A misfire from one of hip-hop's MVPs...
Certified Lover Boy Album Artwork

What a truly awful album cover.

Designed by world-renowned British artist Damien Hirst, it spins off of his iconic polka-dot artwork and statue of the pregnant Virgin Mother. Yet, even with this knowledge, it still hums with the desperation to create something simultaneously timeless and memetic that plagues most of his output. The arranged grid of pregnant women emojis also gives off a weird sinister undertone of a potential emporium of baby mothers, bringing a new meaning to the soft-handed 'Certified Lover Boy' title initially led on. The artwork reveal also switched expectations - I was expecting this record to lean into his image as hip-hop’s softie, further evidenced by the questionable heart-shaped cut in his temple. However, he opts to make his certified “bachelor record”, and it’s another big bash.

Aubrey Graham hands over his fifth project to cross 80 minutes, an hour and a half smorgasbord of all-new tracks. In his defence, the Drake cuisine is far too extensive and varied at this point, but this dilemma has been around for a number of years now and some sort of sacrifice for a better, more cohesive project has to be made if he wants to release another classic.

For all the beef he’s had with Kanye over the last few years, he sounds more vintage West than ever on a select few cuts. The record opens with a back-to-back return of chipmunk soul, particularly on ‘Papi’s Home’, whose beat is so top-notch it could wipe away the insomnia of Drake singing “daddy’s home” in your ear. Sadly, this throwback to 2000s rap quickly gets tossed out by track three, only to return on the odd track here and there afterwards.

Another commonality with Mr. West is the absolute OTT clanger lines that elicit a visceral, sometimes painful reaction, such as “lock the door to the bathroom, cause they doin' something that is not Pepsi”. Drake’s qualities as a father are a mystery to the public, but he’s certainly mastered the dad joke. ‘Girls Want Girls’ hones in on another one of these lines, as Drake converses with a girl who is clearly signalling that he’s barking up the wrong tree: “say that you a lesbian, girl, me too”. Aside from a Lil Baby verse that takes the concept well beyond its limit, the dud does welcome in the familiar malaise of a Drake project.

But this is skipping past the most important song on any of his bodies of work - the opener. ‘Champagne Poetry’ is a stellar Beatles flip that sets the momentous tone for Drake’s regular introductory state-of-the-union address, but this one lyrically goes through the motions. Even though it’s been the longest gap in studio projects ever for him, he’s venting by numbers. Though there is the added childcare, there’s been little change in his well-fed lifestyle, keeping him from the hunger that once empowered previous openers like ‘Tuscan Leather’ and ‘Survival’. Or maybe he’s simply lovesick and “finding his soulmate out in the world” as he says in the song. The title certainly hints at a nickname given by his many potential future wives, the album cover representing his choices like a global game of Guess Who?.

If this is that quest, Drake touches base with a few old stomping grounds on the album. ‘Fountains’ is another excursion to Nigeria following his link-up with Wizkid in 2016. This time he taps beguiling singer Tems, who this year shone on Wizkid’s ‘Essence’ and works her same magic on a body-shifting and jazzy dancehall number. Elsewhere, CLB detours to Memphis for an odd double that fits in about as well as DaBaby at a Pride festival, even though they up the ante. The crunk-flavoured peace disturbers ‘No Friends In the Industry’ and ‘Knife Talk’ both find Drake at his most subliminal, frustratingly hitting out at his rivals without any bite.

The remaining members of CLB’s roll call of guests range in quality. Travis Scott is knocked out of his usual coasting form for features to kick ‘Fair Trade’ into high gear, and JAY-Z returns to make what is essentially ‘Pound Cake 2’ in aesthetic but not quite in quality. Drake and Kid Cudi finally come together for a track too, but the coming-together writes checks the forgettable song doesn’t cash. Most of the features do their job adequately for an event album like CLB, However, in the spirit of competition (and because it’s fresh in the mind), Kanye pulled better verses and performances out of Lil Durk, Cudi, Lil Baby and JAY-Z. One of the best results of Drake’s chemistry with other artists is getting Future and Young Thug on for ‘Way 2 Sexy’, a track that samples Right Said Fred’s ‘I’m Too Sexy’ - genuinely - to devastating effect.

‘Way 2 Sexy’ is the spot on the record where Drake finds his groove and goes on a hot streak. He follows up with one of the best production moments in ‘TSU’, sampling NSYNC harmonies to float the track somewhere reminiscent of the above-clouds headspace that defined Nothing Was the Same. Moreover, he handles the beat switch on ‘N 2 Deep’ with ease as grimey guitar hits spinball into an atmospheric trap haze, and ‘Pipe Down’ exerts his frustrations of a gossiping former flame with melodic raps that hit the Drake sweet spot of infectious aggravation.

‘Race My Mind’ and ‘Get Along Better’ sound most like the album title. They’re soppy, romantic, gushing, lavish, feature Ty Dolla $ign and are apt for the only rapper who can sell scented candles. Special mention has to be given to ‘Yebba’s Heartbreak’ for its excellent palette cleansing balladry similar in tone to James Blake. It calls back to when Drake would hand over a moment to another artist, like ‘Jorja Interlude’, or ‘Wednesday Night Interlude’, and the album continues to look back at what Drake has done in his career.

There’s a lot of reaching back into the Drake of 10 years ago, specifically the Thank Me Later / Take Care era. He’s been reminiscing about that time recently, going so far as to reenact the famous TC album cover for Instagram, and the first track swallows his heady raps much like ‘The Ride’ did to close his second record. ‘You Only Live Twice’ also goes back and corrects ‘The Motto’ with Rick Ross and Lil Wayne, and the trio all look to out-rap each other for our enjoyment. ‘7am On Bridle Path’ is another addition to the “time-in-place” series, this time at his famed new home in Toronto. He definitely sounds at home, unleashing his best verses in a while, complete with cutting puns about Denmark, boot toes, rollerblading.

The journey of Drake’s long-awaited sixth album has seen him travel the world, dodge foes and grappling with love in hit-and-miss fashion, but its final moments expose its key flaw. ‘Fucking Fans’ is like sitting in the dentist waiting room, making me wish the stand-alone single ‘Laugh Now Cry Later’ from last year was in its place. That track is not only leagues better, but is an obvious hit, which nothing else on the album can make a decent claim to be.

Rounding out the album, ‘The Remorse’ has nothing new to say lyrically other than empty contemplations on his success that make your mind wander back through the record. In doing so, it becomes clear that this absence of anything new to say has been the case for the 20 other songs here. Drake took three years out, enough time to go out and experience new things, change lifestyle and come back re-energised. Alas, the Pregnant Woman Emoji album is more of the same at its core.

6/10

Words: Nathan Evans // @nayfun_evans

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