Drake Exorcises His Demons on ‘Scorpion,’ an Ambitious and Angry Misfire
The Canadian rapper’s fifth studio album is a 25-song, 90-minute behemoth that could have used some paring down.
It’s almost taken for granted how much music Drake has released in the last five years.
Since 2013’s Nothing Was the Same, he’s given us two official studio albums that have runtimes nearing 90 minutes, the If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late and Future-assisted What A Time To Be Alive mixtapes, the More Life “playlist” and more than a handful of standalone singles like “Summer Sixteen.” Nothing Was the Same felt like evidence that Drake was progressing as an artist; even if the indictors were subtle, he was broadening his scope lyrically while fine-tuning what he did well on Take Care. But since then, it’s felt as if Drake has done less with more: a glut of releases and those ever-present hits, but not hitting the kind of artistic home runs that so many of his superstar peers have been delivering over the past half-decade.
A new Drake album is almost always an event—were it not for the fact that this June has seen a dizzying slate of releases from a few of the biggest names in music (Beyoncé and Jay-Z, Kanye West, Nas) and almost as much drama. But Scorpion arrived amid the heightened attention born of Drake’s reignited feud with Pusha-T. All eyez on Aubrey—as the beef was officially deaded via a curious J. Prince intervention, and apparently no response to Pusha’s scathing “The Story of Adidon” is forthcoming—everyone assumed Drake would say his piece on this new double album.
On the intro “Survival,” he announces, “I been waitin’ on this…” before making it clear: “My Mt. Rushmore is me with four different expressions / Who’s giving out this kind of return on investment?” Drake drops pointed references to beefs he’s had, which sound like both affirmations and put-downs, (“I’ve had real Philly niggas tryna write my ending / I’ve had scuffles with bad boys that wasn’t pretending”). Heading into the Memphis-bouncing, Tay Keith-produced “Nonstop,” Drake pops some shit with a Mack Daddy Ju sample on the hook.
“You know a wise man says nothing at all,” Drake asserts on what’s already become Scorpion’s most talked-about track, “Emotionless.” But he addresses the elephant in the room here: Pusha-T’s proclamation on “Adidon” that Drake was “hiding a child.” With a Mariah Carey “Emotions” sample as backing, Drake rhymes that “the people I looked up to have gone from bad to worse,” before confessing “I wasn’t hiding my kid from the world, I was hiding the world from my kid,” on a track where he also sanctimoniously presents social media as hollow overcompensation (“I know one girl whose one goal was to visit Rome / Then she finally got to Rome and all she did was post pictures for people at home”) and, via who he calls out, specifically female.
The single “I’m Upset” is produced by Oogie Mane and, despite being an awkwardly timed reference to women trying to get money (not quite the sentiment to put out there when the world just found out you’re a dad), it’s become the latest on Drizzy’s long list of Top 20 singles. Announcing that “your sister” and “your trainer” and “your nanny” are all “pressing play,” “8 Out of 10” is another “get like me” anthem, closing with an audio clip of a taunting Plies: “I can’t argue wit’ you… you mad… look at you… you big mad. I’m happy. Leave me alone!” And it segues into the skittering trap chanting of “Sick of these niggas” and intonations that, “It’s too for all that lovey dovey shit / All that ‘you’re my brother’ shit / All that other shit.” It’s one of Scorpion’s best tracks—the kind of “fuck you” track that can sound like forced posturing when Drake phones it in.
Soul-sampling would-be anthem “Sandra’s Rose” is Drake bemoaning the attacks on his credibility via some standard-issue rapper paranoia. The ominous, trunk-rattling thump of “Talk Up” comes courtesy of DJ Paul and TWhy, with Jay-Z and Drake putting to bed any talks of lingering beef. But after a Kanye-needling line about Trump, Jay drops probably the most inflammatory line on the album:
“I got your President tweetin', I won't even meet with him / Y’all killed XXX, let Zimmerman live / Shhh, s-streets is done.”
The Zimmerman zinger is an arrogant indictment of the streets from Jay that’s more flippant than a guy with his kind of influence, clout and platform should be on a seriously sore subject for Black folks. Produced by Willis Lane, the woozy haze of “Is There More” offers Drake a chance to flex on his stream-of-conscious navel-gazing, with Nai Palm ghostly echoing Aaliyah’s “More Than a Woman” backing vocals on the coda.
