“My Mount Rushmore is me with four different expressions,” Drake raps on “Survival,” the opening track on his new album Scorpion. It’s a quintessential Drake lyric: amiably narcissistic, eminently quotable, and of dubious creative origin. (After some people pointed out that the line sounds suspiciously like a joke from the comedian Anthony Jeselnik, Jeselnik tweeted, probably jokingly, “I wrote it for him.” Quentin Miller, watch out!) Scorpion spans 25 songs in about 90 minutes, and the internet has already made a sport of pointing out things that are roughly as long: Toy Story, The Lion King, a CVS receipt. To stick with musical analogs, though, Scorpion is only a few minutes shorter than the Beatles’ White Album, a double album that made a case for its length by exploring countless genres and the artistic perspectives of four very different people. Scorpion, by comparison, is more monotonous and limited in its worldview: It is a double album from the mind of a (constitutionally) single man. The cover of Drake’s Let It Be, after all, would be him with four different expressions. I don’t even want to think about his Sgt. Pepper’s.
Drake is often cited as the quintessential musician of the Instagram era (as soon as I heard the Mount Rushmore line, I could already picture the IG captions) because what he offers us is not intimacy so much as a cropped, carefully curated version of it. Recent events, though, have upended this aesthetic and gestured toward what has always been omitted from the frame. A month before the release of Scorpion, Drake’s current adversary Pusha-T dropped “The Story of Adidon,” a scorched-earth diss track that suggested Drake had fathered a child with a woman named Sophie Brussaux. “A baby’s involved, it’s deeper than rap,” Pusha declared, with acidic clarity, “You are hiding a child, let that boy come home.” Drake’s subsequent silence—not to mention a few lines from his peevish previous single “I’m Upset” referring to child support—seemed like a corroboration that he had indeed been found out.
On Scorpion, Drake comes clean. “I wasn’t hiding my kid from the world, I was hiding the world from my kid,” he raps midway through the confessional “Emotionless,” buoyed by a divine sample from Mariah Carey’s 1992 MTV Unplugged performance. A few songs later, he’s already moved on to using his love for his son as proof of his good-guy bona fides: On the cocky “8 Out of 10,” Drake takes shots at Pusha and his producer Kanye West—I also hear a bit of taunting Kanye imitation in Drake’s delivery of this song: your wifey, your wifey, your wifey—before asserting, “Kiss my son on the forehead and kiss your ass goodbye.”
And then there’s the 25th and (phew) final song, “March 14.” It’s reminiscent of one of the last songs on his 2015 mixtape If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late, “You & the 6,” a candid open letter to his mother. This time, though, he talks to his son: “I got an empty crib in my empty crib / I only met you one time, introduced you to Saint Nick.” There’s something uncomfortably intimate about the song: The person it’s addressed to is still less than a year old, and thus not yet able to understand it—even though we, the anonymous public, definitely can. “We’ll talk more when you hear this, my G,” Drake says as a sign-off, and it’s a bit of a cop-out, since that day is still a ways away. In its final moments, though, the song takes a stark turn. It becomes a piano-driven elegy, a far cry from the tone of optimism and maybe-a-little-forced jubilation he uses when he addresses his son. “I need shelter from the rain, to ease the pain,” Drake croons in the concluding minutes of Scorpion. “I’m changing from boy to a man, no one to guide me, I’m all alone.”
This year, Drake has held the top spot on the Billboard Hot 100 chart for 18 weeks. All other artists, combined, have held it for exactly half that. Drake has become an elemental force in pop culture—what Marvel blockbusters are to the movie industry, what Game of Thrones is to TV. (“Every title doing numbers like I’m Miss Adele,” he raps on Scorpion highlight “Sandra’s Rose,” although it’s maybe worth telling him that Adele named her album 25 for the age she was when it was recorded, not for the number of songs on it.) “His currency is … currency. Ubiquity, inescapability,” wrote critic Jayson Greene, in a review of the Scorpion single “I’m Upset.” Over the weekend, every single playlist on Spotify’s homepage featured Drake’s image, hammering home the symbiotic relationship between Drake and the streaming platforms on which his music is primarily played.
And yet, especially since his similarly sprawling 2016 record Views (20 songs; 81 minutes), a Drake album has come to feel less like a coherent, digestible artistic expression and more like an impending weather pattern. I was a little surprised that very few people I talked to this weekend—even people who like Drake—had listened to Scorpion as a whole, and they talked about the prospect of doing so with palpable guilt and dread, like a homework assignment they’d put off until Sunday night. There is something fatiguing, aggressive, and even artistically apathetic about Scorpion’s size and shape. Earlier this year, reviewing Migos’ equally epic-but-formless Culture II, critic Craig Jenkins likened the overlong albums of the streaming era to “data dumps.” “Double albums are about expanding, not serving up twice as much of the old stuff,” he wrote, suggesting that these albums were so long only so they could rack up as many streaming plays as possible. “These developments feel retrograde,” he wrote, “like tech informing culture when it should be the other way around.”
