Drake’s new project is a mixtape of glossy “demos” from the recent past. It showcases his precise delivery, sticky flows, and arena-sized hooks, but comes with a fair amount of well-tread material.
Drake’s house is a gleaming monstrosity. Inside the 50,000 square-foot Toronto mansion called the Embassy, the rapper girdles himself with spikey chandeliers, slabs of Spanish marble, and sumptuous-looking fabrics. In one room, a shiny golden art piece constructed out of semi-precious stones occupies an entire wall. In another, beneath a microphone and requisite pop filter, there is a daybed upholstered in technicolor Jean Paul Gaultier and Louis Vuitton textiles. Dark Lane Demo Tapes, the 14-track mixtape Drake has released ahead of a proper studio album he says is coming this summer, shares the house’s gilded finish. As he toggles between a decade and several cities’ worth of rap styles, there is a consistent sheen, as though the project was furbished in the same workshop as one of his coffee tables.
Though Drake has spent much of his career predicting and synthesizing trends in rap and pop, Dark Lane Demo Tapes proposes not a new sound but a new format, formalizing recent snippets, one-offs, and collaborations onto streaming services. He experimented with the mixtape as album on 2009’s So Far Gone, the album as mixtape on 2015’s If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late, and the LP as playlist on 2017’s More Life. Last August, he dropped Care Package, a collection of songs he’d casually released or teased over the years. Billing these tracks as demos may offer the slight advantage of lowered expectations, a kind of ad-hoc market test. But it’s also a clever rejoinder to the current internet economy, in which artists like Playboi Carti and Lil Uzi Vert have had their momentum derailed by endless leaks. The concept of the compilation may ultimately wind up being more useful in their hands than in Drake’s.
Contributions from a broad range of producers—including Southside, Cardo, MexikoDro, and Axl, each representing their own little corner of hip-hop—allow Drake to travel. Earlier in his career, he likely would have tried on new subgenres like “SoundCloud rap” and transcontinental drill closer to their emergence. And yet the lag isn’t much of a hindrance. On “Pain 1993,” a Pi’erre Bourne-produced song that leaked earlier this year, Drake sounds comfortable softening his consonants alongside SoundCloud emissary Carti, even as the style is past its peak. On “Demons,” he matches the energy of Fivio Foreign and Sosa Geek, a pair of Brooklyn rappers who have been at the forefront of the borough’s drill subgenre; both sound genuinely thrilled to have earned his recognition. The single “War,” released this winter in support of longtime manager Oliver El-Khatib’s partnership with a high-end incense brand, is a spot-on UK drill track. It’s one of Drake’s most effective songs in a while, harnessing the genre’s menacing energy, barbs delivered convincingly.
Demo Tapes contains moments of precise delivery, sticky flows, and hooks primed to be enjoyed in the context of an arena show, but there’s a fair amount of well-tread material, too. Drake begins the album with his tradition of pointed bars, includes a pair of slow burners with R&B vocals from Giveon and Chris Brown, and links up with Future and Young Thug for a solid, if entirely familiar song that has the tectonic bounce and clever flexing Atlanta rap has perfected. He follows that thread on the private jet anthem “Landed,” luxuriating over a spinning beat by Cardo and Dez Wright. Still, Drake remains more interlocutor than interloper. It helps that, unlike many of his peers in the top tier of the music industry, he has maintained an unwavering focus on music: “They too worried bout selling out shoes/I don’t give a fuck about jeans and crep/Or going to Milan or going to the Met/I just wanna make these songs for the set,” he rapped in a Link Up TV freestyle, in a verse ostensibly aimed at Kanye. Dark Lane is similarly a promise, or threat maybe, that he has the confidence to release music at a clip rivaled by few others at his level; as he points out on “When to Say When,” “He’s exceeded 500 weeks on the Billboard charts.” He’s a one-man monopoly, controlling both the supply and demand of his own work.
But for all of Drake’s strengths, he has not evolved past the tensions that have defined this half of his career—the sulky revenge fantasies of a petulant man-child who is capable of loyalty to men but treats all women with suspicion. He remains in a suspended state of something resembling teenage boyhood, in which he is constantly aggrieved, but never accountable. As ever, Drake finds new ways of expressing escalating amounts of pettiness: Instead of snow tires and designer purses, the women he dates now want butt lifts and Lasik eye surgery. Instead of tracking their mileage on his Bugatti, he sends a friend to take back a gifted car. One song, “Desires,” features the unhinged regret that he didn’t isolate a woman he was dating so as to avoid losing her: “I should’ve put you somewhere where no one could find you/Mansion out in the sticks with nothing around you.”
Drake lives in symbiosis with Kardashian-style celebrity culture, using veiled lyrics and social media posts to carefully extend or withdraw access to his narrative. Incidentally, one of the most evocative things he has written recently is the caption to an Instagram post he made celebrating his son’s birthday and sharing photos of him with the public for the first time. “It doesn’t matter what has happened in the past or what is happening around us now, you can always make the choice to break free of the wheel of suffering and panic and open up to your own light,” he wrote. The venue was appropriate for an artist whose success was formed in part on his ability to fill songs with pithy captions. But the message was a rarer thing: earnest, tenderhearted, with the focused sobriety of someone who has been meditating or studying Eckhart Tolle. Unfortunately, very little of that sentiment has made its way into his music, which remains guarded and skin-deep, even as it grows, like his houses, bigger and more expensive.
Source: Pitchfork https://pitchfork.com/reviews/albums/drake-dark-lane-demo-tapes/