Review: Scorpion by Drake

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Drake was one of two mainstream artists that I could envision pulling off a double album. The other one was, of course, Miranda Lambert, who had been making consistently great country pop albums for years such that all she had to do was make a longer one. And that’s exactly what she did on 2016’s The Weight of These Wings, also one of the best country albums of that year. As for Drake, both Views and More Life were predictably stifling over the course of their 80-minute runtimes, but they were also manageable because Drake has a lot of connections in both features and beat-makers to produce a revolving door of sound. For a double album, all he had to do was conceivably do that, but for a bit longer. (Indeed, Scorpion is only 8 minutes longer than either of those projects.) He doesn’t do that. Instead, he mostly goes at the beats himself and puzzlingly drops Views’ Caribbean influences and More Life’s detours into UK grime and South African house. Just what we needed: another Culture II!

No other mainstream artist comes with as much baggage as Drake does, and I find myself constantly having to remind people about how great Take Care and Nothing Was the Same were in the post-“Started From the Bottom” landscape where Drake became untouchable. The self-aware editor’s note released with the album addresses most of the main concerns about him, from complaints about authenticity (“DRAKE DOESN’T EVEN WRITE HIS OWN SONGS”; “DRAKE DIDN’T START FROM THE BOTTOM”; “DRAKE IS AN ACTOR”) to people unwilling to accept his mainstream-approach to hip-hop (“DRAKE SINGS TOO MUCH”; “DRAKE IS A POP ARTIST”; “DRAKE MAKES MUSIC FOR GIRLS”). It’s “I Love Kanye” from The Life of Pablo all over again. It goes both ways, and I can’t think of a single more divisive mainstream artist with both haters and fans falling over themselves to make sure you really get that they hate or love him. Can’t we get a bit of nuance? A bit of critical evaluation? No, of course not. Hyperbole’s the only way to get your point across these days.

It certainly doesn’t help matters that Pusha T released “The Story of Adidon” at the end of May, an interesting case of a public execution decades after such spectacles have been frowned upon. Back to the editor’s note, “DRAKE TOOK AN L,” and he really did when he released “Duppy’s Freestyle” that quickly revealed how little ammunition he had against Pusha T outside a few bars (Drake positing that Pusha T isn’t a top 5 talent in G.O.O.D. Music’s roster was the dumbest thing I read all month, and this is from someone that dives into the comments sections of various platforms) and wasn’t able to directly respond to Pusha T outside of an Instagram post about the blackface. (Mentor J. Prince said that he advised Drake not to release his “overwhelming” response; I’ll believe it when I hear it.) So Scorpion comes with lots of talking points for tabloids: “I wasn’t hiding my kid from the world / I was hiding the world from my kid “(“Emotionless”); “I’ve seen this movie a hundred times, I know where it’s headed / Realize someone gotta die when no one will dead it” (“Survival”); “Yeah, I’m light skinned but I’m still a dark nigga” (“Nonstop”); “All sevens, no sixes” (“8 out of 10”). I love “The Story of Adidon” as much as the next guy, but a month later, it’s like … can we shut the fuck about it yet? The jokes about Scorpion being a posthumous release got tired, fast. (You know what else got really tired? The term “stan.” Or is that just me?)

All that aside – finally! – we can talk about the music! Except, there really isn’t that much to talk about. Drake has never been a great rapper (although occasionally he demonstrates great rapping) or a great singer, particularly because his plights just aren’t that interesting but more pertinently because there’s no depth! On previous releases, these flaws were less evident either because he contrasted between them well (or else brought in a lot of other people’s voices to provide contrast), but here, he separates the two discs so that all of the hip-hop cuts are on the first disc and the R&B cuts are on the second, bringing those issues to light. (Plenty of artists usually go this route for their multi-disc releases, including the aforementioned Lambert, regardless of the fact that it sometimes leads to sequencing issues.) It’s too easy to say that him following girls and being promptly unfollowed by other girls isn’t a particularly riveting plot (“Summer Games”), but his flow has gotten really same-y over the years: “Sandra’s Rose” occasionally recalls “Weston Road Flows” and the following “Talk Up” brings “Gyalchester” to mind. It’s also weird that the R&B disc comes with so little hooks, something we used to be able to count on Drake for.

