Dogs barking. A six-year-old attempting to rap. Egregiously mispronounced Spanglish. No, I’m not describing your local SoundCloud rapper’s borderline unlistenable mixtape. Instead, and unfortunately, these are the sounds of For All The Dogs (2023), the latest album from 36-year-old father and five-time Grammy winner Drake. Disappointingly, on Dogs, Drake abandons the experimental sound, witty lyricism, and undeniable catchiness of his previous releases, instead relying on painfully corny bars, lazy gimmickry, and uncreative production choices.
Dogs is a letdown, but not because of its departure from some idealized “Old Drake”; instead, it’s a subpar release from an artist who clearly hasn’t lost his touch. Her Loss (2022), a joint album with 21 Savage, was playful and dynamic, and earlier in 2022 with Honestly, Nevermind, Drake flexed his dexterity across genres as he dabbled in house music. But each of those albums had a central driving force, some distinguishing factor that necessitated its existence, whether it be an album-long collaboration with another artist or an exploration of Jersey and Baltimore club sounds. On Dogs, however, Drake seems to have nothing of note to say, and no creative way of saying it, begging the question: why does this album exist in the first place?
The nearly hour-and-a-half-long, 23-track album, released in early October after multiple postponements, is a directionless marathon of mediocrity. Nowhere is this more the case than the beginning of the album, a slew of forgettable songs whose most notable quality is the artists they feature. The album opener, “Virginia Beach,” samples “Wiseman,” an unreleased Frank Ocean song, but Drake squanders the unique texture of Ocean’s vocals—pitch shifted eerily high, then reversed—on inane lyrics where he lays out grievances with an ex. (In the same way it’s often said that boring corporate meetings could’ve just been an email, this song could’ve just been a text message to the woman in question.) Frequent Drake collaborator 21 Savage brings some much-needed energy on “Calling For You,” a song that feels promising until you realize it’s likely just a leftover that didn’t make the cut on Her Loss; the track’s interlude even includes the now-outdated line “sorry for your loss.”
On Her Loss, Drake boasted, “I jump on your song and make you sound like you the feature,” but ironically, on Dogs, most of the featured artists outshine him. In fact, two of the album’s best tracks are collaborations. J. Cole joins Drake on “First Person Shooter” to discuss how the two of them, along with Kendrick Lamar, are the GOATs of the rap game (a debatable claim that’s certainly not supported by Dogs’s general quality). Cole’s sharp wordplay and signature flow drive the song, bringing movement to an otherwise monotonous tracklist. He also seems to inspire Drake to be better; with about two minutes left in the song, the beat switches up, and Drake drops one of the album’s strongest verses. Bolstered by a high-energy staccato cadence and a sense of urgency severely lacking elsewhere on Dogs, Drake indulges the chip on his shoulder as he wonders, “Will they ever give me flowers? Well, of course not.”
Another standout track is “Rich Baby Daddy,” one of two songs featuring SZA. It also includes up-and-coming rapper Sexyy Red, whose crude directive to “Bend that ass over, let that coochie breathe” makes for an earworm of a refrain. Catchiness isn’t everything, but by the time you reach track 20 on Dogs, a dynamic, danceable song is absolutely welcome. Drake’s verse contributes little besides an inexplicable interpolation of “Dog Days Are Over” by Florence and the Machine.
Put simply, listening to Dogs feels like watching Drake go through a midlife crisis in real time. Why else would he feel compelled to call out old foes like Esperanza Spalding, the unproblematic jazz artist who beat him out for best new artist at the Grammys in, like, 2011? (To be fair, though, “Who give a fuck Michelle Obama put you on her playlist?” is a pretty hilarious diss.) Drake famously never lets minor slights go, but on Dogs, his barbs feel petty and random, with no firepower behind them. On “Fear of Heights,” in a verse peppered with the word “anti” (not-so-coincidentally the name of Rihanna’s 2016 album), he makes an unsubtle jab at his iconic ex, claiming “the sex was average with you.” Drake might think he’s being clever with his wordplay and ruthless with his bars, but he just comes off pathetic and bitter, relitigating a situationship everyone else has moved on from.
These callouts are just one of the many gimmicks Drake employs on Dogs. His son Adonis drew the album’s cover art and tries his hand at rapping on “Daylight”; while it’s tough to criticize a six-year-old’s flow, I’m skeptical of Drake’s willingness to commercialize what could’ve just been a cute home video. On “Slime You Out (feat. SZA),” Drake nonchalantly drops the abhorrent line “whipped and chained you lik e American slaves” and expects listeners to be unfazed. (It should go without saying, but equating the horrors and brutalities of slavery to BDSM is unthinkable and absolutely unforgivable.) As he barrels on with complaints about a woman’s behavior cataloged month-by-month, the track begins to feel like a caricature of his own corniness. And “Gently,” a collaboration with Bad Bunny, sees Drake leaning into an exaggerated accent (suspiciously absent in the duo’s 2018 hit “MIA”) as he raps in Spanglish over an upbeat dembow rhythm, one of the few compelling sonic choices on the album.
Following the album’s release, Drake announced he would be taking a break from music for health reasons, and one can only hope that this time off will be creatively reinvigorating, too. Making three albums in two years is no small feat—but it’s also one that no one asked for. Drake is one of this century’s most successful artists, so there’s absolutely no reason for him to put out music just for the sake of it, especially if it isn’t good. I’ll be excited to see a concise, innovative album from him a few years from now. Until then, though, Drake is most certainly in the doghouse.
VOICE’S CHOICES: “First Person Shooter,” “8am in Charlotte,” “Rich Baby Daddy”