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Drake: Dark Lane Demo Tapes review – rap’s whingeing king hits a dead end | Music


In a world where the boundary between mixtapes and albums is becoming ever more blurred, the title of Drake’s latest album highlights its interstitial nature. That said, it’s still slightly misleading. There are tracks here that sound like demos – the mopey James Blake-isms of Chicago Freestyle are audibly unpolished – but for the most part, it ’s a way of collecting up leftovers and leaks, spare tracks he apparently has lying around the studio.

Those inclined to view Drake’s career with a cool eye might be surprised he has any spare tracks lying around the studio, given the state of his last album. Listening to Scorpion, 25 songs long, required a certain degree of mental stamina: you needed, to steel yourself against the panicky sensation that you might die of old age before it ended. But it wasn’t the sheer quantity that was the problem so much as the quality of what was there. Scorpion had its moments but was so hopelessly uneven that it was easy to buy into the theory that its length was not due to its author’s teeming multiplicity of fantastic ideas, but an attempt to game the streaming services: more songs means more streams, more streams means a higher chart placing.

Scorpion was both the second best-selling album of 2018 and the worst-reviewed album of Drake’s career, which leaves him in an intriguing position. Do you listen to the critics and pull your artistic socks up a bit? Or do you file them away in your ever-growing list of haters and continue raking in the cash by manipulating the means by which music is now distributed?

The hit single from Dark Lane Demos suggests Drake thought the answer was a no-brainer. Toosie Slide wasn’t really a song, just a bald attempt to incite a dance craze on TikTok: a load of noncommittal meandering attached to instructions on how to do the titular move. On one level, you can’t blame artists for responding to market forces – TikTok exposure helped make hits out of Lizzo’s Truth Hurts and Lil Nas X’s Old Town Road – and Drake, to his immense credit, sang the whole thing with a tone of bored disdain, as if he found it all a little demeaning. He’s right: it is. Coming hot on the heels of Justin Bieber’s similarly meme-focussed Yummy, it feels like a harbinger of a nightmarish new pop era in which every major artist feels obliged to reduce themselves to the level of a children’s party DJ and trail their album with some ghastly millennial equivalent of the Birdie Dance or Agadoo.

Thankfully, Toosie Slide isn’t the whole story. The stuff Drake has fished out of his waste bin is occasionally fantastic (the Southside-produced D4L booms along with guests Future and Young Thug doing most of the lyrical heavy lifting; Demons is bracingly raw) and occasionally fascinating, not least the closing War, which not only features British drill producer AXL Beats but contains the diverting sound of longtime UK rap supporter Drake going fully native: it’s all “mandem” this and “ends” that. It’s also occasionally hugely irritating, as on Pain 1993, which features Playboi Carti whose “baby voice” is a striking gimmick, but a little of it goes a very long way and there’s an awful lot of it here.

Most of Dark Lane Demo Tapes, though, sits somewhere in between. Musically, it largely sticks with opaque washes of synths and muffled loops. Sometimes it sounds atmospheric – on From Florida With Love, producer MexikoDro constructs a spectral, impressively abstract backing track out of tape hiss and distortion – but a lot of the time it just sounds like a noncommittal shrug: tracks come and go without leaving much of a sonic impression. That leaves the listener concentrating on Drake’s lyrics, which is seldom one of life’s more encouraging experiences. You know what to expect, and you duly get it: anyone in the market for a game of Drake bingo should have their dobber out midway through opener Deep Pockets – on which we find him “losin’ sleep dealin’ with the envy” – and find themselves shouting “house” around the time of Desires, where yet again one of his relationships has gone up the wazoo because, you guessed it: “I was too good to you.”

To complain about a rapper bragging about being rich feels a bit like complaining about a Highland dancer wearing a kilt. But there’s something about Drake’s continued willingness to juxtapose his crowing with peevish whinging that feels particularly offputting at this precise moment.

Drake conjures a grim universe of self-justification and blame-apportioning, where blustering expressions of his eminence, wealth and superior understanding live alongside bursts of wounded anger that nobody displays sufficient gratitude or respect for his greatness, and a deathless conviction that half the world is ranged in a vast conspiracy to spread lies about him while he alone remains a source of truth and honesty. Listening to Dark Lane Demo Tapes occasionally feels like listening to one of Donald Trump’s daily coronavirus briefings put through AutoTune, a very odd way to spend your lockdown.

Of course, Dark Lane Demo Tapes is a stopgap measure. It may be that his forthcoming album proper sees him moving away from the drizzly electronic haze and adopting a different lyrical stance. Then again, why should he? People are still lapping it up: on release, Dark Lane Demo Tapes’ contents immediately dominated global streaming charts. And Drake seems to inhabit a world where commercial success trumps everything. That it isn’t always an indicator of quality appears to be passing him by.

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