Drake’s Tedious Descent Into Villainy

The rapper embraces his caricature on his new album, but being in on the joke turns out to be pretty boring.

OVO / Republic Records / UMG; The Atlantic

Maybe the rise of the term fuckboy to mock men who can’t keep their Dickies zipped is a sign of progress. I’ll never forget when my middle-school social-studies teacher, introducing the class to the concept of sexism, filled the whiteboard with all the ugly words for female promiscuity—slut, whore, etc.—but could muster only praising (stud) or outdated (cad) terms for men. Fuckboy evolved from horrifying prison slang and rapper dis to become, in the age of online dating, a catchall for the category of horny, hollow, heartbreaking dudes so widely recognizable that it now anchors an HBO reality show. The term is not exactly high-minded, but—like other recent coinages such as dadbod—it suggests that men are starting (starting!) to find out how it feels to be subjected to some of the sexual scrutiny women have long faced.

Fuckboy now gets a Kidz Bop–y translation with the title of Drake’s sixth proper album, Certified Lover Boy. The most popular rapper of our time has always been a glorified pickup artist—he cajoles, then ghosts, then gloats—but his recent marketing suggests heightened self-awareness. A constellation of pregnant ladies dots the cover. Male pinup clichés fill the music video for “Way 2 Sexy.” Drake himself used the term toxic masculinity in the album description. But these gestures turn out to be, in themselves, fuckboy manipulations of the listener, and they’re echoed in the manipulations of women documented by the songs. Across an un-dazzling hour and 26 minutes of music, the danger of having the language to talk about your own awfulness becomes clear: It can make you complacent.

Arriving eight months after its originally hyped release date, Certified Lover Boy ends an unusually quiet stretch for the prolific Drake. Yes, he’s recently done guest features and put out a lockdown mixtape last year, but he seemed to be stalling on answering the question he posed on his epic-length, smash-packed 2018 album, Scorpion: “Is there more?” That album had arrived swathed in intrigue after a Pusha T dis track correctly accused Drake of having a child out of wedlock, and Scorpion’s songs defended against the “deadbeat” charge with jubilant singles and punchy verses. Anxieties about potential career decline peppered his lyrics, but Drake’s quality level remained high enough, his personal drama remained rich enough, and his musical arsenal fresh enough—see the sugary New Orleans bounce of “Nice for What?”—for him to claim a five-album winning streak.

Certified Lover Boy pushes Drake’s personal narrative ahead by about one yard, and his musical evolution even less. Though Drake and his producers emphasize lovey-dovey samples and lazily played piano this time out, this album could have arrived during Barack Obama’s second term and no one would have felt future shock. As has been the case on Drake’s full-length records since 2011’s Take Care, the main mode is spectral, echoing beatscapes that lurch and mutate, with long lulls occasionally jolted by action-movie synths. Extremely familiar forays into bass-heavy brag rap, whooshing R&B, and Afrobeats break up the slog. Two days into listening, nothing has me hitting repeat 72 times like “Nonstop” or “Controlla” did, but I also don’t hear many flagrant misses.

What does stick out is the confession nestled in the otherwise celebratory opener, “Champagne Poetry”: “Career is going great, but now the rest of me is fading slowly / My soul mate is somewhere out in the world just waiting on me … My heart feel vacant and lonely.” Drake has pined for true love throughout his catalog, but an ever-so-rawer feeling of desperation emerges on Certified Lover Boy. The glimmering highlight “Race My Mind” conveys molten longing as it describes falling for a flake. On the compellingly cranky “Pipe Down,” he seems genuinely bothered: “You’re the reason we’ll be going separate ways / You’re the reason we cannot communicate.”

Heartbreak almost seems to bring him to an epiphany—but Drake instead clutches the toxic M-word like a safety blanket as he knowingly repeats old patterns. Over an arrangement that gapes as darkly as a tar pit, Drake spends “In the Bible” touting his own body count while nagging a woman for her own. In the amusingly goofy “Papi’s Home,” he offers this foulness: “I remember that I told you I miss you, that was kinda like a mass text.” The fullest villainy unfurls on “Get Along Better,” which opens with a tender verse about the sad way things ended with an ex, followed by a wolf howl of a chorus about Drake getting with her friend. Such open devilishness is, I can’t deny, fun. But the buzz provided by these songs is the kind that leaves you feeling dirty, like after watching a hidden-camera prank.

More than ever, Drake’s superpower and limitation are his con man’s senses of empathy and self-awareness. “TSU” continues his tradition of drawing character sketches of working-class women whom, no matter how kind Drake’s voice sounds, he’s condescending to. On “Fucking Fans,” Drake steps into the mind of a woman he cheated on, cooing, “Trust, I know.” Even when beefing with men—the internet is pointlessly obsessed with finding references to Kanye West on this album—his best lines are ones that convey pity: “From the bottom to the top, man, what’s it like in the middle?” Drake knows the world sees him as a callow, lusty jerk, and he knows why it does. But understanding is not always enlightenment. Facing who you are beneath your archetypes makes life better—and in Drake’s case, would make better music.