In the same way that we might only be able to tell if we’ve flattened the curve in hindsight, we will also have to look back in retrospect to find out if Drake’s already reached the peak of his career. There are arguments to be made about when exactly he reached that point musically. Was it on 2016’s Views?Nothing Was The Same? IYRTITL? Because it certainly wasn’t Scorpion. In the minds of some, Drake will, if he isn’t already, become the cultural and musical archetype of what a rapper can be in the fabric of American culture. He reached pop stardom with hip-hop as the vehicle. That’s not a jab or even an insinuation that Drake’s a culture vulture because, frankly, Drake’s dictated popular culture for the better part of the last 10 years. Lil Wayne, Kanye West, and Jay-Z laid down the foundation for Drake to reach the type of mainstream success that he’s been able to attain. But as Drake reaches a point in his career where he’s broken records, collected plaques, and has dozens of trophies to his name, we’re left wondering what Dark Lane Demo Tapes actually contributes to his illustrious career.
Entering the 2020s, Drake already had the bragging rights of claiming he has more hits than the Beatles and soon enough, he’ll have either tied or exceeded Madonna for most top 10 singles on the Billboard Hot 100. But what does that truly mean at the end of the day when the music that’s being released is, at best, mid? Drake’s set a bar for himself over the years as both an artist and a brand. A consistent one, at that. His most recent efforts have thrived off of nostalgia. Care Package was exactly that — arriving just days before OVO Fest, he took the year off to celebrate the Toronto Raptors first Championship trophy and to bank off of previously released singles that were only available on YouTube or Soundcloud. And the people ate it up. A compilation album of loose songs sold more records in its first week than the majority of rappers sell in a month. But in an opinion-based sport where album sales and Billboard charts carry more weight than the music itself, Care Package marked Drake’s ninth consecutive number one album on the Billboard 200.
For Drake, it’s effortless. He drops music, the people, including his haters, find something to appreciate about it. Dark Lane Demo Tapes surely has the same effect on people. The “surprise” factor though seems more tactful than the OVO team leads on. Not necessarily because of the three-hour notice we all received, but simply based on the fact that there isn’t another rapper in the game, aside from Jay-Z, who is as calculated as Drake. There’s intention behind every step, every move, every word he raps in his music. So when he mentions that Noel and Oliver put together the project in a matter of days, it feels a little hard to believe.
“War” closed out an otherwise quiet year from Drake as he dove into a new buzzing sound that had yet to seep into mainstream hip-hop, marking a stylistic shift. Then, he delivered one of the “time-stamp” type joints with the double-hitter of “When To Say When/Chicago Freestyle” that showcased his lyrical weight with nods to both Jay-Z and Eminem. But the loose records and leaks that formed Dark Lane Demo Tapes were lackluster, especially for Drake’s standards. Sure, there are notable moments, but just how memorable are they when a large portion of the project was comprised of leaks? Drake immortalizes pivotal moments of his life with his pen while scoring the soundtrack to ours. But in the wake of a global pandemic that’s claiming thousands of lives, will we look back with glee that, at the very least, we got a new album from Drake? Probably not. In all actuality, it wouldn’t be shocking if “Toosie Slide” triggers PTSD after the global pandemic ends.
That’s the problem with Dark Lane Demo Tapes, though. Even a song like “Toosie Slide,” that’s essentially been constructed to have the same type of success as “God’s Plan,” isn’t firmly propped up atop the Billboard Hot 100. It’s a hit, and not even French Montana can take that away from him but this week, “Toosie Slide” slid down to number 3 on the charts with Travis Scott and Kid Cudi’s “The Scotts” claiming the top spot and fellow Torontonian The Weeknd’s “Blinding Lights” sitting at #2. Despite everything that has haunted his career from physical confrontations to getting exposed for keeping a ghostwriter on deck, the one thing that truly no other artist could hold against him was his numbers. There isn’t a single one of Drake’s contemporaries — whether in hip-hop or not — who can compete in terms of his Billboard numbers or album sales. “Toosie Slide,” specifically, felt far more contrived than any other Drake song. He’s typically creating the waves, or if he is riding it, it’s before the rest of the world catches up. But Drake is a 33-year-old father — TikTok isn’t supposed to be his main audience unless he recently decided to cater his music to Adonis’ play group.
