Drake’s songwriting hits a particular sweet spot when he chooses narcissism over self-awareness. It’s led to arguably his most defining trait: the incredibly specific and memorable Drakeisms, which are sometimes delivered with the belief that they’re profound — making them unintentionally funny, too. Think of the melodramatic and self-loathing details that fill up Take Care (“I think I’m addicted to naked pictures / And Sittin‘ talkin ’’ bout bitches that we almost had ”); the batshit diatribe at the end of “Diamonds Dancing”; the mafioso myth making on If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late (“I order that Alfredo Pasta / Then eat in the kitchen like I’m in the mafia”). Even on Views, his now self-serious album, his ego is so goosed up that surely he must know how ridiculous he sounds. But maybe not.
In recent years, Drake’s growing desire to be in the joke has made his writing way less exciting. That’s how we ended up with the failure-to-launch “Toosie Slide” viral dance challenge, the Desperation of 2021’s Certified Lover Boyand now the up-and-down nature of his newest album Honestly, Nevermind. The album threads Styles like house and Baltimore and Jersey club into his Moody, washed-out foundation. It sounds refreshingly different from any other Drake album, and he brings back his go-to trick of legitimizing trend-hopping by recruiting genre heavyweights into his Orbit: South African DJ Black Coffee and chameleonic electronic producer Carnage (under his house alias Gordo) both have major contributions to the production. It’s light and Breezy, and the songs flow right into each other like a DJ mix, not unlike 2017’s More Life. All this should work, but it feels a little empty for one glaring reason: Drake’s writing lacks its former zest.
Honestly, Nevermind‘s most memorable line isn’t actually on the album. In a weepy Apple Music note that accompanied the release, he wrote, “I can’t remember the last time someone put their phone down, looked me in the eyes and asked my current insight on the times.” It is hilarious — a level of self-obsession and delusion missing on the record. On “Calling My Name,” where a pulsing house beat does all the work, Drake talks about lost love with details that amount to, “You’re my water, my Refresher / Take off your clothes, relieve pressure.” When he’s not saying anything Worthwhile, you tend to zoom in on his singing, but his voice is too one-note to carry the load. Similarly on the 40-produced “Down Hill,” his lyrics about Heartbreak are full of banalities. In the past, his genre-bouncing, even if watered-down, was made singular through his writing. Without that, you’re left with a flattened version of a superior, pre-existing sound.