Drake’s ‘For All the Dogs’ Is a Bloated, Sonically Conservative Slog

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“Workin’ on a album, now it’s finished,” Drake casually mentions on the album in question, “For All the Dogs.” An unnecessary update, to be sure, but one likely prompted by force of habit: Drake has never taken a meaningful break, perpetually prepping and releasing new music. Since 2006’s “Room For Improvement,” two years have never elapsed without a major Drake release. Where many of hip-hop’s commercial heavyweights have stepped back — navigating personal struggles (Eminem), retreating inward (Kendrick Lamar), noisily retiring (Jay-Z), or enthusiastically shifting focus to new hobbies, like fashion and anti-Semitism (Kanye West) — Drake has endured as a consistent hitmaker for nearly 15 years, an unprecedented streak.

As such, the news that Drake plans to take a hiatus from music following the release of “For All the Dogs” feels overdue and richly deserved. So it’s a shame that the album itself is so perfunctory. “For All the Dogs” is less a triumphant victory lap than a deflated slog, a cogent argument for the necessity of a creative reset. His previous solo album, last year’s “Honestly, Nevermind,” was a lean and vibrant foray into dance that scrambled Drake’s formula for the first time in recent memory. “Nevermind” proved to be sharply polarizing, though, and “For All the Dogs” registers as a concession to the sonically conservative wing of his fanbase that recoils at any deviations from his established template.

Earlier this summer, Drake suggested that “Dogs” would herald a return of “the old Drake.” In truth, you only have to go back two years for its clearest analogue, 2021’s “Certified Lover Boy.” That’s immediately evident in its scope (“Lover Boy” clocked in at 86 minutes; “Dogs” is 84), but it extends beyond that: the splashy, expensive samples that may as well be encased in glass (the Beatles on “Lover Boy”; Frank Ocean here), the elite parade of guests, the subject matter (which oscillates between steely ruminations on fame and downtrodden odes to shattered relationships), and the tone, which is frequently sour.

“Dogs” stumbles immediately out of the gate with poor sequencing, launching with an uncharacteristically weak batch of songs and burying its clearest highlights in the second half. That opening stretch — which includes “Fear of Heights,” with its bottom-tier Drake hook, and “Calling for You,” a serviceable 21 Savage collaboration that doesn’t approach the heights from “Her Loss,” last year’s collaborative album — could have been lopped off entirely without adverse impact. Things snap into place about 15 minutes in. The chest-thumping, J. Cole-featuring “First Person Shooter” sounds appropriately massive, injecting a measure of energy when the album badly needs it.

There are passages where Drake locks into an idea and the resulting clarity recall his best work. On “Away From Home,” the album’s penultimate song, he lucidly recalls images and events from before his ascent, all punctuated with a deadpan “I remember,” as if anchoring to the phrase will stop the memories from dissolving. “Tried Our Best” examines a relationship that has curdled: “I swear that there’s a list of places that I’ve been with you I wanna go without you, just so I can know what it’s like to be there without having to argue.” It’s hardly fresh territory for Drake, but it feels grounded in real pain… as opposed to, say, ignored texts. “Drew a Picasso” lands similarly. “8am in Charlotte,” Drake’s latest AM/PM song and perhaps the album’s highlight, also finds him alert and engaged, dispensing tax advice, name-dropping Orson Welles, and drolly sizing up the presidential campaign of RFK Jr.

But any time “Dogs” finds itself, a lull is just around the corner, in large part because of its ungainly length. The incentives that have emerged in the streaming era have ensured that many tentpole releases are oceans of bloat (a practice rewarded most recently by the astonishing longevity of Morgan Wallen’s “One Thing at a Time”, which runs 36 songs long). If this is a new normal, Drake will be remembered as one of its founding fathers.

The length only serves to underscore inherent shortcomings. Drake’s trademark pettiness, for example, has grown increasingly hollow, as when he bemoans “broken pinky promises” despite being nearly 37 years old. Few songs on “Dogs” are outright objectionable (though an ill-advised interpolation of Florence + the Machine’s “Dog Days Are Over” ensures that “Rich Baby Daddy” comes perilously close), but even fewer justify their own existence; better versions of these songs are one click away. Regardless of whether Drake’s planned hiatus actually materializes, “For All the Dogs” feels like it signals an end of some sort, the work of an artist with little left to say and little reason to say it.

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