BY Thaveesha Jinadasa

On May 1st, 2020, Drake and OVO Sound dropped a surprise mixtape aptly titled Dark Lane Demo Tapes. This was a compilation of his internet leaks and SoundCloud pre-releases which Drake used as a sort of acid test in the run-up to his new blockbuster album, which is said to be released in the summer. 

Drake has gone down the mixtape route in the past with 2009’s So Far Gone, 2015’s If You’re Reading This It's Too Late and 2017’s More Life which goes to show that his latest mixtape was long overdue. The masked Drake on the cover seemed to give this mixtape a darker tone; which is a callback to his younger, edgier days.

These are my recommendations off the mixtape (in no particular order):

  • Deep Pockets

The mixtape opens with a lo-fi, 90’s, east coast, hip hop track in the form of "Deep Pockets". This song features several great bars from Drake over a codeine-slow vocal sample and vintage low 808 drums. But here, we must remember that this is Drake; he can take throwaways and turn them into something memorable. This song is a perfect representation of this as he draws in inspiration from a few people while simultaneously expressing his own style through his liberated lyrics. [“Inspired by a few, but my mind really drives like a Tesla”] This was a great appetizer to start the mixtape.

  • When to Say When & Chicago Freestyle

"When to Say When" is produced by frequent Drake collaborator Noah ‘40’ Schabib, and uses a quaint sample in the form of Jay-Z’s classic tune "Song-Cry" which creates significant nostalgia for hardcore hip hop fans. This song was a good platform to showcase his sincerity and humbleness from shouting out his mom (‘Word to Sandra Graham; no one loves you like your mother can ‘), to shouting out his heroes like Lil Wayne and Birdman. What came off as controversial about this song was the Michael Jackson reference: ‘Michael Jackson shit. But the palace is not for kids’ in which he compares his mansion to the king of pop’s so-called Neverland Ranch of underage trafficking. In retrospect, this song can be called a little brother to his own 2018 smash hit, "God’s Plan".

"Chicago Freestyle" on the other hand seemed to have less Drake and was more a platform for seemingly unknown artist, Giveon. On my first listen of this song; it brought back major ‘Do not Disturb and More life’ vibes through the beat which Noah Schabib and Sevn Thomas cooked up. Like "When to Say When", the hook of this song draws up a strong sample from Eminem’s 2002 trackSupermanwhich goes to show how deep the OVO team’s archives are. A colossal shout out goes to Giveon and his Sampha-like soulful voice on the chorus which brought the track together, and a shout out to Drake for giving this seemingly unknown artist a spotlight to shine.

  • Not You Too (ft. Chris Brown)

Despite their long history, "Not You Too" is the Marvin Gaye-ish style slow burner of this mixtape. Off my first listen, the majority of this track consisted of Drake’s voice flowing smoothly throughout the track while Brown just came in like a quiet breeze during the verses and sometimes the chorus. This did not go too well with the die-hard Chris Brown fans who felt that he was underappreciated on this track. Noah Schabib seems to have done a fantastic job with the sudden drum rolls and synth textures to create a quality collaboration for the current RnB niche of the hip-hop industry. Despite how people may criticise Drake’s controversial past with collaborators, I look forward to him building bridges and showing more of this on his next studio album.

  • Toosie Slide

Whether it's 2015 with "Hotline Bling" or "Toosie Slide" on this particular mixtape, Drake is a cultural catalyst who always knows how to cater to his audience and stir up fan circles around the industry. The track wasn’t great but the instructional Tiktok-focused hook [‘Right foot up, left foot slide’] was enough to propel it to the top of the Billboard charts. This track as a whole can be seen as a tribute to the King of Pop, Michael Jackson (despite the controversial lyrics on "When to Say When"), as there are common tendencies between this dance and MJ’s famous moonwalk which was popularized in his "Thriller" video. [“I could dance like Michael Jackson// I could give you thug passion // It's a thriller in the trap where we from”] 

Despite the bouncy beat and the corny lyrics, Drake is the type of artist who can provide low-key mafia music to both the white suburbs of Southern California and the rough streets of Inglewood. [‘Gotta dance, but it's really on some street shit”] 

  • D4L (ft. Future and Young Thug)

