Fourteen years after Drake broke through with his So Far Gone mixtape, public reaction to his new projects has grown predictable. The Toronto rapper/singer will run up numbers on Spotify and Apple Music because, well, he’s the king of streaming. A social-media war will inevitably break out over the quality of his music, his reputed softness in comparison to past street-hardened GOATs, and his beefs with sundry bold-faced rivals. In recent months, those online debates have grown coarse and self-righteous, thanks to an unfortunate lyrical shift towards fellating his own male id on Her Loss, his pathetically execrable collaboration from last year with 21 Savage.
Drake fans and haters alike will find plenty of fodder on For All the Dogs. Skeptics who bemoan the 36-year-old superstar’s Peter Pan-like immaturity will cite “Daylight,” where he claims, “I’m trying to fuck all the bitches that look at my ex,” then invites his five-year-old son Adonis to drop a verse at track’s end. On “First Person Shooter,” he’s not only thoroughly outclassed by J Cole, he also raps, “Man, I pack ‘em in these phones like some sardines/And they send me naked pictures, it’s the small things.” It’s one of several desultory lyrics where he discusses women like he’s stocking a meat freezer.
However, those low points are offset by impressive tracks like “IDGAF,” where Drake and Yëat trade hooks and verses on a glitch-y bass thumper. “Bahamas Promises,” sung to a mysterious “Hailey,” also satisfies. Then there’s “8am in Charlotte,” the latest entry in his time-stamped freestyles and perhaps his best display of orthodox rapping on For All the Dogs. It’s produced by Conductor Williams, who’s best known for his work with Mach-Hommy and Westside Gunn, and has a muffled, dreamlike quality that recalls Drake’s most spellbinding songs.
There’s evidence of a good album somewhere within the hour-and-a-half long bloat that is For All the Dogs. Reflective of his catalog post-Views, he often appears to be ticking boxes. There are knuckleheaded turn-up ragers (“Daylight”) and panties-to-the-side melodic slow jams (“BBL Love”). Ever the playlist curator, he nods towards Latin trap with “Gently,” a buoyant collaboration with Bad Bunny; and, less successfully, gives space to a few Chief Keef bars on the disappointing “All the Parties.” Then there’s “Rich Baby Daddy,” where tries to platform Trump-loving lightning rod Sexxy Red like he once did with City Girls on “In My Feelings.” (SZA appears on the track as well.) With an engagingly honeyed sound built around a sample of Florence + the Machine sped up to resemble Nineties Atlanta bass, “Rich Baby Daddy” will undoubtedly perform well on iHeart Radio stations everywhere.
Less obvious is what still motivates Drake other than wealth and trophies, female or otherwise. There are small clues, like when Snoop Dogg (“7969”) and Sade (“BBL Love”) — the latter a marvelous coup given Drake’s well-documented obsession with the British-Nigerian singer — appear as fictitious hosts on “BARK Radio.” Snoop may be an ideal for how Drake wants to evolve: a goofy, eternally beloved cool uncle who can separate his pimp-rap persona from his real life as a football-teaching family man. To be clear, Drake doesn’t need to get married to convince us he’s a nice guy. But gawking about bra sizes on his recent “It’s All a Blur” tour and chirping about hoes on “What Would Pluto Do?” probably don’t help his cause.
More worrying on For All the Dogs is how often Drake’s guests outwork him, whether it’s J Cole, PARTYNEXTDOOR on “Members Only,” or SZA on “Slime You Out.” Even Teezo Touchdown, who is certainly no Ty Dolla $ign, croons with more vivid emotion on “7969.” To be fair, one of Drake’s unacknowledged talents is how he willingly cedes the spotlight to others. Yet in the past, when he gracefully stepped aside for the likes of onetime friend Kendrick Lamar (“Buried Alive Interlude”), Sampha (“4422”), and Yebba (“Yebba’s Heartbreak”), he still felt present in the music.
Is Drake exhausted from being Drake? During an October 6 pre-album broadcast of his Sirius XM show “Table for One,” he speculated that he might take a break. “I need to focus on my health,” he said, blaming a bout of stomach problems. ““I have a lot of other things that I would love to focus on.”
It’s been years since Drake’s so-called “imperial phase,” and the widely praised brilliance of gems like If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late and Nothing Was the Same. Yet even amidst increasingly uneven work, there’s been one constant: an album-closing number where he funnels all his pride and anxieties into a long, hook-less moment of clarity. Songs like “The Remorse” from Certified Lover Boy offer fleeting evidence that The Boy is still out there, somewhere in the sperm-y spectacle. It’s hard not to miss that unrepentantly cheesy and ambitious suburban dreamer, the unlikely Canadian voice who linked up with Lil Wayne’s Young Money camp and forced a generation of listeners to reconsider how a rap superhero should look, sound, and act.
Now, there’s only “Away from Home,” the penultimate For All the Dogs track that feels like a crushing disappointment. Much as Drake insulted Megan Thee Stallion on “Circo Loco” from Her Loss, he smears jazz bassist Esperanza Spalding for her surprise victory over him at the 2011 Best New Artist Grammy. “Esperanza Spalding was getting all the praises/I’m trying to keep it humble, I’m trying to keep it gracious,” he raps. “Who gives a fuck Michelle Obama put you on a playlist?/Then we never hear from you again like you was taken.” How ironic that Spalding has evolved into not only one of the most iconoclastic performers of her time, but also a symbol of how jazz is captivating young listeners at a level that few who once called the genre “buried” would have ever anticipated?
Meanwhile, Drake meanders through yet another collection of superlong streaming bait. For All the Dogs may have its sparks. But too often, he settles for subliminal bars aimed at rivals like Kanye West and Pusha T, keeping it “gangsta” by putting down women and, of course, filling up the piggy bank. “I wish we could stop all the beefing,” he raps on “All the Parties,” only to conclude, “It’s not realistic/What’s realistic is the money that we spend/We coppin’ cars like policemen.”
Well, as the Mad Man meme goes: That’s what the money is for.