If numbers are truly an indication of anything in the rap game, it reflects the public’s general curiosity rather than their approval. However, there’s been a dip in streaming in the past few weeks, in spite of the global pandemic. By the end of March, the U.S. music industry hit a new all-time low in album sales with 1.52M album-equivalent units sold in the week ending on March 19th. Tory Lanez even admitted his “low” sales for New Toronto 3 was due to the decline in music consumption. However, the Drake brand is meant to be pandemic-proof. Solid enough to weather any economic, social or political storm. Dark Lane Tape Demos is expected to move 230K to 255K, but it’s in a tight race for the #1 spot on the Billboard 200 against country star Kenny Chesney’s new album who’s expected to move 220K to 235K– with nearly the entirety of those numbers coming from pure album sales. A country star ending Drake’s streak with nine consecutive #1 wouldn’t be the most unimaginable thing to happen in 2020 but if it were to happen, would that be a sign that Drake’s status as a chart-topping behemoth is beginning to deteriorate?
With a vault that’s guarded by the precious lives of OVO shooters and engineers, the string of leaks over the past year took part of Drake’s artistic and entrepreneurial control away from him. He had his B-Rabbit moment when he turned weaknesses into strengths by adding “(LEAK 2020)” to the titles of Soundcloud drops. The highly-anticipated release of “Pain 1993” with Playboi Carti, the song that forever found itself surfacing on the web through low-quality recordings and short snippets, fell short of expectations in its final outcome even though the demand was high. Drake gave the people what they wanted. Still, regardless of how Drake plans on identifying this project, collaborations with artists like Young Thug, Future and Chris Brown will still resonate in some fashion with the public, even if it’s based on Spotify algorithms.
The lion’s share of the album is familiar ground for Drake — reminiscing on old flings from Houston, grandiose flexes that only he can relate to etc. Even so, there are flashes where he foreshadows the next move. Songs like “Deep Pockets,” “Landed” and “From Florida With Love” dive into this muddy, foggy whirlwind of production that takes animated derivatives of Soundcloud, lo-fi production while refining it for radio play. Largely due to 40’s trusted ear and Turkish-Swiss producer Oz’s contributions, there’s clearly parts of Drake that’s yearning to tread new grounds. Even on a song like “Landed,” Drake’s flow seemingly takes note from some of the young boys, namely OVO affiliate and possible signee, Smiley, though he’d argue that it was because of his Cartier pen.
This project ultimately marks a chess move on Drake’s part. Dark Lane Demo Tapes is, after all, an easy money grab. Call me a conspiracy theorist if you will but given Drake’s meticulous nature, Dark Lane Demo Tapes feels like a way to lower expectations ahead of his next album. I mean, even as television production halts and touring plans put on hold, Dark Lane Demo Tapes is likely a means of generating income with B-Sides that demonstrate just how easily he makes a hit record. Quotable bars for days and earworms for hooks that I’ve only grown more fond of as the days pass.
Let’s not forget that the last time he graced fans with a surprise body of work, it was If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late. Shifting the trajectory of Drake’s career and his sound as a whole, it further pushed him closer to the realms of the GOATs. And there’s an argument to be made that the initial response to Views didn’t meet expectations because of how If You’re Reading This was received. Dark Lane Demo Tapes seemingly plots on a reverse effect; delivering mediocrity to hold fans over while safely locking away the gems for his next album.
Pockets of growth are scattered throughout a project that can otherwise be compared to the hip-hop equivalent of NBA Playoff reruns in the COVID-19 era. Drake pushed the boundaries of hip-hop as far as he can and those he’s influenced are still trying to find their foot in the game. Can anyone knock Drake from the top? Maybe not, but that’s with all things considered — he’s taken hip-hop to new heights, for better or for worse. Dark Lane Demo Tapes has a purpose in his catalog, though not in the way that it’s been sold. It moved 100K units within its first four days of its release which is expected of Drake. At the end of the day, the real accomplishment doesn’t necessarily trickle down to numbers. The world evolves, as does the game, and to keep up, one has to adapt. Drake’s done that over the past few years more so than he’s birthed any new style. He’s relied on others to help him accomplish that. The follow-up to Scorpion will ultimately dictate whether Drake remains a musical and cultural powerhouse in the decade to come.