Drake’s career has slowly evolved into a science experiment, full of clever attempts to reverse-engineer music in hopes of perfecting it. That’s not to say his music lacks heart or soul; it’s merely that he has become so unbelievably big that his greatest challenge is less about becoming the king of rap and more about growing his sprawling, world-dominating brand. The formula has been solidified for some time, and the path is abundantly clear: release an album, drop a few loosies, deliver a mixtape or compilation, and do it again.
He uses between-album releases as a playground of sorts, and this is when he’s at his most experimental. The music never strays far from a particular Drake-iness, so it’s experimental more in form than content. And with his just-released Dark Lane Demo Tapes, he’s throwing caution to the wind. It’s all over the place, and a far cry from the meticulous approach he’s taken towards his entire career. Drake is letting loose, but don’t let his scattershot approach fool you: the songs on Dark Lane Demo Tapes are merely steps towards perfecting his next project, while removing critical consensus from this one.
Drake tempered expectations with the way he approached the mixtape’s pre-release promotion. On Thursday, April 30, he announced DLDT on Instagram. “My brothers Oliver El-Khatib and OVO Noel put together a lot of the songs people have been asking for (some leaks and some joints from SoundCloud and some new vibes),” he wrote. This lowered the stakes. If the songs hit, Drake is lauded for turning b-sides into more hits. If not? Well, the end of his caption spells it out: “Also my 6th STUDIO ALBUM DROPPING SUMMER 2020!!! Lucky number 6.” It’s clear that Drake is listening to his fans. After all, these songs are the ones people have been begging for. It appears he’s going to use DLDT to figure out which sounds hit hardest, and build his new LP off this style. By offering up a wide range of new ideas as a mixtape full of loosies, he’s stripping this project of any risk and using it as a way to test these sounds. It seems he’s going to find what fans like about Dark Lane, and apply that sound across the LP. We are his focus group. Perhaps it’s a bit cynical, but it’s also brilliant.
Drake is at his best when he’s self-aware, seriously deep in his feelings and not overly-protective of his identity. He hits these marks throughout the mixtape, but the music isn’t as consistent as his peak performances. Drake has always been a known entity, but perhaps he’s taken on a second life as a more complex pop star. Dark Lane certainly alludes to this. It’s messy at times, indulging in emerging production aesthetics and playing to his audience with a whole lot of sad bars, as well as an unassailable track with Thugger and Future. There are also a few quarantine references (the album cover features Drake in a mask, while “Time Flies” features the line, “Right now I'm just stuck inside the crib on my own.”)
The tape takes a few tracks to really settle in. “Deep Pockets” could have fit on The Best in the World Pack—understated, but aggressive in the way Drake has perfected over the years. The song features a few good bars over a codeine-slow vocal sample and drums recovered from the dollar bin vinyl section at your local record shop. His chorus is typical Drake fare in that it says little but will stay in your head for hours. It’s fine, but inconsequential in the scheme of the tape. “When to Say When” functions in much the same way, except there’s a staggering line that puts Drake’s enormous success into perspective about 50 seconds in. “500 weeks I filled the charts with my pain,” he raps. This may be an exaggeration, but the fact that it may also not be an exaggeration is all you need to know about Drake’s dominance. Whether you like him or despise him, no one has had the sustained relevancy and the complete control of our popular conscience like he has. Joseph-Gordon Levitt was sad for 500 days and they made a movie about it. What will Drake get? An entire Marvel franchise?
On “Chicago Freestyle,” Drake remains as sad and dysfunctional with women as always, although he introduces the world to Gideon, a Sampha-sounding singer who is likely to receive a substantial boost in listeners after his hypnotic chorus. After “Chicago Freestyle,” Drake moves to a Chris Brown-featuring track, and considering how brilliant Drake is in cultivating his image, you think he’d avoid featuring an artist with as many allegations and controversy as Brown on a track. This into “Toosie Slide” is a flimsy punch at best, and by this point, casual fans have probably moved onto the next May 1 release.
After this hit-and-miss first third, though, Drake settles in and lands a few hits that’ll surely hold his audience over until his next album comes out. “Time Flies” is classic Drake. The beat is produced by the Swiss-born OZ, who gives Drake a bed of synths to croon over. It’s three minutes of Finsta tales and willing himself off of a crush. The aforementioned “D4L” is Future’s second appearance on the tape, and the camaraderie between Hendrixx, Thugger, and Drake is undeniable. It’s a summer anthem bathed in cynicism, the sort of song you put on while driving to the club after a family barbecue.
One thing that becomes clear on the tape is that Drake has been reading comments. He’s paying attention. We’ve been waiting for “Pain 1993” since Carti emerged on the scene, and the song is finally here. But between that time and now, Carti has lost some of his edge. His legion of fans isn’t necessarily turning on him, but he’s not gaining any new loyalists with his baby-voice overkill on “Pain.” Drake is fine on the track, but considering how long this one’s been in the pipeline, it’s a disappointment. MexikoDro handles the beat on “From Florida With Love,” once and for all completing SoundCloud’s complete and utter domination of the mainstream sound. The two are now utterly inseparable. “From Florida WIth Love” is for the kids. Another album highlight is “Losses,” which finds Drake firing off vintage bars over a stripped-back beat. OZ handles co-production with Sevn Thomas, Elyas, and Foreign Teck, and the track is built off quiet accents that give Drake just enough room to carry the track.
On Dark Lane Demo Tapes, Drake acts more like a tourist than host. He moves from drill to R&B to backpack rap in a moment's notice, less intent on finding a new style than letting us know that he can dominate them all. It doesn’t matter what his next album sounds like; it’ll ascend to the top of the charts, just like DLDT will.
At times, the tape is enthralling. At others, relatively unengaging. But it’s still Drake, and we’ll still listen. Conversely, he’ll listen to us as we react in live time. The ones that are well received will serve as the template for LP6. Everything else will be moved to the scrap heap, or the new batch of “demos.” It’s fun to hear Drake fucking around, but his need to mask his non-album releases as demos and half-thoughts―when he has the best production team and resources money can buy at his side―feels a little disingenuous. It’d be one thing if these actually sounded like demos, but you don’t get Thug and Future signed on for a track that may sit on a hard drive for who knows how long.
Dark Lane Demo Tapes is perfect fodder for a population locked inside with nowhere to go. It’s mixtape Drake to an exaggerated degree, and it gives him a chance to play around and experiment with sounds that might not all top the charts. It pays homage to fans of capital-r Real Rap, avoiding obvious pop hits for clever bars and intricate forms. If DLDT does well, there will be talk about how Drake has returned to form, how his next album will be his best yet. If it doesn’t, well... it was only a demo, anyway.