Scorpion has the shape of an epic, but not the kind of elevated content or sonic adventurousness that calls for it. Its embrace of maximalism and excess feels a little bit like a formal subtweet of Pusha, Kanye, and the rest of the GOOD Music crew, who have all recently released seven-song albums (“I guess luck is on your side / All sevens, no sixes, rest easy, get some shut-eye,” he taunts on “8 Out of 10”). The double-album format, too, is an ostensible gesture toward the “two sides” of Drake (the first half is his rap album; the second is his R&B album) though those distinctions could have easily been made on a shorter record. There are some very good songs on Scorpion, but the way they’re sequenced doesn’t do them any favors. The last half of the “B Side” album in particular has quite a few standouts (“Blue Tint,” “After Dark,” “In My Feelings”) but getting to them is a slog. By the middle of the second album, Drake seems to be running low on new ideas, invested more in disclosing the personal details of his love life or boasting about his titanic industry power than turning these things into the basis of good songs. I can think of no reason for throwaway tracks like “Jaded” or “Finesse” to have made it onto the record than to spark rumors that he had a fling with Bella Hadid. “Don’t Matter to Me” is an empty flex that Drake was able to clear a Michael Jackson sample; ditto “Talk Up,” but with a Jay-Z verse.
Women haunt the margins of these songs like restless ghosts. The one aesthetic choice that unifies much of Scorpion and sets it apart from his last few records is how often it employs sampled female voices, and often very familiar ones: Mariah Carey, Lauryn Hill, Nicki Minaj. Over time, Drake’s once-expressive flow has toughened and deadpanned, and on Scorpion it often feels like he’s doling out the emotional work of his songs to these sampled female voices, calling on them to communicate what he cannot. On “That’s How You Feel,” Minaj is featured performing righteous anger aside a bemusedly composed Drake; Carey trills in ecstasy on a flatly rapped song that is called, of all things, “Emotionless.” And then of course there’s a chipmunked Lauryn Hill, imploring over and over on “Nice For What,” Drake’s ubiquitous summer hit, “Care for me, care for me, you said you’d care for me.” These are all some of the best songs on Scorpion, and yet something about them feels eerie and entombed, especially when compared with the he-said, she-said duets Drake has done previously with artists like Minaj, Rihanna, and Jorja Smith. To sample a female perspective rather than to let one live and breathe and speak freely in these songs is another form of that carefully curated cropping that Drake has become so good at: These looped, undead voices are distant, flat, and easily manipulated. Just like the women in most of Drake’s music.
Catchy, quotable, and with vaguely forward-thinking production: “Nice for What” is the best Drake single in years. Its coronation as the Song of the Summer feels as inevitable as Scorpion’s debut at the top of the charts. As skeptical as I am of some of Drake’s music, I’m a product of my time and thus not immune to its charms: I have probably listened to “Nice for What” a hundred times, and I have definitely used some of its lyrics as an Instagram caption. But every once in a while, I find myself focusing not on Drake’s voice but on Hill’s, shifted and looped to a hysterical, nagging pitch: Cry for me, cry for me, you said you’d die for me / Give to me, give to me, why won’t you live for me? I think of a woman—and other hard-working single mothers who see something of themselves in her predicament—who probably finds the message of “Nice for What” a little ironic, a little selective in the story that it tells.
I like it when Drake is petty and I like it when Drake is being a little corny: These are the times when it feels like he’s showing us his truest self. “Blue Tint” has already become a fan favorite on Scorpion because it finds Drake leaning into that pettiness: “Look who I’m fucking again / I had her on ice but then / I watched the ice get thin—now does she sink or swim?” If this is what he’s saying behind his girl’s back, the following song, “In My Feelings,” finds Drake sweetly crooning to her face, “Kiki, do you love me? / Are you riding? / Say you’ll never, ever leave from beside me.” The two sides of Drake don’t require the explication of an entire double album. A pair of good songs gets the job done fine.
Listening to Scorpion, I cannot suppress a queasy feeling that Pusha gave his adversary something of a gift. Although Drake only mentions his son on three of these 25 songs, they are the most striking moments on the record and the ones that suggest the possibility for an emotional maturation, or at least a few new themes to emerge in his music in the future. The raw, unprocessed nature of a song like “March 14” suggests that Drake was not going to rap about his son on this record had Pusha not called him out—and yet it’s bleak to imagine what Scorpion might have been without its meditations on fatherhood.
“Is there more to life than digits and banking accounts?” he asks on one of the (should-have-been-cut) songs that sounds like it was recorded before he was publicly acknowledging his son. Fatherhood could be that missing piece that Drake has always been searching for, but as Scorpion ends, he does not yet seem to have realized that. It’s haunting that an album so exhaustingly populated with women, “family,” and now even his own progeny can still end like that: “I’m all alone.”