There are tracks on Her Loss, Drake’s new quasi-collaboration album with 21 Savage, that seem like the natural evolutions of those on 2009’s So Far Gone. “Hours in Silence,” to take one, is built around a much livelier Memphis rap song that sounds as if it’s being replayed underwater; Drake half-croons through his web of gossip and self-mythology, where cryptic comments on exes’ finstas and villains ripped from mob movies weigh equally on his mind. Like he once did with Lil Wayne, he cedes a little time to a considerably more magnetic rapper from the South before singing, over and over, that things are “my fault,” the lines begging for the “of course not” counterweight from a former lover which would absolve him, but never comes.
That song’s brief turn from 21 finds the Atlanta rapper affecting something just short of a Drake impression, the danger posed by armed enemies made to sound nearly romantic (“They looking for myyyy faaaaace”). But much to its detriment, Her Loss relegates 21 to a supporting role, neutering the textural and thematic contrast that sold “Jimmy Cooks,” the beloved “Bound 2”-style hedge tacked onto the end of Honestly, Nevermind, Drake’s otherwise dance-focused album from earlier this year. There are moments of considered writing and bursts of Drake at or near his mischievous best, but in its middle, the record becomes inert, making the bits of self-conscious misanthropy scan as strained rather than gleeful, as if the id could be focus-grouped.
At its beginning, Her Loss hints at a looser, more natural interplay. After a brief intro from Atlanta’s Young Nudy—whose roving inner-monologue style would have been a welcome destabilizing force on this album—Drake opens “Rich Flex” with the kind of rapping-to-one-another hook (“21, can you do somethin’ for me?”) that blows past So Far Gone to recall groups from the 1980s and early ‘90s. And throughout, he and 21 are most effective when they either imitate one another, as 21 does on “Hours in Silence” and Drake does on “Major Distribution,” or when they retreat to their opposite stylistic poles: Drake bounding across “BackOutsideBoyz” like the only man to ever be sad in a nightclub, 21 rapping on “More M’s” that “I been in them rooms/I never did no contemplating,” his trademark economy of language unsettling as ever.
It’s the muddy, Drake-dominated middle ground that mostly doesn’t work. As the album’s title seems to promise, Her Loss is littered with bitter, very online barbs for women who have betrayed Drake and 21, wronged them in other, indeterminate ways, or simply drifted into the digital expanse. Both artists, but especially Drake, have staked songs on this going back years; what drags down Her Loss is not so much a moral failing as a creative one, the sense that Drake is turning a big dial labeled MISOGYNY while looking to an imagined audience for approval. This is occasionally colorful (from “On BS”: “I blow a half a million on you hoes, I’m a feminist”), but more often, it’s tiresome, even sort of depressing. Quips about group chats sound as if they’ve been sourced from Twitter, and punchlines like the already infamous one that trades on rumors Megan Thee Stallion was lying about being shot by Tory Lanez cast Drake as desperate to provoke, rather than in his ideal mode: someone tortured by the competing impulses to withhold and to overshare.