In the past five weeks, Drake has suffered one of the most spectacular losses in rap-battle history and revealed that he’s a new father. Scorpion, his fourth full-length project in four years, is a sprawling double-disc affair that is informed by both experiences, although he declines to address the former directly. It’s his most even effort since 2015’s If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late, and it proves, once again, that his pop gifts would be very difficult to suppress. It breaks little new ground for Drake or for mainstream rap generally, but seems to function more or less as designed.
First, a note on the form: with the very public exception of June’s G.O.O.D. Music releases aside, rap albums in the past two years have tended toward the very long. Even the most casual fans suspect that this is usually an effort to game the streaming platforms (and, in turn, the Billboard charts). The good news is that the 25-track album, even if it’s en vogue for entirely different reasons, suits Drake very well. He’s never had a particularly high batting average: with the exception of Views, his weakest showing since his 2010 debut Thank Me Later, Drake’s albums tend to be split more or less evenly between the impressive and the forgettable. Bad music doesn’t stick to Drake—it never has—and so a Drake who’s allowed to swing for the fences more than two-dozen times is as good a Drake as any.
The album is split into a rap-oriented disc and a second one that’s meant to showcase Drake’s R&B work (though two of the best songs on the latter are entirely rapped). An R&B-only Drake project has been a point of fixation among his fans for some time now, and for good reason: from his breakthrough with 2009’s So Far Gone through the stunning singles surrounded by drab rapping on Views, much of his best music has been entirely sung. What Scorpion reveals on this front, though, is that Drake might have been better off jumping between the two sounds as he had before. There are few out-and-out clunkers on Scorpion, but cordoning the sounds off from one another makes 2 and 2 equal about 3 and a half. In a vacuum, Drake is not a world-beating rapper or singer; what gives his albums their dynamic range is his sense for pacing. Take Care is the best example of Drake’s component parts equaling more than their sum. This album doesn’t exactly suffer for the split, but you get the distinct sense that there’s a more compelling sequence buried deep in here.
The first indication that Scorpion might have benefited from a more varied approach is its third track, “Elevate,” which marries Drake’s strongest singing performance to a playful rap verse that traverses Ohio and politely thanks God for outworking Satan—you know, Drake things. “Emotionless,” which is built on the exact Mariah Carey sample you’re thinking of, is bright and soulful (despite its weird, stunted tangent about how girls use Instagram wrong). While Drake and Jay’s rapping is mostly flat, “Talk Up” is worth plenty of repeat listens for DJ Paul’s flip of N.W.A.’s “Dope Man.” And “Sandra’s Rose,” which is produced by DJ Premier—and which sounds like Comeback Season-era Drake’s ideal endpoint—is fun and free and hears Drake brag about hitting strip clubs and casinos like Rick Pitino, which is exactly the sort of slick, goofy shit that he trafficks in so well. There are also missteps on the first disc: “I’m Upset” is still tepid, and closer “Is There More?” is a retread in just about every way possible.
Scorpion comes in the immediate wake of the first serious challenge to Drake’s artificial universe and only intermittently succeeds in defending it.
The second half is anchored by the Big Freedia-aided “Nice For What,” which is one of the handful of best things Drake’s ever made. He revisits New Orleans on the sparse, lusty “In My Feelings” and taps the late Static Major’s vaults for “After Dark,” which also employs the red-hot Ty Dolla $ign. Those, along with closer “March 14,” are the unqualified successes; most of the songs on the second disc are, at the very least, interesting, if only for 90-second stretches. (“Ratchet Happy Birthday,” which is probably a joke we’re all supposed to be in on along with Drake, is just a mess.)
Drake has always been alternately lauded and derided for his willingness to hop from sound to sound, scene to scene, style to style. His collaborations with up-and-coming rappers have often proven to be just as effective as his own singles in announcing new directions or building hype for his albums. This cycle, the standout turn was on Memphis rapper Blocboy JB’s “Look Alive,” a piercing, minimal song. (Blocboy’s go-to producer, Tay Keith, furnishes Drake with an excellent beat on “Nonstop.”) But what’s notable about Scorpion, especially on its rap disc, is that it leans relatively little on the sounds and styles of other, younger popular rappers. That Drake can believably stitch together that Tay Keith beat with the one from Premier is a testament to how all-encompassing his orbit can seem.
As a writer, Drake is more or less where he’s always been. What’s made Drake’s music aspirational to some and tiresome at so many points is that, from the moment he was introduced to national audiences 2009, it’s seemed he’s always wanted to have it both ways when it comes to fame: to cast himself as aggrieved and to wield the fame like a trump card. He wants to read as funny and knowing when he doxxes girls who work at chain restaurants and wants to read as noble when he hides his kid from the world until (per Pusha’s allegation, at least) Adidas gives him the go-ahead to roll him out with the new compression socks.
This gets cast, from time to time by listeners and critics, as a moral issue. It isn’t; it’s a creative one. Drake has spent nearly a full decade on top of rap’s commercial food chain—debatably the longest such run in the genre’s history. He’s done this by identifying the new media era we live in, one in which “navigating fame” is no longer about avoiding scandal and smiling during press junkets, but about using whatever energy you have to construct a world around you with you as its glowing, irresistible center. Puffy punching you outside a club in Miami is character-building. Scorpion comes in the immediate wake of the first serious challenge to Drake’s artificial universe—the one we’ve been subsumed into—and only intermittently succeeds in defending it.
