Album Review: Drake – Dark Lane Demo Tapes

[OVO; 2020]

It’s still all too easy to recall a time in which Drake insisted he would never fall off. For years now, he’s reached for whatever keeps his brand afloat, and for some time was rather savvy about it. Despite cherry picking styles and swooping in on trends – from Future’s peak to grime’s resurgence to his fake patois, and everything in between – just before they hit their true stride so as to partly claim them as his own, these very things not only seemed to slide right off him, but to only constantly reaffirm his stranglehold on popular music. Drake is the type of guy who will remix your song, and somehow ensure only he sees the benefit of it.

For quite some time now, plenty of us have asked – not vindictively, more out of professional curiosity – how long it could all last. After all, with the bloated, stream-begging Views, his hunger seemed to finally leave him. After all, once you have a house that would make a mobster’s wife jealous, who could blame you for no longer caring?

Ever since Aubrey Graham snatched “Hotline Bling” out of D.R.A.M.’s hands, he’s coasted on making singles-as-memes more than anything resembling actual, thought out music. His latest smash, “Toosie Slide”, is the lowest he’s yet stooped; hardly even a song, with Drake sleepwalking through dance instructions with the sole intention of making a Tik Tok sensation. Even more, it’s anemic and, frankly, depressing as a representation of the state of Billboard-seeking singles – the musical equivalent of a cheap air freshener.

Even his buzz tracks – usually a sure thing from Drake – were tired. “When to Say When” found its creator even bored of talking about his favorite topic: how rich and generous he is. It was also telling when “Chicago Freestyle”’s best moment came lifted word for word from an Eminem classic.

So, then, that made Dark Lane Demo Tapes, dropped unannounced this past Friday, surprising, at least in presentation. Its album art finds the Degrassi alum in full GTA fantasy mode, yet again limply imagining himself someone threatening. The title, meanwhile, seems to want to imply a roughness and vulnerability that was certainly not found in the pristinely smothered Scorpion. For a project that clearly begs to be seen as possessing a certain, well, danger, Dark Lane is shockingly bland.

Drake’s sound, more than ever on Dark Lane, is smoothed over into being so innocuous you might fail to realize it was even new music – even more egregious than songs from any of his last few albums that you simply forget for being lesser inclusions. Ostensibly a quarantine gift for fans, it’s as transparent a bid for passive dominance as any in Drake’s recent career. The vast majority of Dark Lane could play in a suburban Baskin Robbins without offending a single soccer mom. Honestly, they’d be unlikely to even notice it was playing.

The few songs that would have moms asking to speak to the manager – which are by and large the project’s better offerings – feel more cribbed from younger artists’ playbooks than ever for the Toronto king’s rapidly aging brand. He panders to Brooklyn drill (“Demons” is by far the best song to be found here), hopes Playboi Carti will inject some much needed life into his music on “Pain 1993” (for his part, even the irrepressible Carti sounds suffocated by the formula, sleepwalking through his verse), and relies on allies Future and Young Thug yet again. 

Tracks that sound the most like “Drake” could be mistaken for any number of songs from his past releases; both his sound and favorite obsessions now so familiar so as to register them as background noise at best. Naturally, some artists have managed to maintain long, interesting careers within a narrow stylistic vein, but Drake quite simply is no longer one of them. Even he sounds entirely uninterested in his latest romantic woes, forcing out the same petty crooning as ever.

Given that “Toosie Slide” is already an inescapable, torturous, yawning maw of a smash hit, and that Drake has, as ever, sliced up and repatterned enough desperately relevant moments, Dark Lane Demo Tapes is sure to keep him around as a – if not still the – massive presence in music. So, we’re left, yet again, to ponder: for how long can this go on? Will our collective consciousness ever move on, or will Drake finally suffocate any and all originality to the point that we all forget what something resembling urgency felt like?