The shockwaves sent across the music industry this week are only beginning to dissipate as fans begin to soundtrack their lives to Donda and Certified Lover Boy. Both Kanye & Drake respectively have induced furious debate amongst critics, contemporaries, collaborators, cultists and the casual fan, all asking “Who will deliver the coldest album of the year?”. Who will continue to define the cultural and musical landscape as clubs and concerts across the world return for post-pandemic partying? Will either curate a genre-defining album or is single success the only thing that matters once you’ve run out of wall space to put your platinum plaques?
Answers began arising on Friday night once Drake’s 21 track project surfaced on streaming sites. Fans were immediately elated by an impressive roster of features assembled on Certified Lover Boy, many of whom also appeared on Donda. Artists like Future, Young Thug, Travis Scott, Jay-Z, Kid Cudi & 21 Savage all flank OVO on his crusade to craft an album that, in his own words, explores “a combination of toxic masculinity and acceptance of truth, which is inevitably heartbreaking.”
Now that CLB is out in the open and the never-ending charade of Donda listening parties is over, we can finally see who has inevitably locked up the title of “Album Of The Year”. Will Drake’s lyricism and penmanship outshine a Kanye project weighted down by cinematic orchestration drowning out any wordplay on display? Which artist did the tantalisingly similar line-up of feature artists turn out harder for? Perhaps most crucially, will Drake’s production dwindle Donda’s shine with beats influenced by his love of international genres like UK Grime, Trap, Afrobeats, Jamaican Dancehall, Reggaeton among many others?
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PRODUCTION & LYRICISM
The first thing we have to talk about when it comes to the quality of CLB is the holy trinity of tracks composed of ‘No Friends In The Industry’, ‘Knife Talk’, and ‘7am On Bridle Path’. ‘No Friends’ kicks off this trifecta of potent production with rolling 80’s synths and daunting looped organ samples that ironically adds a grandness comparable to a Kanye production. Big lofty crescendos, panning inverted chord progressions, and isolated instrumentation to create bridge breaks all give the impression that Drake is schooling Ye at his own game…all while sending shots straight across the bow.
It becomes rapidly clear that Drake’s declaration that he “had to draw the line between my brothers and my enemies” is explicitly directed at Kanye following his decision to post Drakes address online – something the 6God jibes at by re-exposing his address by titling a whole track ‘7am on Bridle Path’. Although it would take a PhD thesis to dissect the meaning of this track or to explain the state of the ongoing “will-they won’t-they” melodrama evolving between Ye & Drake, it’s clear that Drake is adamant to be seen taking the high road throughout this whole thing, never once taking it too far afield or appearing too direct. This track is Drake at his finest. Razor-sharp lyricism scowled through gritted teeth whilst still somehow seeming smooth is his delivery and ice-cold in his composure. Pissed-off Drake is a force to be reckoned with and one we are happy to see him make an appearance on this project.
The production of ‘Knife Talk’ is expertly understated, creating an imposing and goolish atmosphere that only accentuates the straight crud coming out of 21 Savage’s mouth. Creepy Ludovico Einaudi-like keys layered over a haunting Tudor-ish violin make for a perfect accompaniment to the spine chilling 808’s on offer. The track never feels rushed as both Drake & 21 play with timing and spacing to juxtapose a Trap style lyrical texture with an inherently slower old-school hip-hop tempoed track, gliding across tinny high hats with ease.
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‘7 am On Bridle Path’ is Drakes’ cheeky wordsmith character evolved to its final form. Both the production and lyrics reach a satisfactory level of smug pettiness you can only expect from an artist that has just named a track after the address that was leaked just days earlier by his most petulant rival. From a production standpoint, the track is minimalist in its construction but complex in its execution as a tricky vocal sample creates a messier pocket for Drizzy to ride in. The most impressive aspect of the track’s production is the level of restraint demonstrated throughout it as the beat remains engaging yet steps into the background to allow Drake to shell, only arising in the brief intervals between his witty verses. Perhaps the only thing more impressive about the track is that Drake is somehow able to fit 2021 NBA Champion Giannis Antetokounmpo’s last name into a rhyming scheme during the first verse. I’ve been waiting to see someone name drop The Greek Freak in a verse, so it’s good to see Drake step up to the plate.
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Other examples of pure production poetry arrive on the aptly named ‘Champagne Poetry’ as Drake chops and changes the instantly recognisable instrumental to ‘Navajo’ by Masego. His ability to break apart a contemporary classic and reform it into something that not only sounds original but also plays with the listeners preconceived understanding of how the track should go to build anticipation is a perfect example of Drake’s astute awareness of the contemporary cultural landscape. He uses our familiarity with the track to hold us in suspense, teasing our desire to hear Masego jump into the track in order to build a drop that never arrives – instead reinventing an era-defining track into something that could be a Drake original.