The closest analogs for how Drake navigates celebrity probably don’t come from rap—they’re his neighbors in Hidden Hills, the tiny, gated city near Calabasas where he lives. Keeping Up With the Kardashians started in 2007; during its first couple of seasons, it played like a conventional reality show, airing moments that would embarrass the subjects. About five years in, something changed: the Jenners and Kardashians had become massive, immovable stars, in charge of all that E! could survey. The show became a very benign type of propaganda. Where cameras captured Khloe and Kim screaming at each other in the parking lot of a Bentley dealership and throwing purses over Chipotle later the same night, they began to offer a platform for Kendall to spin her disastrous ad about Pepsi ending racism, or for Khloe to control communications re: ex-husband Lamar Odom’s near-fatal overdose, without any footage that might compromise her or the family ever making it to air. The real performance is the public life of the Jenners and Kardashians and the show a sort of behind-the-scenes commentary track, merely the placeholder at the center of a far larger enterprise.
More than any rapper to break before him or since, Drake understands how to shift his focus beyond the music itself to maintain the aura of musical supremacy.
Drake does not operate exactly like the Kardashians—he wishes he had a Kris Jenner in his corner—but they are probably the only other group of people who have manipulated new and old media this decade to such effective ends. He understands that his music, central as it may be to his public life, is simply one part of it. It’s why he snaps, to a girl, on “Emotionless”: “Don’t hit me when you hear this and tell me your favorite song.” The album is a new, very special episode of Drake, maybe, but he understands that everyone’s tuned in during the non-musical moments, too. More than any rapper to break before him or since, Drake understands how to shift his focus beyond the music itself to maintain the aura of musical supremacy. This isn’t to disparage him; this is extremely impressive. The man used an SNL appearance to reframe how we were supposed to think about his last album and responded to a scathing diss—which mocked one of his best friend’s Multiple Sclerosis!—by staging a Degrassi reunion.
Throughout Scorpion, Drake seems to be paralyzed by what the public might think of him to an even greater degree than in the past. On the Michael Jackson-sampling “Don’t Matter To Me,” he sings: “You tested my manhood as we yelled at each other / You wanted me to go and put my hands on you / Just to show you I love ya / You know I can’t jeopardize both our reputations.” The fact that he jumps to public perception immediately seems to be telling of the way he processes the consequences. This is mirrored, with a far lighter touch, in the way Drake returns time and time again—on “Summer Games,” on “That’s How You Feel,” on “Nice For What,” on “Can’t Take a Joke,” on “Jaded,” over and over on “Emotionless”—to Instagram, which seems to dictate an alarming portion of his moods.
Rappers, including superstars, have often made diaristic music: Jay worked out his neuroses about his past and his angst over court cases in real time; Nas let his mother’s death permeate an entire album; Eminem took his ex-wife and his own mom to task on charting singles. But in those cases, the artists followed a more familiar, old-world arc of celebrity, where real-world events are followed by a response on record, and where the work is allowed to be the final statement. In Drake’s world—the one we live in now—the borders of Instagram and Apple Music and rumor and truth seem to be more porous. In 2011, Jay finally rapped about tipping off the paparazzi as to his whereabouts; Drake seems to have come out of the womb with that kind of cold calculation about his public appearances.
In Drake’s world—the one we live in now—the borders of Instagram and Apple Music and rumor and truth seem to be more porous.
This is why “The Story of Adidon” was so damning, and so fascinating. If Drake was ever going to reveal his son’s existence, he was supposed to be able to do it on his schedule. Pusha put the first significant dent in Drake’s constructed universe. He had to scramble and react quickly; he doesn’t have Kris Jenner’s wealth of experience spinning scandals and robberies and Scott Disicks, and he also didn’t have her lead time. And so we get what is honestly a touching letter to his son on “March 14”; we also get defensive groaners like “The only deadbeats is whatever beats I been rappin’ to.” Insisting that Drake wasn’t hiding his child from the world, but was rather “hiding the world” from his child, as he does on “Emotionless,” is, to be sure, a legitimate impulse for a new parent to have, but seems flimsy given that Drake doesn’t deny Pusha’s claim that Adonis was going to be trotted out in service of Adidas. Again, this is not a moral failing; in this case, it’s a failure of spin.
“Nice For What” and “God’s Plan” are already Platinum a combined 11 times over, and Scorpion is sure to spur a handful more summer singles, which illustrates another thing Drake shares with Kris Jenner—inertia. Views was the most highly-anticipated album in Drake’s career and was widely considered a disappointment—again, if chart data or simple ubiquity is the measure, bad music doesn’t stick to Drake. On Scorpion, he’s banking that bad news won’t stick, either. In the chorus of “8 Out of 10,” Drake taunts his enemies by listing the people in their lives who will inevitably press play on his album when it drops: your nanny, your sister, your trainer, your wifey. This, again, is supposed to the trump card: how mad can you really be if you keep tuning in?
Scorpion is not the scorched-earth response to Pusha-T that some of Drake’s fans may have wanted. Nor is it an aloof, unbothered album that attempts to ignore “Adidon.” It is, on one level, a disjointed by mostly successful collection of pop rap for the summer—and on another level, a frequently fascinating document of spin, which is only occasionally convincing, but consistently sheds new light on Drake and the way he views the world.