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Kanye West and Drake struggle to escape their artistic shadows

Exactly five days after Kanye West released his long-anticipated 10th LP Donda, on September 3, Toronto-born rapper Drake released his sixth studio album, Certified Lover Boy. On the surface, this might seem innocuous enough, but to anybody following recent music headlines, the timing of these release dates was anything but.

Drake and Kanye West have made their distaste for one another quite well-known. Ever since Pusha-T (frequent Kanye West collaborator) released the debilitating Drake-aimed diss, “The Story of Adidon,” back in 2018, followers of the industry have been clamoring to see how, when, or even if Drake would respond.

Add a few incendiary Instagram posts from Kanye West, as well as an intensely prolonged, stadium-packing, “all-eyes-on-me” approach to the Donda rollout — par for the course as far as West is concerned — and one can understand how both Donda, and the hastily released Certified Lover Boy after it, might have completely dominated mainstream music focus for the foreseeable future. 

And yet, considering the fervent expectations for both Kanye West and Drake (keeping in mind that neither had dropped any actual albums in at least two years), these two releases have been met, at least critically, with lukewarm, if not downright negative, reception.

This is not to say that they were neglected by the populace, as both albums pulled record-breaking numbers. On September 7, Hypebeast reported that Donda’s streaming numbers sit somewhere in the 700-millions in between Spotify and Apple Music, while Forbes states that Certified Lover Boy sits comfortably within the same range, even overshadowing Donda.

That these two titans of the music industry have made streaming history is of no debate, and yet critically, neither album met much more than a reticent “meh” upon release. 

Pitchfork, one of the leading journals in music criticism, rated Certified Lover Boy and Donda with a 6.6 and a 6, respectively, about as middling a response as an album could receive. Of Drake’s latest venture, while not overzealous, journalist Matthew Strauss writes that the album “​​feels more like a survey than an immersion, no particular emotion sticking or leaving a strong impression.” For an album coming just under 86 minutes, it is a rather rare feat that not one song would leave a strong imprint upon the listener.

Similar criticisms were doled against Donda by Pitchfork Editor Dylan Green, who characterizes this “barely finished” album as a project “searching for meaning everywhere and coming up impressively short.” 

Elsewhere, Craig Jenkins, of Vulture, makes his thoughts on Certified Lover Boy apparent with his punny headline “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 newest venture. Anthony Fantano, well-known music critic, was less damning in his review of Donda, giving it a 7 out of 10 and calling it both “cohesive” and “not without its flaws.”

All these assessments, in a vacuum, might seem fine, but taken in the context of Kanye and Drake’s past ventures, they establish a rather discomfiting climate for both artists. Kanye West is, after all, one of the few living artists today with that fabled Pitchfork 10 score, received for his watershed moment on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. Similarly, Drake’s aforementioned Nothing Was the Same, as well as his 2015 Mixtape If You’re Reading This, It’s Too Late, both received four-star reviews from Rolling Stone.

Up to this point, whether harshly criticized or amorously celebrated, Drake and Kanye have been highly provocative, highly divisive figures, and yet now, the tide has turned. 

Understanding the reason behind this lack of critical attention is a difficult task. Many (myself included) have written on the merits and issues associated with streaming culture, and yet these do not seem to be a factor here. As mentioned above, Kanye and Drake both broke streaming records within their first week of release, and both albums are still chugging comfortably along in their respective Billboard slots.

Nor are the records outright bad: both have received mostly middling reviews, and to call them “flops” would be willfully ignorant of the charts. Nor even has the aforementioned beef done much to excite critical attention, and while the controversial appearances of DaBaby (coming off the heels of several homophobic comments) and Marilyn Manson (implicated in several sexual assault allegations) somewhat mired the Donda launch parties with negative attention, these appearances have gone mostly unaddressed now that the album is out.

So then, what might be the explanation for such an uninterested critical response? 

Well, several things, but perhaps it all boils down to the same idea: creative stagnation. Anthony Fantano, in his scathing review of Certified Lover Boy, speaks not only of an “effort gap” between Drake and his newer, younger features, but a sense of “arrested development” that runs concurrent with the whole album. Even his positive assessment of the Travis Scott collaboration “Fair Trade” ends with the argument that the track is “low impact” in the context of their previous work, such as the single “Sicko Mode.”

The Drake persona — the sad billionaire rapper with as many baby mamas as L.A. hill houses — has been a subject of ridicule for years, but with Certified Lover Boy, it may have reached a breaking point. Similarly, while West’s public image has never been particularly stable, his public antics have gone from spectacles to pseudo-intellectual shock jock tactics.

Should Drake have wheeled out DaBaby or Marilyn Manson, it might have elicited something, but after public breakdowns, Presidential campaigns and an endless stream of absurd quotes, it becomes impossible to think much more of it than “Kanye being Kanye.” This– how apathy can erode moral judgements — might be an interesting topic for another time and, yet, one can barely be bothered when the topic has been debated so many times before. 

Donda is, in truth, a good deal more experimental than most critics have admitted, and certainly more so than Certified Lover Boy. Kanye broadens his sonic palette a good deal in his search for Heavenly absolution, and gone are his days of heavy-handed proselytizing. The Kanye West of Donda — the one buried under ridiculous beefs and phony controversies — is a man willing to admit his own faults, his self-destructive tendencies, his desperation for transcendence and his struggles with Bipolar disorder.

While this is certainly nothing new for the Kanye West oeuvre, the presence of washed-out choral samples, Yeezus-like distorted synths and reverberated, skeletal drums, create a fascinating split between the man Kanye wants to be, and the man he has become. 

Unfortunately, while all of it serves as a fascinating meditation on Kanye’s own newfound faith in the face of divorce, public spotlight and mental disorders, it never quite coheres into a complete package. It is a thrilling thing, flipping from the Playboi Carti-influenced “Off the Grid,” to the soulful bass of “Believe What I Say,” to the lullaby-like guitars of “Moon,” but it refuses to offer a complete portrait.

It may be an intentional decision — the absence of a firm album cover hints at something along these lines — and yet for as interesting an experience as it is, it baffles even as it interests, something which Kanye has become a little too comfortable doing. 

Perhaps, in a few months, one or both of the albums will receive a critical reappraisal, and certainly, such things are not unheard of. After one of the most convoluted album rollouts of the decade, Kanye’s The Life of Pablo transformed from an odd, fragmentary avant-pop experiment into a highly acclaimed piece of post-rap art.

Whether or not either Donda or Certified Lover Boy are fated for a similar path remains to be seen, but one thing is for certain: if Kanye West, or Drake, wish to maintain relevance in the 2020s, they are going to have to learn how to adapt beyond their pop culture caricatures. 

And maybe drop the childish beefs for a year or two.