him. But hey, he’s also giving people a line they can use to shame their quarantine-breaking Instagram friends.