At the top of 2018, Drake looked poised for a rebrand. In the face of criticism for borrowing from and pandering to Caribbean, West, and South African audiences, he started the year by considering unhappy customers and went back to the old formula. For Drake, that's always meant confidence-boosting bars and finger-pointing R&B – meat and potatoes stuff that's never fully disappeared in his genre experiments, but was nevertheless sidelined in favour of the sunny, island-informed pop music that filled More Life. This "return to form" is a classic Drake album move – when he wants to be taken seriously, he reaches back to what initially got him to the top tier of rap’s hierarchy.
In January, Drake released Scary Hours, an unexpected two-song EP which included the smash hit “God’s Plan.” Then in April, he dropped “Nice For What,” a song that flips Big Freedia’s New Orleans bounce and a sample of Lauryn Hill’s “Ex-Factor.” Both gave slight tweaks to the formula that’s proven to work for the past decade – which for fans of conventional Drake was a glimmer of hope. This was the narrative that he – one of music's most careful arbiters of image – seemed to be crafting for himself going into his fifth studio album. But even the best-laid plans don't often account for beef, which meant that his June war-of-words with PUSHA-T – culminating with the apparent revelation that Drake was the absentee father to a baby boy – threw a wrench into his attempt at a corporate restructuring. The follow up to that scuffle is Drake’s new album Scorpion, a two-sided, 90-minute long project that sloppily revisits his comfort zone.
For an artist who was already prone to long windedness about his paranoia and the jealousy he feels from peers, a below-the-belt diss from Push only complicated what Drake’s output may have been originally. But, founder of iconic Houston rap label Rap-A-Lot Records and personal mentor J. Prince allegedly advised him to not respond directly to PUSHA-T's "The Story of Adidon," claiming it would be damaging to the careers of Drake and Kanye. But it wouldn't be like Drake to leave a series of slights unanswered.
Throughout Side A of Scorpion – the rap side – Drake lends a considerable amount of time to addressing the beef, but much like “Duppy Freestyle,” the bulk could still be read as being geared towards Kanye West. On the album’s appropriately-titled opener “Survival,” he chronicles past disputes with the likes of Meek Mill and Diddy: “I've had real Philly niggas try to write my endin'/ Takin' shots with the goat and talked about shots that we sendin'/ I've had scuffles with bad boys that wasn't pretendin’.” In that same verse he scoffs “I fell back a hundred times when I don’t get the credit,” which could also be a shot at Kanye considering that Drake is credited on TLOP’s “30 Hours” and ye’s “Yikes.”
In a recent Rolling Stone report, producers of the Scorpion track “March 14,” which offers the most details about Drake’s son to date, allege that the song started being made as early as January. Drake collaborators J. Valler and Malik Yusef suspect that the song’s title suggests Drake played a version of the song for Kanye West in Wyoming, and Kanye subsequently played the song for PUSHA-T, which gave him ammo for “The Story of Adidon.”
So, if the timeline actually unfolded that way, lines like “Lead the league in scorin', man, but look at my assists /Yes I be with Future but I like to reminisce” on Scorpion’s “Mobb Ties” and “Niggas pulling gimmicks ‘cause they scared to rap” from “Non Stop” could be directed at Kanye. On his weekly podcast, Joe Budden speculated that not only was the majority of Side A a direct response to Ye and Push, but he believes even the way Drake used “good” was a play on words for G.O.O.D. Music. Budden has been known to launch wild rap conspiracies into the online conversation, so do with that theory what you will, but the minute detail in his analysis felt like one of the few realistic scenarios for how Push even got information about Drake’s son.
In a way, all of these rebuttals do feel like a return to a classic Drake mode. He almost seems like he's in a comfort zone when there is conflict. Paranoia and rage have always suited him. But crucially, he moves into new territory when he's able to discuss his relationship with his son.
