Exactly five days after Kanye West released his long-awaited 10th LP DondaOn September 3, Toronto rapper Drake released his sixth studio album, Boy in love certified. At first glance, it might seem pretty innocuous, but for anyone following the headlines of recent music, the timing of those release dates was anything but.
Drake and Kanye West have made known their distaste for each other. Since Pusha-T (frequent collaborator of Kanye West) released the debilitating The Drake-led diss, “The Story of Adidon,” in 2018, followers of the industry clamored to see how, when, or even if Drake would react.
Add a few inflammatory posts to Kanye West’s Instagram, as well as an intensely extended, stadium-filled, ‘all eyes on me’ approach to the Donda go out – by the course with regard to the West – and one can understand how the two Donna, and released him in a hurry Boy in love certified after that, may have completely dominated mainstream music for the foreseeable future.
And yet, given the fervent expectations of the two Kanye West and Drake (bearing in mind that neither of them had released an album in at least two years), both of these releases have been met, at least critically, with mixed, if not downright negative.
It’s not to say that they were neglected by the population, because the two albums broke records. On September 7, Hypebeast reported that Dona ‘s streaming numbers fall somewhere in the 700 million between Spotify and Apple Music, while Forbes states that Boy in love certified sits comfortably in the same range, even eclipsing Donda.
Whether these two music industry titans made streaming history is not up for debate, and yet, critically, neither album met much more than a reluctant “meh” upon release.
Pitchfork, one of the leading journals for music criticism, noted Boy in love certified and Donda with a 6.6 and a 6, respectively, a response about as average as an album could receive. Regarding Drake’s latest venture, without being overzealous, journalist Matthew Strauss writes that the album “looks more like an investigation than an immersion, no particular emotion sticks or leaves a strong impression.” For an album of just under 86 minutes, it’s a rare feat that no song leaves a strong imprint on the listener.
Similar criticisms have been leveled at Donda by Pitchfork editor-in-chief Dylan Green, who calls this album “barely finished” a project “searching for meaning everywhere and of an impressive short duration.”
Elsewhere, Craig Jenkins, of Vulture, reflects on Boy in love certified evident with its puny track “Everything Is Exactly the Same”, both a clever allusion to Drake’s critically acclaimed 2013 LP “Nothing Was the Same” and a rather ambivalent assessment of Drake’s new venture. Anthony Fantano, a well-known music critic, was less damning in his review of Donna, giving it a 7 out of 10 and calling it both “cohesive” and “not without flaws”.
All of these assessments, in a vacuum, may sound good, but taken in the context of Kanye and Drake’s past endeavors, they set a rather baffling climate for both artists. Kanye West is, after all, one of the few artists alive today with that legendary Pitchfork score 10, received for his decisive moment on My beautiful twisted dark fantasy. Likewise, Drake mentioned above Nothing was the same as well as his Mixtape 2015 If you are reading this, it’s too late, both have received four-star reviews from Rolling stone.
So far, whether harshly criticized or lovingly celebrated, Drake and Kanye have been very provocative and very controversial figures, and yet now the tide has turned.
Understanding the reason for this lack of critical attention is a difficult task. Many (myself included) have written about the merits and issues associated with the culture of streaming, and yet those don’t seem to be a factor here. As mentioned above, Kanye and Drake both broke streaming records in their first week of release, and both albums continue to roll comfortably in their respective locations on Billboard.
The records aren’t all bad either: both have received mostly poor reviews, and calling them “flops” would be willfully ignoring the charts. The aforementioned beef hasn’t even done much to arouse the attention of critics, and while the controversial appearances of DaBaby (following several homophobic comments) and Marilyn Manson (involved in multiple sexual assault allegations) ) have somewhat bogged down the Donda Launch parties with negative attention, these appearances have mostly gone unanswered now that the album has been released.
So what could be the explanation for such a disinterested critical response?
Okay, several things, but maybe it all comes down to the same idea: creative stagnation. Anthony Fantano, in his scathing review of Boy in love certified, speaks not only of a “effort gap” between Drake and his newer, younger features, but of a feeling of “arrested development” that runs alongside the entire album. Even his positive assessment of Travis Scott’s “Fair Trade” collaboration ends with the argument that the track is “low impact” in the context of their previous work, like the single “Sicko Mode”.
The character of Drake – the sad billionaire rapper with as many baby moms as he has houses in LA Hill – has been a subject of ridicule for years, but with Boy in love certified, he may have reached a breaking point. Likewise, while West’s public image has never been particularly stable, his public antics have shifted from shows to pseudo-intellectual shock tactics.
If Drake had released DaBaby or Marilyn Manson, it could have caused Something, but after public blackouts, presidential campaigns and an endless stream of absurd quotes, it becomes impossible to think about it much more than “Kanye being Kanye”. This – how apathy can erode moral judgments – might be an interesting topic for another time, and yet one can hardly be bothered when the topic has been debated so many times before.
Donda is, in truth, much more experimental than most critics have admitted, and certainly more than Boy in love certified. Kanye greatly expands his sonic palette in his quest for heavenly absolution, and his days of brutal proselytizing are over. The Kanye West of Donda – the one buried under ridiculous bullocks and false controversy – is a man willing to admit his own flaws, his self-destructive tendencies, his desperation for transcendence and his struggles with bipolar disorder.
While this is certainly nothing new to Kanye West artwork, the presence of washed-out choral samples, Yeezus-like distorted synths and reverberated skeletal drums, create a fascinating separation between the man Kanye wants to be and the man he has become.
Sadly, while this all serves as a fascinating meditation on Kanye’s newfound faith in the face of divorce, public spotlight, and mental turmoil, it never quite fits into a complete package. It’s an exciting thing, going from “Off the Grid” influenced by Playboi Carti to the soulful bass of “Believe What I Say”, to the lullaby guitars of “Moon”, but she refuses to offer a full portrait.
It may be an intentional decision – the absence of a firm album cover hints at something along those lines – and yet for an experience as interesting as it is, it baffles even if it interests, something that Kanye got a little too comfortable doing it.
Maybe in a few months one or both albums will receive a critical re-evaluation, and certainly, such things are not unheard of. After one of the most complicated album launches of the decade, Kanye’s Pablo’s life transformed from a weird and fragmentary pre-pop experience into a much-acclaimed post-rap piece of art.
Whether or not Donda Where Boy in love certified are doomed to a similar path remains to be seen, but one thing is for sure: if Kanye West, or Drake, is to maintain their relevance in the 2020s, they’re going to have to learn to adapt beyond their pop culture caricatures. .
And maybe let the childish oxen down for a year or two.