The music industry bows to Drake. Hits are the currency, and Champagne Papi delivers them consistently without fail. And despite his last studio album being an objectively bloated poorly masked excuse for Spotify streaming fodder, it had hype and hits, the simple formula to Drake’s continued dominance. No matter how much mood music throwaways and mids-level bangers he drops, when he’s on point — you can’t ignore him.
So when rumors of a new mixtape from Aubrey Graham swirled through the timeline, fans and haters made it a point to at least give the new project a listen. The 6 God still holds Thanos-esque power over the streaming ecosystem. He can make you abandon your release day listening plans, or at least delay them just so you can hear whatever he’s cooking up: regardless of quality.
He achieved this feat again with his latest (mixtape, project, playlist? Who knows at this point?) release Dark Lane Demo Tapes, a collection of moody bangers and ballads that show glimpses how Drake can still command the attention of the masses, while simultaneously shooting himself in the foot with unfocused loosies, allowing filler to poison the few good crops he produces.
The project basks in dour ambiance, projecting a setting of drizzling rain cascading from the clouds in the grey sky as vibrating 808s set the tone. Drake sounds like he’s crooning from the balcony of a high rise loft at 3 a.m., draped in a Versace Baroque bathrobe as he sips on red wine. He’s set this vibe before. Retread is one of Drake’s greatest strengths and weaknesses. He excels at repackaging the same song heard multiple times over, but sometimes he overestimates when the schtick has gone stale.
The inaugural track “Deep Pockets” is evidence of the latter. It’s another spacey and dulled intro that he’s made countless times before; “We Made It” energy without any stakes.
“Chicago Freestyle” finds Drizzy lamenting over his lost connection with women, which interpolates Eminem’s “Superman.” It fits perfectly, creating this pitch-black night-time atmosphere that’s somber enough to make Heartbreak Drake sound like he’s reminiscing on old flames like they’re deceased rather than just posted in another city. Long Beach vocalist Giveon adds to the melancholic melodies delivering a performance so haunting, people initially got him confused with the incredible Sampha.
Even when the record produces something of interest, the consistent dreary vibe makes things drag out a bit, and the early placing of “Toosie Slide” doesn’t help. The Billboard Hot 100 No. 1 hit is arguably one of his most comatose singles in the past few years, dimmed further by lethargic energy that acts as lullaby music rather than a dance track. It’s made for TikTok and to go viral: nothing else.
The guests on the tape bring out the best in Drake, like a sleeping king who gets awoken by challengers coming for his crown.
He matches the pace of the completely manic features from Future and Young Thug on “D4L,” a surefire college kegger staple for whenever house parties return, and plays cold-blooded straight man alongside Playboi Carti’s helium-induced harmonies on “Pain 1993,” one of the more polarizing tracks on the record.
Drake turns to biting Brooklyn Drill on the watered-down “Demons,” though he at least gives rising New York rappers Sosa Geek and Fivio Foreign a platform to shine. Fans are still better off checking out Sheff G, 22Gz, the late Pop Smoke, or Fivio’s solo work.
He doesn’t always need guests to generate an energetic banger. Drake delivers a catchy chorus on “Time Flies,” despite the song still feeling like a second draft rather than a fully formed product. And the imagery of hanging with Lil Wayne and the late Kobe Bryant in the back of the tour bus on the MexikoDro produced, plug beat backed “From Florida With Love” makes for yet another regional anthem the natives will cherish endlessly.
However, it’s “Losses” that nails the balance Drake’s been going for, dropping bars about acquaintances buying their friends, how he could have turned to a life of crime, and doing it for the Grahams, not the ‘Gram. “I’m not tryna make no song, these are cold facts,” he raps with stern honesty. He’s hurt and doesn’t mind telling his truth. For the first time during this listening experience: you can’t help but feel for Drake. It’s a shame this thoughtfulness isn’t put on display more because it’s the most well-written ballad. If only it came sooner than the latter half of the mixtape: intro worthy material that gets relegated to the back seat.
Once again Drizzy has found a way to craft songs that will deeply resonate with some and less with others, continuing to get listeners to press play — quality be damned. Even with its faults, Dark Lane Demo Tapes has already built anticipation for his next album scheduled for this summer. Intentional or not, he’s captured the shared sadness of the moment; a fitting soundtrack to the grim reality we all currently live in.