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It might have been a goofy joke when Drake popped and locked it to Taylor Swift’s “Bad Blood” in a 2016 Apple Music ad, but the gag also unintentionally highlighted how much the two musicians have in common. They’re both omnipresent, market-dominating megastars with rabid fanbases, and both have remained elusive in recent years when it comes to doing press, preferring to drop breadcrumb-trail hints about their respective private lives through lyrics that scan as diaristic even when they’re at their most obtuse. They have also inarguably reached the tipping point of their popularity — positioned in the best seats in the pop-cultural house, constantly wondering out loud why their chairs aren’t bigger still. Swift’s LP from last year, Reputation, was partially mired in such angst, and the same goes doubly for Drake’s fifth proper album, the gargantuan Scorpion.
A double-album split into two genre-specific sides that’s already broken streaming records, Scorpion thematically picks up where 2016’s Views left off, its creator diving deeper into his own bitterness in search of profundity. “I fell back a hundred times when I don’t get the credit,” he states over the rippling synth and mafioso strings of opening track “Survival”; after a few verses excoriating the well-trod ground of social media’s selfishness on the ebullient Mariah Carey-sampling “Emotionless,” he states unironically, “All these followers/But who gon’ follow me ’til the end?” In the closing moments of last year’s “playlist” More Life, Drake acknowledged that Views came from an angry place within him “that I just never knew.” On Scorpion, he exhibits much more than a passing familiarity with that emotional side of himself.
Inner turmoil can often prove a great catalyst for art, but Scorpion finds Drake, in his own words, “exhausted and drained/I can’t even pretend.” It’s unquestionably his weakest album to date, serving to highlight previously unexamined strengths of his other minor works. 2010’s debut Thank Me Later was amateurish and in-chrysalis, but it also possessed a youthful sense of wonder that’s since eluded him. Views was widely criticized for its aimless bloat, but it made good use of that runtime with a variety of globe-trotting sounds, as opposed to the inky production style that coats Scorpion‘s soporific 90-minute frame. More Life featured a coterie of rising stars and rap heavyweights to create a largely jovial and party-like atmosphere, but Scorpion — Drake’s loneliest-sounding album since 2013’s ruminative Nothing Was the Same — is pure and uncut ego, cranking his hardest-to-like personality traits up to 11.
The blame doesn’t solely reside with Drake’s tendency to reflect until he resembles two mirrors facing each other. While an intriguing idea on paper, Scorpion‘s A-side/B-side gambit — a respective divide between rap tracks and R&B cuts, similar to Nelly’s 2005 LP Sweatsuit — largely backfires, the rap-focused and slightly shorter A-side arguably shining brighter with some lovely production touches from reliable vets like No I.D. (“Survival,” “Emotionless”) and DJ Premier (“Sandra’s Rose”). Although it picks up a little towards the end, Scorpion‘s second half is often a joyless slog, a prioritizing of vibe over structure that results in some of Drake’s most unfocused songwriting to date. Isolating these R&B-flavored songs only highlights their sonic sameness, and it’s possible that a few of these sloth-like moments — the dank crawl of “Peak,” “Finesse”‘s morphine-drip piano dirge — would play better if differently sequenced. But such a hypothetical only emphasizes how badly Scorpion is in need of a capable editor.
If you’ve listened to the radio at least once over the past six months, you’ve already heard Scorpion‘s best songs: “God’s Plan” is as joyous and sky-scraping as ever, and “Nice For What” still packs a speedy punch even when isolated from its star-studded video. Otherwise, the highlights here are the moments in which Drake sounds like he’s, God forbid, having some fun: “Ratchet Happy Birthday” finds him scraping a higher vocal register and rolling his tongue over a spare, charming backbeat, while “Blue Tint” skips along jauntily enough to overshadow its vapid attempts at political statement-making (“President doin’ us in/My window got blue in the tint”). “Don’t Matter to Me” makes great melodic hay out of a headline-grabbing posthumous Michael Jackson feature, evoking Nothing Was the Same‘s classic single “Hold On, We’re Going Home,” while “8 Out of 10” possesses a thundering majesty reminiscent of Kanye West’s Late Registration — an apt comparison, considering the licked shots Drake takes at his sometime mentor (“Too rich for who? Y’all just got rich again/Who grips the mic and likes to kill they friends?”).
“8 Out of 10” is one of a few moments on Scorpion in which Drake’s turbulent, tabloid-like beef with Pusha T over the last month is recalled, if not directly addressed. The voyeurism in regard to his personal life offered to listeners over the last decade has undoubtedly played a huge part in Drake’s appeal, but the revelation of Drake’s fathering a child in Pusha’s searing diss track “The Story of Adidon” marks the first time in Drake’s career in which he’s been forced to respond to, rather than cannily craft, his own narrative.
Said child is referenced multiple times throughout Scorpion (“I wasn’t hidin’ my kid from the world/I was hidin’ the world from my kid,” he raps on “Emotionless”), and he’s most revealing and honest on closing track “March 14.” On past albums, Drake has typically saved his more personal and revealing lyrical material for the end, and the addressing of his own largely-absent fatherhood is no different here: “Single father, I hate when I hear it,” he snaps over warped tones and a crisp backbeat. “I used to challenge my parents on every album/Now I’m embarrassed to tell ’em I ended up as a co-parent.” It’s a gripping and painfully honest admission from an artist who, this time around, seems to be coming awfully close to losing sight of his own essence. C+