While Drake’s last studio album Scorpion saw the Canadian rapper score some of the biggest hits of his career, including the inescapable “Gods Plan” and “In My Feelings” - there was also a sense after the double-album dropped that Drake had arrived at a creative roadblock. One of the positives from more R&B-focused second half of Scorpion was a sense that Drake was starting to push his creative boundaries, albeit with mixed results - see “Ratchet Happy Birthday”.
Unfortunately, while the long-awaited Certified Lover Boy is a more consistent and polished final product than Scorpion it still feels like a regression, as the subtle flirtation with experimentation has been shunned in favour of a fan-pleasing, enjoyable but ultimately by-the-numbers album that does little to evolve the Canadian’s sound.
Certified Lover Boy actually begins with an interesting flourish, with the first half of opening track "Champagne Poetry" chopping up a Beatles sample, setting the thematic tone of the project while hinting at a new direction for the album’s production. This slightly avant-garde experimentation lasts all of 150 seconds before the track switches to a more traditionally soulful rap instrumental, with Drake tapping into the same energy he delivered on Nothing Was The Same opener "Tuscan Leather".
Other early album cut "Papi’s Home", "Girls Want Girls" and "Love All" similarly echo Drake’s earlier work, with these tracks feeling like they’d comfortably sit on any of Drake’s last five projects. The production on each feels nocturnal and soulful, with Drake delivering melodic verses that play out as stream-of-consciousness, containing countless quotables and yet little to no depth. Basically, they closely follow the classic Drake formula.
While the less said about ‘Way 2 Sexy" the better, the album does start to spread its wings creatively after this point with two highlights "N 2 Deep" and "Pipe Down" managing to kickstart the flagging momentum. The sparse production on the first half of "N 2 Deep" gives way to a bass-heavy, darker mood as the beat switches, and Future delivers one of the few memorable guest moments up until point.
The emotional high point of CLB is "Yebba’s Heartbreak", which features the eponymous Yebba delivering a soul-wrenching performance over a haunting piano instrumental. The only issue is that Drake is nowhere to be heard on the track, and while he is no stranger to letting others shine solo on his projects (Skepta, Kendrick, Sampha etc), all it does is contrast how superficial much of this album feels in comparison.
The momentum begins to drop again from this point, with momentary glimpses of peak-Drake on tracks like "7am on Bridle Path" in which he fires thinly veiled shots at Kanye West, amongst others. By this point, it’s a relief to hear something animate and inspire Drake to this level and the track offers some pay off to the recent cold war between the two.
By the final stretch of the project, it’s the guest features that begin to carry the project, with Rick Ross and Lil Wayne adding some much-needed energy to "You Only Live Twice", and former Drake-adversary Kid Cudi shining on "IMY2".
Closer "The Remorse" is a classic Drake outro, and again feels like one of the few sincere moments from the rapper on Certified Lover Boy. Overall, it is by no means a poor project, in fact, it could be considered one of Drake’s more polished and consistent albums. However, Drake is overdue an evolution in his music, and what we actually hear is an artist retreating to his comfort zone and very rarely venturing out. Given how intertwined the album rollouts were for CLB and Kanye West’s Donda, it’s difficult to not compare the two. Love it or hate it, Donda provokes a response and fizzes with contradictions, high ideals and a questionable execution. In complete contrast, Certified Lover Boy is polished, well-executed and yet is completely devoid of ambition or memorable moments.