Those sentiments come together on the album’s closer “March 14.” There are some brow-raising moments on it; Drake does very little to reverse Push’s absentee father accusations (he confirms that he’d only seen his son during Christmas). He also uses the song as an opportunity to stress that he’d only been with the son’s mother twice and that she was more-or-less the result of a reality his mother tried to steer him away from in his early years. But by all accounts, it is the most vulnerable moment of the Toronto artist’s career. He spends greater portion of the song expressing his shame in recreating the long distance co-parenting he was subjected to as a child. He is open about the fear of having his son worry about which parent loved him more. It’s one of the few moments in Drake’s career where he’s seemingly forced to operate from somewhere other than his hubris, though this could just be a result of that pride being somewhat broken.
But the rest of Scorpion is nothing like that. Where parts of Views and most of More Life gave a sense that Drake saw value in extending his superstardom out to artists throughout the African diaspora with lighthearted danceable records, this new album is him just going back to what works. And, to his credit, a lot of it works really well. On the R&B-dominated Side B, which has a bit more cohesion than Side A, Drake is given the uninterrupted space to make the ballads he’s always shown the capability of making.
The Ty Dolla $ign-featuring, slow-burning “Jaded” takes on the Drake-est of Drake themes, stressing his reason for being single is so he doesn’t hurt anyone else. It’s corny, but sounds great. “Blue Tint” was made for summer night drives and features some backing vocals from Future. He unearths some unfinished-sounding vocals of Michael Jackson as a flex of his buying power (which he does throughout the album) on “Don’t Matter.” “In My Feelings,” has contributions from Miami duo City Girls and interpolates New Orleans flavour just like “Nice For What.” The ingredients make for one of the strongest candidates for a chart-topping single in his career. All of these add more polish to Drake’s unmatched ability to make easily digestible pop music that comes from a rap foundation.
On Side A, with his shots at the folks over at G.O.O.D. Music and sheer display of lyrical ability, there are plenty of songs to be excited about. The first hint that “Emotionless” is a flip of Mariah Carey’s 1991 hit “Emotions,” indicates that’ll be a standout. Couple that with some of his more seething lines on the album about witnessing former heroes act more disappointingly human than he ever imagined make it one of the album’s best. Drake scores a DJ Premier beat for “Sandra’s Rose,” a self-propping bop that pays tribute to his mother while taking hilarious shots like “Like Charlemagne, I see the light and see the darkest patches.” And though it doesn’t help the argument that they actually work well as collaborators, JAY-Z joins Drake on the DJ Paul-produced (and N.W.A. sampling) “Talk Up” – the type of hip-hop moment that we should get way more of. Like Side B does with R&B, Side A shores up his long track record of witty, but routinely catty raps.
Even with all of these highlights, the fact that Scorpion is 25 songs and 90 minutes long can’t be ignored. So much of listening to it feels like a chore once you get to the beginning of Side B, which is unfortunate because so many of the album’s best songs are past that point. Beyond the length is the reality that Drake’s this-and-that framing of the album runs its course early because what it offers musically doesn’t warrant how much music there actually is. It leaves the question that many had after Migos released Culture II earlier this year: how many decisions from music’s biggest stars are being made with commercialism in mind before artistic integrity? Scorpion could likely be one of Drake’s better albums if it shaved about a third of its tracklist.
Though Views suffered from the same challenges of length, the insertion of Caribbean and West African music was a skill added to his repertoire and was a way for him to connect with global artists. He took that even further on More Life which largely felt like a Drake residency in London. But now we’re back to where we were left off pre-2016. In her review of Views, writer Judnick Mayard assessed Drake’s tendency to go back to old habits after noting that halfway through, he completely abandoned the diasporic flavour of the album. “This feeling of wanting to experiment but understanding that there’s pressure to repeat past successes is familiar to many of us ‘millennials’ who know what it’s like to wait for the game to catch up to us while the old pillars fall.”
That still seems to be the case for Drake in 2018. But, how can you tell that to an artist who hasn’t experienced many chart failures for nearly a decade how to operate? Scorpion is full of great moments but its appetite for domination is hindering its chance at separating itself from the lot of already-existing Drake music.
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This article originally appeared on Noisey US.