On ‘Survival’, the first of 25 tracks from Drake’s colossal, dual-sided album ‘Scorpion’, the rapper opens by directly addressing his current state of affairs: “All of this disorder, no addressin’ / The crown is broken in pieces, but there’s more in my possession”. It pretty much sums up where Drake finds himself at this moment in time – in that precarious position at the very top of the rap/pop summit, where it’s so easy for you to stumble and lose your footing.
You see, it’s been a strange year for the star so far. ‘God’s Plan’, a relatively Drake-by-numbers single released as part of the two-track ‘Scary Hours’ EP back in January, saw the rapper break yet more streaming records, becoming his biggest hit since ‘One Dance’, perhaps even ‘Hotline Bling’ (thanks, in no little part, to its tear-baiting accompanying video). This was soon followed by ‘Nice For What’ – a vivid, prismatic glo-up anthem espousing (slightly mansplainy) platitudes of female empowerment and giving head-nods to the New Orleans bounce scene. Summer 2018 was, once again, looking like it belonged to Drake.
But then there was a bit of a wobble. Clearly irked by some (fairly rhetorical) shots fired by Pusha T, Drake put “album mode” on hold and allowed himself to become embroiled in a public spat and diss track exchange that many saw as marking the start of his demise. Of course, it hasn’t, but ‘The Story Of Adidon, Pusha’s sucker-punch, has wounded the rapper, exposing certain weaknesses.
Its artwork used a decade-old photo of Drake in blackface, aimed to rile those who say the star doesn’t do enough to support the black community or address black issues publicly or in his music. Meanwhile, the track itself centred around claims that the rapper had a son, named Adonis, with Pusha rapping on the track: “You are hiding a child, let that boy come home / Deadbeat mothafucka playin’ border patrol”. It was this latter revelation that spawned all the headlines, contradicting the good-guy public image that Drake has carefully molded for himself.
Releasing a short statement in an attempt to explain the now-infamous blackface photo, Drake didn’t address the claims that he had secretly fathered a child and remained largely silent in the build-up to his album’s release. ‘Scorpion’, then, was the perfect mouthpiece for a response. It was Drake’s chance not only to rebuff his critics, but also cement his place at the top of the game.
Instead, the album sounds like a missed opportunity – and he largely ignores the public circus. This is mostly Drake on autopilot. For much of the record, Drake sounds like an artist treading water, one sticking to tried and testing methods. Lyrically, Drake too often resorts to variations on the same kind of topics and themes that we’ve become accustomed to – the claustrophobia of fame, the emptiness of loveless relations, the underdog becoming the top dog.
It’s not just monotony though, some lines are outright stinkers. “Treat you like princess / Rest in heaven, Diana,” Drake raps on ‘Peak’, before feeling the need to remind the listener for the millionth time that he’s been to London: “England breeds proper girls / Where are all your good manners?”.
Production-wise, things are a bit more interesting – the twisted soul samples of ‘Sandra’s Rose’ and ‘Emotionless’ rival that of ‘College Dropout’-era Kanye, while there’s ambient minimalism (‘Peak’), old-school turntablism (‘In My Feelings’) and deranged, joyous fairground vibes (‘Ratchet Happy Birthday’) elsewhere.
The album’s most fulfilling moments come when Drake occasionally veers off-script and offers something different – like the handful of moments that he does address – and confirm – his fatherhood. On ‘Emotionless’ (based around a winning Mariah Carey sample), Drake musters up the somewhat flimsy defence, “I wasn’t hidin’ my kid from the world / I was hidin’ the world from my kid”, before swiftly moving on. Later though, on closing track ‘March 14′, he dedicates a whole song to his newly-born, expressing his sadness at being a “co-parent”, having grown up the product of separation. “I wanted it to be different because I’ve been through it,” he explains. It’s the most passionate Drake sounds on the entire record, but perhaps it comes a little too late.
Drake’s fatal flaw on ‘Scorpion’, though, is self-indulgence. There’s the Michael Jackson resurrection on ‘Don’t Matter To Me’ (a clear-cut power move, rather than artistic posthumous collaboration) and an out-of-place Jay-Z feature (which appears solely aimed to troll Kanye). These are cases of Drake doing things because he can, rather than because he should.
But the star’s hubris is no more apparent than in its sheer breadth and lack of quality control. At 25 tracks in total, ‘Scorpion’ is way too long – even by Drake’s own standards – and simply doesn’t need to be. By this point, we all know that Drake can dominate streaming charts at his own whim, and he’s done so for years. Its predecessor, 2016’s ‘Views’, was itself 20 tracks in length, smashed records across the board and started to see the artist accused of creative recycling.
Fast-forward two years and Drake doesn’t seem to have learned any lessons or sensed the turning of the tide away from bloated albums maximised for streaming revenue. Ironically, it has been Drake’s hero-turned-rival, Kanye West, who has instead taken note of this.
It’s a shame really, because ‘Scorpion’ was supposed to be a victory lap, the coronation event for rap’s long-running heir apparent. Instead, ‘Scorpion’ sounds like Drake knowing that he’s won, cynically deciding not to challenge himself. Sure, the crown is still his, but to quote Drake’s own words on this album: “Is there more?”