“In this mansion, I’m Macaulay Culkin,” Drake declares a few minutes into “Her Loss,” his collaborative album with 21 Savage. The reference is instructive. Culkin, the definitive child star of the 1990s, specialized in playing the part of “child whose house is large,” allowing a generation of kids to live vicariously as he foiled burglars or ate McDonald’s on demand. In recent years, Drake – himself a former child star – has projected the exact opposite energy; his privilege and wealth remain, but his music had come to be scrubbed of any traces of joy. “Views” and “Certified Lover Boy” were self-pitying and surly, exercises in convincing the listener that no matter how sad their late-night texts were, Drake’s late-night texts were sadder. With “Her Loss,” though (in conjunction with this summer’s buoyant dance-pop discursion “Honestly, Nevermind”), the cloak of self-seriousness has receded; Drake has relocated his sense of fun.
If it seems like all of this so far is treating 21 Savage like an afterthought, it’s because his role on “Her Loss” is far more supporting than lead. “What a Time to Be Alive,” Drake’s collaborative record with Future, isn’t a proper comparison; while “What a Time” approached something close to a 50-50 split, “Her Loss” noticeably tilts the balance in Drake’s favor, with 21 Savage being deployed strategically, sometimes sitting out songs altogether (Drake has four solo songs; 21 has one). Even when 21 is present, he cedes the splashiest moments to Drake; see “Circo Loco,” ill-advised in its Daft Punk sample and the perplexing bars that follow, in which Drake appears to make light of her alleged assault of Megan Thee Stallion by Tory Lanez (Megan responded almost immediately, unamused).
Though the balance of power here is surprising, and even initially disappointing, it isn’t inherently unwise. The Atlanta rapper’s own albums (particularly “Savage Mode” and “I Am > I Was”) have cemented his ability to command the spotlight on the strength of his steely menace and sly humor, positioning himself as equal parts grim reaper and class clown. But as he has calibrated those polarities, he has developed into a potent features artist, distilling his strengths in concise bursts that lend his collaborators both levity and edge. “Her Loss” utilizes him relatively sparingly, like a seasoning that might sabotage the meal if deployed too aggressively.
This imbalance on its face might suggest a lack of synergy; in practice, though, 21 Savage is a more natural collaborator for Drake than Future, whose stylistic tendencies often defined the song at the outset, inviting Drake to descend into hollow mimicry. “On BS” positions the pair in direct conversation with one another, seamlessly tangling Drake’s nervous paranoia (“Heard they got some sanctions on my name, heard they plottin’ on my name”) with 21’s saber-rattling (“If you know it’s tension, don’t come ‘round me like it’s good”).
Much of “Her Loss” operates at this register, with Drake and 21 unearthing unexpected connective tissue between their seemingly disparate skillsets. The ominous “Broke Boys” punctuates a sharp 21 Savage verse with combative Drake ad-libs. On “More M’s,” Drake is chest-thumping about his commercial supremacy while 21 is just trying to transport a drunk passenger home and eat some fried rice, but both come together to heckle rivals for feeble album sales
The nearly seven-minute “Hours in Silence” enlists 21 for a smooth, concise bridge where a traditional verse might have knocked the song off its axis; Drake’s extended outro is hypnotizing in the same way much of “Take Care’s” back half was. “Middle of the Ocean” (which, until its beat switches to a more opulent gear, sounds like a pina colada tastes) delivers a sustained, throat-clearing verse in which Drake compares himself to Pink Floyd and sneers at “Honestly, Nevermind” detractors; it’s all capped off by an outro from Birdman (to save you the trouble of Googling it: he is 53 years old).
The weakest stretches of “Her Loss” can often be attributed to unadventurous subject matter. There are fleeting exceptions, as with “3AM on Glenwood,” a 21 Savage solo song that is piercing in its honesty; elsewhere, on “Spin Bout U,” Drake finally reveals his stance on the Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade. But the duo largely remains in their comfort zone, which can have a numbing effect (and can lead to undesirable crutches, as when the record slips into casual misogyny).
Despite the seeming stasis that was setting in before this year, Drake now is newly reinvigorated, more engaged as a rapper than at any point since 2015’s “If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late,” and 21 Savage is the right complement for his current energy. Though not without its missteps, “Her Loss” leaves the unshakable impression that Drake, in 2022, is doing what inspires him rather than pandering. One year removed from “Certified Lover Boy,” that represents a surprising and encouraging evolution.