Since 2009, Drake has never gone more than 700 days without releasing a full-length project. That streak was extended on Thursday night, when he surprise-dropped a new mixtape, Dark Lane Demo Tapes, 22 months after his latest album Scorpion. The project includes previously released songs like “Toosie Slide” and “War” as well as new collaborations with Young Thug and Future. And while Drake said he also plans to release a new album in the summer, there’s plenty on Dark Lane to tide fans over until then. Upon first listen, here are the main takeaways from the record.
”Toosie Slide” is the exception, not the rule
When Drake released a snippet of his single “Toosie Slide” on TikTok, many critics rolled their eyes. Some thought it was a cheap and insubstantial ploy to game the cultural landscape by exploiting the virality of dance crazes; Pitchfork called it “strictly a business decision.” The song immediately flew to number one on the Billboard Hot 100, giving Drake even more impetus to chase online success through vapid means.
But while “Toosie Slide” appears on Dark Lane, its success does not appear to have altered Drake’s approach to his craft. After all, memes and dances have long been essential to his persona, keeping him at the center of cultural moments (remember “Hotline Bling”?) but not defining the larger arc of his output. On Dark Lane, he once again shows his ability to balance his populist flexes with more introspective exploration. Some songs don’t have hooks at all; many more are surly, withdrawn and clearly indifferent to radio or viral success. Drake has not been reduced to a TikTok rapper; he’s just added one more tool to his deep arsenal.
The best Drake is still sad boy Drake
Drake has built his career on turning the chronic oversharing of his emotions into top-charting songs; early projects like So Far Gone and Take Care established his brand as the sensitive singer-rapper with an equally vulnerable sound to match. While Drake’s ventured into trying to prove his tough side by leaning into harder sounds and subject matter (how else to explain his penchant for performative rap beefs?), he’s at his best when he’s overthinking and in his feelings. Dark Lane Demo Tapes and its wealth of sad boy songs is a welcome return.
Drake’s earnest re-embrace of his most emotional self peaks on “Chicago Freestyle,” on which he reviews his past relationships while wondering whether or not he’ll find real love in this life (“Maybe I’ll love you one day/ Maybe we’ll someday grow”). While Drake’s been down this road many times before, Giveon’s silky feature elevates the track into a mellow, heartfelt standout that’s not only gorgeous but timely. Social distancing is lonely and, for better or worse, it provides the time and space to evaluate and reevaluate every relationship you’ve ever had. Consider this your new quarantine soundtrack.
Drake is still “borrowing” from rap’s cutting edge
One of the major themes in Drake’s career has been his proclivity to draw inspiration from rising subcultures. He’s tried his hand at Nigerian Afrobeat, Caribbean dancehall and Latin trap; he’s eagerly collaborated with regional breakout stars like Atlanta’s ILoveMakonnen and Memphis’ BlocBoy JB early in their careers, elevating their status while also placing himself at the center of their narratives. These efforts have been endlessly controversial: to some, they’re a sign of his impeccable taste and shapeshifting virtuosity; to others, they make him a culture vulture and a wave rider.
The criticism has not stopped Drake from diving into the latest cutting-edge of hip-hop: drill. The frenetic and gruff style has found homes in Chicago, London and Brooklyn, and recently crossed over with the success of Pop Smoke, who was becoming a mainstream force before he was murdered in February. On “Demons” and “War,” Drake links up with some of the world’s most prominent drill artists—the British producers AXL Beats and JB Made It and the Brooklyn rapper Fivio Foreign—and splatters the tracks with borrowed flows and British lingo. While the songs have been met with some mockery online, they’ve also racked up millions of streams and reinforced his ability to absorb hip-hop’s vanguard.
Drake’s best (and most toxic) collaborations are with Future
Drake consistently strikes musical gold whenever he collaborates with Atlanta’s own, king of toxic masculinity, Future; this is roundly confirmed on Dark Lane, where Future’s bewitching trademark sound, equal parts blearily medicated and introspective autotune, brings the heat to two of the mixtape’s best tracks.
The sultry “Desires,” which dropped earlier this year, finds both artists in familiar territory—apparently bad-mouthing the women they haven’t been able to control in their lives. The casual misogyny is not a great look, to be sure. But Future’s flow on the track is an aural masterpiece. Thankfully less toxic and even more fun is “D4L Freestyle,” a tribute to the legendary Atlanta rap collective of the same name that enlists not only the talents of Future, but also Young Thug. Thugger attacks his verses with wry wit, Future deploys some seriously dexterous vocalizations and Drake has a ball playing off both of their energies.
The internet has turned on Playboi Carti
Playboy Carti, the flighty 23-year-old Atlantan, has a more rabid online fanbase than just about any rapper. His acolytes feverishly hang onto every cryptic tweet or leaked snippet; his upcoming album Whole Lotta Red is one of the most anticipated hip-hop records of 2020. When Carti’s name showed up on the tracklist for “Dark Lane Demo Tapes,” many assumed he would steal the spotlight from Drake, just like he had on Solange’s “Almeda” and Tyler the Creator’s “Earfquake.”
But on Friday morning, Carti was trending for all the wrong reasons. Fans deemed his verse on “Pain 1993” sluggish and infantile, writing that Drake had outperformed Carti on his own flow and with his own frequent producer, P’ierre Bourne. Even Carti’s own subreddit was flooded with memes mocking his “baby voice.”
Drake appears to bury the hatchet with his father
Drake has always been a mama’s boy: his mother, Sandi Graham, has been the subject of many fawning lyrics over the years. Dark Lane is no different: he reminisces about living with her on the album opener, and then shouts her out by name on “When to Say When” before adding, “no one love you like your mother can.”
His relationship with his dad, however, has been a lot more conflicted, with Drake writing many lyrics about how his father, Dennis Graham, was largely absent from his childhood. A few months ago, the two got into a public spat when Graham accused Drake of embellishing the negative aspects of their relationship. Drake responded dejectedly on Instagram: “It’s sad when family gets like this but what can we really do that’s the people we are stuck with.”
But Drake clears the air on “Losses,” which features audio clips from a warm conversation the two had on Instagram Live during the pandemic in March. They can be heard taking shots together—and on the very next line, Drake raps, “Being here wasn’t in the plans/ I do it for the Grahams, not the ‘gram.”
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