“Peak” is technically the opening track of the more vocal-driven second half of the album, but feels like a downbeat closer. Drake’s frustration with relationships informs his threatening hook of “You gon’ make me turn up on you” and dismissive lines like, “England breeds proper girls—where are your manners?” It’s followed by the Drake-at-his-most-Drake “Summer Games.” It’s the kind of “heart on my sleeve” Drake track that sounds rote—he literally repeats “Breakin’ my heart, tearin’ me apart”—but flirts with ’80s synth vibes. There’s a strong song here that’s hamstrung by the lyrics. “Jaded” is more “I don’t wanna hurt nobody” nice-guy pain. Given all that has happened in his highly publicized personal life, we know Drake’s pain is real. It’s a shame that his music so often fails to convey that.
Things finally spring to life on hit single “Nice For What,” an infectious repurposing of Lauryn Hill’s “Ex-Factor” that is a shot in the arm after a trifecta of Drake at his most mopey.
The quirkiness of “Ratchet Happy Birthday” would be better served on a tighter album, but it’s so randomly placed on this interminable project that it just sounds odd and throwaway—sweet Eddie Kendricks sample, though. Things get sinister again on “That’s How You Feel.” The dusky, minimalist groove from Noel Cadastre is Drake’s sound at its most atmospheric and the hook is one of Scorpion’s best, with snippets from Nicki Minaj’s Powerhouse 2014 “Bad Ass Bitch” live performance. A hook from Future makes “Blue Tint” catchy in spite of itself—one of the album’s flossier moments.
“In My Feelings,” boasting production from BlaqNmilD and TrapMoneyBenny, might be the best track on Scorpion—a brilliant, sneaky flip of Magnolia Shorty’s “Smoking Gun” with nods to Lil Wayne’s “Lollipop” and that Drake party-centric Atlanta episode. “I buy you Champagne but you love some Henny / From the block like you Jenny / I know you special, girl, ‘cause I know too many.” Issa single.
Featuring a sample of Michael Jackson’s vocals from the unreleased 1983 session with Paul Anka that produced the posthumous 2016 hit “Love Never Felt So Good,” “Don’t Matter To Me” is another strong mid-tempo R&B track and another dark moment—where Drake’s lyrics address a troubled lover who lives on the edge and who he says “tested my manhood as we yelled at each other” and “wanted me to put my hands on you.” The Maxwell-sampling, Ty Dolla $ign-featuring “After Dark” presents a posthumous Static Major appearance, and is a return to booty call come-ons. It feels like a jarring contrast after the menacing voice of “Don’t Matter To Me,” despite being one of the stronger “light” tracks on the album. The inspired sample of “Final Fantasy” rides, as Drake decides to get raunchy for his lady with goofy lines like, “I always get your ass over here somehow / I hope that the apocalypse is the only thing that doesn’t come now…”
Scorpion continues Drake’s recent tradition of overstuffed releases. It’s quasi-defiant to drop a 90-minute, 25-track double album in the wave of concise projects, especially considering Drake’s nemeses in G.O.O.D. have dominated summer music headlines with album’s clocking in under a half-hour. Of course it’s overstuffed—that’s a pretty standard criticism of double albums. What makes this glut of bloated albums from Drizzy particularly frustrating is that you can hear the amazing album he keeps not-quite-delivering hiding in these overly indulgent releases. Scorpion is just too long and there’s not enough greatness here to justify it. But there’s plenty of the immaculate composition and infectious flow that is just Drake doin’ Drake—he’s still very good at that.
His excessive approach, his desire to be all things on an album, and his craft suffering under the weight of both tendencies—that’s become part of the Drake narrative at this point. The introspection that’s always been his hallmark still sounds caged by that undercurrent of humblebraggery and “nice guy” misogyny that peppers so many of his more observational moments. And there’s a real anger bubbling throughout Scorpion, as Drake’s rage seems closer to the surface. There are easy suspects for why that is but despite so much swirling around him and his music, the most engaging stuff here gets lost in a miasma of sameness. You’d want to offer more than “Scorpion should have been shorter” but, on the heels of Views and More Life, Drake needs to get over this inclination toward massive releases. The best moments on Scorpion are still those where he, Boi 1da, 40 Shebib and Co. hit the sweet spot where songcraft and sincerity complement each other; the worst of the album is predictable, and evidence of the stagnation that seems to cloud even Drake’s best albums.
Streamline the most inspired flashes and you’d get the best of Drake. But that wouldn’t really be Drake.