It doesn’t help that Drake really likes his minimalistic beats, which are everywhere these days once people figured out how easy it was to make one. (This is the nadir/peak of the shift from music as a songwriter’s medium into a producer’s medium.) A few chords with any drum programming to let listeners know something’s happening in the background will always make for good house party music, plus slowed down enough they’ll make you think of the atmosphere of Canadian winters (see “Finesse”). Without the benefit of a “One Dance” or “Passionfruit” (PSA to listen to Yaeji’s cover) or “Get It Together,” most of the songs sort of just blur into one another despite repeat listens. Drake’s love for trap rap, which went full-blown in 2015 with the back-to-back releases of If You’re Reading This You’re Too Late and What a Time to Be Alive, continues regardless of the fact that Drake’s trap rap beats never distinguish themselves the way other, more devoted trappers do. We’re a long way from “Pick Up the Phone” or “goosebumps” or “I Serve the Bass”, but even “Jumpman” feels like a dream to me now. (Kathy, I’m so lost...this is empty, and aching, and I don't know why.) Speaking of Future, he’s uncredited on "Blue Tint," but each time I've heard it makes me yearn for a proper feature to help distinguish the song. By contrast, JAY Z appears on "Talk Up" and redeems his previous, disastrous feature on "Pound Cake."

There are songs that I foresee myself adding to a summer playlist, but for each one of those, we’re also treated to lowlights, from “Ratchet Happy Birthday” (good keyboard backdrop but also the worst hook ever conceived resulting in one of Drake’s worst songs, to say nothing of the overuse of autotune that simply doesn’t come off) to “Mob Ties” (why not just ask Migos to come onboard?) to “I’m Upset” (“I wanna see what is’ like when you get angry, okay?”). After years of featuring guests who sound like Michael Jackson (The Weeknd, Majid Jordan), Drake clears an unreleased vocal from the real thing for “Don’t Matter to Me." Elsewhere, his flow is surprisingly tight on “Can’t Take a Joke” and DJ Premier scopes out some gorgeous soul samples for “Sandra’s Rose” that does 40’s “Tuscan Leather” better than any beat here produced by 40. “Summer Games” strikes new territory for Drake as he mines the synth-pop sound of Italians Do It Better (think of the soundtrack for Drive) and there’s “Nice For What,” of course, with a beat so good that you forget Drake’s actually on it. Closer "March 14" ends the album with some grey sky-evoking piano chords, following a boom bap first half that'll definitely be a highlight for critics who love more personal cuts.

Drake’s ardent defenders have pointed out how most of these 90 minutes aren’t bad, or that people haven’t let it grow on them. I guess we should be thankful that they’re not the sort of person to say “you just don’t get it” (because there’s nothing to get with Drake). To be sure: most of these songs aren’t bad, they’re just relentlessly mediocre and mid-tempo: a combined pairing of No I.D. and 40 can’t come up with anything more interesting than a few synth fills on “Survival,” where Drake keeps letting you know how he won’t go off because it’s just an intro (how things have changed since “Tuscan Leather”, where he went off for 6 minutes with full awareness that it was the intro); he spends as much care on the proper verses of “8 Out of 10” as he does the choruses; for some reason, I expected 40 to go full Herbie Hancock circa-Head Hunters on the outro of “Peak” but instead he just zaps a tiny little figure that ends up going nowhere.

Ultimately, this is another entry in the long list of double albums that could have been singles. It’s so interesting that of the three hip-hop artists releasing multi-disc albums, it’s Rae Sremmurd that’s come up with the best one. Surprising, because I’ve always thought that the duo seemed to land on their great songs by accident (“No Type,” “Throw Sum Mo”, “Black Beatles”), and also because SR3MM was a triple album (albeit with only 10 minutes’ of more material than Scorpion). It’s a touchy point now to bring up the 7-track, 21-minute format of Pusha T’s Daytona, but I long for Drake to care less about his streaming numbers and really deliver an album as an album, by which I mean one that demands and rewards listeners who put it on in one sitting rather than picking and choosing for personal playlists. Another reminder that more music doesn't mean more life. C