Special shoutouts must go to ‘Girls Want Girls’ for offering us the strangest opening four-bar to a track ever with: “Yeah, say that you a lesbian, girl, me too”. I would love to be able to shed some light on the mystical meaning behind this Shakespearean proclamation, but quite frankly, much like all of Twitter, I haven’t been this confused by a lyric since The Killers asked the age-old question “Are we human or are we Dancer?”. Other honourable mentions must go to ‘Papi’s Home’ for showing the world how hip-hop and gospel can coexist without oozing either a “Chance The Rapper cringe” or a creepy cultish aesthetic. Stormzy would be proud!
Let’s start off with what has easily been the most talked-about feature track off CLB, ‘Way 2 Sexy’ featuring a heavy-hitting tag-team duo of Future and Young Thug. Even though Drake has always been a master of creating satirical beats that draw from the most random recesses of music history, I don’t think anyone was expecting to hear a tribute to Right Said Fred on this project. There may be some truth to the saying “there’s nothing new under the sun”, nonetheless Thug & Future combine forces to put a modern twist on a 90’s dance-pop anthem that ultimately sounds like a fresh riddim suited for the current societal soundscape. Drake once again shows us his ability to reintroduce tracks that risk fading away into the annals of history to a brand new generation by revamping the original concept to fit today’s street culture climate.
The extensive list of industry legends that join Drake on CLB continues with a truly surprising appearance from Hove on ‘Love All’. The context of Jay-Z’s recent appearance on Donda makes this track even more fascinating as many looked at ‘Jail 2’ as Jay’s way of showing his renewed love for Kanye. With all the drama between Ye and Drake in recent months, any cross-contamination of featured artists was inevitably going to spark talk of artist allegiances. If performance is any indicator of preference then it’s hard to argue that Jay isn’t in Drakes corner with this one. The toned-down production on ‘Love All’ allows Jay to deliver a much more concise and impactful verse that appears to be drawing out Kanye with bars like “All that back and forth on the internet…we don’t tennis that, y’all gotta do something, yeah”. Maybe Jay’s appearance on Donda was less of a symbol of camaraderie and more of a reminder that you don’t need to be friends with each other to make money together.
Beyond the lengthy list of industry legends joining Drake on CLB, an array of up-and-coming artists and modern revolutionaries make their presence felt throughout. Memphis singer-songwriter Yebba is gifted an entire track titled ‘Yebba’s Heartbreak’, a delicate track of raw instrumentation that’s placed immaculately before the heavily processed tones of ‘No Friends’ begins, piercing any inertia formed by overexposure to 808’s and synths. Drake’s willingness to give a relatively undiscovered artist a platform all to herself is somewhat of a testament to how he views this album as being a reflection of his culture and community rather than being all about himself. When you contrast this against the heavily Ye-centric aesthetic of Donda, it becomes easy to see why many will favour the lighthearted and diverse approach Drake has taken with his project.
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Lastly, a special shoutout must be given to Lil Durk for hilariously name dropping his girlfriend’s makeup business ‘India Royale Cosmetic’ halfway through his verse on ‘In The Bible’. I don’t know what level of friendship you have to have with Drake before he starts letting you promote family businesses on his album, but whatever level it is Durk has reached it! You’re a real one Lil Durk, way to help your lady out! Similarly, Travis Scott deserved special attention for having the balls to go ahead and lay down a fire verse on ‘Fair Trade’ after delivering one of the best performances on Donda. However, in my book, there is nobody that deserved the award for ‘Best Feature Verse’ on this album more than 21 Savage and Project Pat on ‘Knife Talk’.
IMPACT ON DRAKE’S LEGACY & BEST ALBUM OF THE YEAR?
Considering Certified Lover Boy could have easily been overshadowed by Donda – had it met the impossibly high standards expected following a month of confusing listening parties – Drake has unquestionably shifted the public gaze back North of the US border with Certified Lover Boy and away from whatever NFL stadium Kanye currently resides in. Whilst it is usually impossible to tell whether we are being held prisoner of the moment – since its release conversation has exclusively centred around the consistent level of execution and cultural awareness exhibited by Drake throughout every track on CLB.
With Donda, Kanye demonstrated an unmistakable sense of raw artistry and an adept ability to craft a traditional ‘album’ that aims to tell a cohesive story that somewhat illuminates the many facets of Ye’s contemporary persona. However, none of that really matters if nobody actually listens to more than 30% of the album after a week because it requires too much acute contextual knowledge or effort to actually enjoy it. Throughout Certified Lover Boy Drake does exactly what he and everybody else knows he does well. Cold hard-hitting punchlines layered amongst an array of complex but easily digested rhyme schemes strung across instrumentals inspired by the local genres enjoyed in every outpost of Drake’s global empire. Whether it’s UK Grime, Trap, Jamaican Dancehall, Gospel or Ambient, Drake excels at satisfying a wider demographic of his fandom whilst still pushing his sound to new depths – in essence, becoming more ‘Drake’ than ever.