“Whatever’s in me, it’s takin’ over,” Drake raps on his new mixtape’s opening track, ‘Deep Pockets’. “I gotta bust it down, break it open / Until somebody starts takin’ notice, then we rollin’”. These are telling few lines from an artist whose popularity to control quality control ratio is way out of whack. Whatever Aubrey Graham puts out, people will listen. “Self-control has never been your thing,” he admits later on ‘Desires’.
For the latter half of the past decade, Drake has seemed so entrenched in his tried-and-tested tactic of strategic saturation, timeline flooding and success-by-streaming-numbers that quality has increasingly become of secondary importance. His last album, 2018’s mammoth 25-tracker ‘Scorpion’, fell victim to exactly this pitfall. There was a solid album in there somewhere, but it was drowned out by hubris and overkill from the self-confessed workaholic.
Not much seems to have changed with ‘Dark Lane Demo Tapes’, the Toronto don’s new collection of one-off singles, leaked tracks and throwaway fillers. Announcing the release on Instagram, Drake described the project as bringing together “a lot of the songs people have been asking for”. It’s clear by this point that the option of simply not releasing something is out of question for Drake, an artist with a history of stop-gap releases designed to keep everyone busy and ensure the rapper’s star still shines.
While all these projects come with varied degrees of success (for every vibrant, experimental ‘More Life’, you get a fan-serving exercise like last year’s ‘Care Package’), the main problem with this latest drop isn’t that it’s bad, more that it’s simply unremarkable, and quite frankly needless. Drake’s biggest strength has always been his versatility; he’s a rapper-singer-lyricist with the ability to shape-shift between boasty underdog MC, mournful late-night crooner and hit-making dancefloor-filler. But what happens when people are already all too aware of your tricks and turns?
For the most part, ‘Dark Lane Demo Tapes’ is business as usual for Drake, who plays it safe and falling back on familiar terrain. Cuts such as ‘Deep Pockets’ and ‘Desires’ find the rapper in the defensive, claustrophobic-sounding zone of 2016’s ‘Views’; the Chris Brown-featuring ‘Not You Too’ is reminiscent of the breezy, yearning ballads occupying the second half of ‘Scorpion’; and ‘Time Flies’ is almost identical to ‘In My Feelings’ from that latter album.
But it’s not just a case of recycling here. There are some proper duds too: the hyped Playboi Carti collab ‘Pain 1993’ passes by like a non-event, while ‘Toosie Slide’ is little more than a transparent smash-and-grab at TikTok virality. And how did Drake think he could incorporate a cover of Eminem’s ‘Superman’ into ‘Chicago Freestyle’ without sounding cheesy as hell?
Drake’s taken a lot of stick in the past for genre-jacking (Wiley famously called him a “culture vulture”), but ‘Dark Lane Demo Tapes’ sounds freshest when he’s out of his comfort zone and switching up his style. ‘D4L’ (named after the noughties Atlanta rap collective) sees Drizzy link up with Young Thug and Future for a trap banger, while on ‘Demons’ and ‘War’ he hops on New York and UK drill beats. ‘When To Say When’, meanwhile, proves that even classic-sounding Drake can still resonate when he actually seems inspired.
Earlier this year, Drake promised fans that his next album, due in the summer, would be “more concise”. If getting this mixtape out of the way means we get a scorcher of a succinct, 12-track record later in the year, then – all right – we’ll allow it.
Release date: May 1
Record label: OVO/Republic Records