If "Chicago Freestyle" is for Chicago and "Demons" is for Brooklyn, this particular track is Atlanta’s anthem. Like two stylish henchmen, Future and Young Thug come forth to accompany Drake on this track. This is a tribute to Atlanta rap collective D4L and is a remix of Dreezy and 2 Chainz 2018 track ‘2nd to None’. Future puts up another MVP level performance as he rides the springy Southside beat with ease as he and Thug provide ad-libs which contribute to Drake’s vocals. The onomatopoeic cash register ‘Brrrr’ sounds which Future makes gives us a flashback to his ‘La di da di da’ sound on 2018’s "King’s Dead". From Nonstop on Scorpion to Portland on More Life, every Drake album has that one song which will consistently be played on the radio, in clubs and via aux cables in cars and "D4L" is just that. 

  • Pain 1993

This is definitely not one of the best tracks on the mixtape, but what made me put this on the list was the Playboi Carti feature. Carti and Pierre Bourne (who produced the track) are arguably the rap equivalent of Batman and Robin - add Drake into the mix and you have yourself a certified banger (or so it seemed). From the first listen, we get the bouncy 808s and a classic Carti type beat which Bourne uses to allow Drake plenty of room to rap and express himself. He enunciates in an impeccable manner with effortless energy.

Carti’s voice and lyricism is what makes this track memorable but for all the wrong reasons. Personally, I found his vocals questionable on a first listen as he displays a ‘Tommy from Rugrats-like’ baby voice. Coupling this voice with his signature mumble style gives us the humour we need during these trying times. If this is a prequel to ‘Whole Lotta Red’; prepare for the unexpected.

Drake utilises this unorthodox style and flow to his advantage and creates a hybrid song which is distinct and suitable for the current demand in the music industry. This is what makes him such a great artist.

  • Demons (ft. Fivio Foreign and Sosa Geek)

From co-producing the grime-based show ‘Top Boy’ to shouting out and supporting UK artists like AJ Tracey, Drake has been undeniably involved with the drill scene.

Fivio Foreign is widely known to be the next big thing out of the Brooklyn drill scene and has grown in dominance since Pop Smoke’s untimely death. Many of Fivio Foreign's cadences and flows remind us of why many niche groups had a deep love for Pop Smoke and will continue to do with Fivio. He and Sosa Geek’s energy is extremely infectious and has some of the most aggressive rapping on the mixtape. Drake compliments the two feature artists by comparing them to the Brooklyn Nets' very own superstar basketball duo Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, which goes to show how highly he regards them to be. [‘Sosa, Fivi, Lookin’ like KD and Kyrie’] Die-hard basketball fans (like myself) find this to be a great touch by Drake and the connection he has to the game.

On songs like these, where Drake openly appropriates regional styles, his search for meaning as a global superstar comes into greater focus in terms of his ambition and loneliness at the top. From Chicago to New York to the grime infested streets of London, "Demons" encompasses all aspects of the drill industry and could have been a strong single on its own due to the high-quality production, intense rapping and strong lyricism.

Key Takeaways

With projects like Scorpion and Care Package, Drake seemed to be very specific with his selection of producers with Noah 40, Boi-1-da and Tay Keith doing most of the production. However, on a melancholic project such as this, it seems as though he employed specific producers for specific sounds: Noah 40 did two of the songs, Pierre Bourne came as a package deal with Carti to cater to his mumble rap sound, Southside provided the heavy Atlanta based trap sound with Future whilst British producer Axl Beats produced both the grime-influenced songs,"War" and "Demons". Taking risks is what makes an artist successful and Drake has done this to the best of his abilities on this album.

Drake has gone from shouting out his idols who gave him a platform, to providing younger artists like Fivio Foreign and Giveon a spotlight, making this album a bit of a full circle moment from him and showcases Drake’s maturity within the industry.

It is clear to state by now that Drake is a superstar who can make hits without even trying. Although this project is clearly sub-par in comparison to his past projects, wasn’t that the whole point? This was a form of market research which Drake is using to give fans the best experience. What Dark Lane Demo Tapes did so well was solidify the leaks and throwaways and turn them into so much more. Drake is in album mode and it is only right for the music world to be ready for something memorable.

Listen to the rest of Dark Lane Demo Tapes here:

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