More unfazed than upset, Drake's "Scorpion" is anchored by the weight of its own expectation, despite moments of brilliance.
Tarnishing the release of Scorpion was an appropriately venomous narrative. The telenovela-esque birth of a Graham heir, fathered in secret somewhere in the romantic French countryside, or possibly the standard hospital. In a vacuum, the birth of Drake’s son is nothing particularly unheard of, least of all in hip-hop; many rappers have children, some more than others, and seldom is progeny put on so public a pedestal. Yet Drake is different. For reasons, perhaps self-imposed, perhaps driven by his self-professed embracement of the “good-guy” role, the reveal of young Adonis seemed to play out like a television plot-twist, played to audible gasps and the visual of a smug Pusha T stroking his goatee, Satanlike.
For many, even those dubbing themselves loyalists, Drake’s reputation took an irrefutable hit. Though few would dispute “Duppy” was a respectable first strike, public opinion soon came to favor the counter-riposte of “The Story Of Adidon.” It didn’t take long for the once adoring public to turn on Drake, and soon, October’s Very Own felt very much on his own. While a Drake record may have previously set the summer ablaze, it felt more akin to the scene from Toy Story, where Andy trades in the stalwart Woody for the post-modern delights of Buzz Lightyear.
Ubiquity is a gift and a curse. Only when one reigns so mightily at the top, can the descent to the bottom be such a public affair; while the masses cherish an underdog, they’re often quick to forget their role in shaping such a figure to begin with. It’s strange to imagine Drake, with all his broken records, platinum plaques, and worldwide recognition, as an underdog. Yet Scorpion felt weighed down by a cumbersome set of expectations. Despite reports that the Pusha T beef was dead, some wondered if Drizzy had a response tucked away in the stash; anything remotely resembling pacifism reeked of defeat, even if the moral compass so clearly favored the higher ground.
Maybe that’s why Scorpion still carried an aura of disappointment, despite being lined with many quality bangers. We’ve already come to understand Drake as a proud man, and one can only imagine backing down from such a scathing public shaming would prove difficult. In that regard, a viable alternative might have been to counter Daytona with undeniable quality; a clear sense of vision, meant to encapsulate Drake in all his artistic glory. Instead, the result was a double album, twenty-five songs deep. In the era of “stream-trolling,” such a move only served to give skeptics further stores of ammunition.
To be fair, plenty of double albums have existed before “stream-trolling” kept eyebrows perpetually raised. To write the dual-sided project off as a vain attempt at capitalizing on increased streaming numbers only serves to strip away all semblance of creative agency. We already know Drake is a proven creative mind, and adding greed to his list of sins is only doing unnecessary disservice. Ostensibly, the divide exists to satiate both factions of his core audience, broken down most succinctly through the basic dichotomy of “rap” and “r&b.”
With two sides to unpack, it seems fitting to start at the onset. Introductory cut “Survival” finds Drake sitting in his comfort zone, blending deadpan wit with trademark introspection. Unfortunately, his choice to completely ignore the fallout of “Adidon” puts fans in a difficult predicament. Those who feel connected to Drizzy’s story clearly want to know the emotional impact of such a public blow, especially from a man who has so openly worn his heart on his sleeve. If anything, distancing himself from Pusha’s taunts only serve to distance himself from those willing to hold up the safety net.
Luckily, the Tay Keith produced “Nonstop” is hard enough to shake off the cobwebs. Channeling the minimalist swagger of Take Care banger“The Motto,” Drake rides the bassline, flaunting his honorary Bay Area membership pass with conviction. When he kicks into his “I’m a bar spitta,” rhyme scheme, it’s easy to remember what makes him such a compelling emcee in the first place, evoking memories of Cash Money veteran Juvenile’s singsong delivery. Despite “Nonstop’s” early placement, it feels very much like an album highlight, retaining the honor throughout the entire musical odyssey.
From that moment on, Side A largely covers familiar ground, leading to the occasional moment of brilliance, largely evidenced by “Emotionless,” and the DJ Premier produced “Sandra’s Rose,” though the latter raises questions over why Drake channels Bart Simpson in calling his parents by their given names. And while there is something validating about hearing Jay-Z sneer “y'all killed X and let Zimmerman live, streets is done,” the sheen of the statement is not enough to match previous drops “Light Up” or “Pound Cake.” Is it enjoyable? Of course. But it still feels like treading water, when swimming is merely one element of the triathlon.
Of course, he sings. There are some who still consider, perhaps naively, Drake to be a “pop singer,” simply because his biggest hits gravitate to radio. As if the man hasn’t put in work behind the mic. Still, the subdued, often emotional, 3AM-iMessage lamentations have become a staple of his persona. Therefore, it’s no surprise that Side B features plenty of entertaining melodic moments throughout its refreshing, if occasionally subdued runtime. Despite Side A feeling decidedly more immediate, Side B is arguably the more complete of the two.
Like its predecessor, Side B starts off with strong, with the muted melancholy of “Peak” and the infectious sentimentality of “Summer Games,” which feels inspired by known Drake favorite Stranger Things. Despite being thematically reminiscent of an iconic Grease number, “Summer Games” has all the makings of a Drizzy radio banger. Though Side B largely slides lyricism to the side, Drake’s confident bouts of self-analyzing mansplanation inevitably delivers a few gems, like the ever-relatable “talk used to be cheap, nowadays it's free, people are only as tough as they phone allows them to be.”
From that moment onward, Scorpion continues along the path, never straying into unpleasantness. Moments of nostalgia-fueled excitement arise upon hearing Nicki Minaj, Future, and Lil Wayne, each employed with restraint, more tools than collaborators. The buzz is fleeting, however. By the time closer “March 14th” rolls around to provide a sense of closure to the Adonis saga, it feels almost like an after-credits scene; a scene with quality writing to be sure, but an afterthought, especially given that many awaited its arrival with bated breath. One has to wonder what kind of statement would be made had “March 14th” been the album opener. Might the greater thematic narrative have changed in any way? Now, it all sort of feels like Drake has closed the book on that tumultuous little arc, attempting to wash his hands of all things Surgical Summer in one fell swoop.
Yet Drake is now five studio albums deep, and one can't help but look to the competition. Consider Drake’s most obvious parallel, Kendrick Lamar, with whom the public harbor an unyielding love affair; call it the honeymoon stages, call it a well-earned trust. It can’t be denied that Kendrick consistently pushes himself as an artist, taking risks with every project, cultivating a discography to rank alongside any in modern music. It serves to put Drake’s legacy in perspective. The man has the talent, and his writing can rival that of any rapper; look no further than More Life closer “Do Not Disturb” to bear witness. Yet when “album mode” approaches, it feels like Drake’s more adventurous creative impulses take a back seat.
In honor of Drake’s Canadian roots, the end result feel like a hockey player capable of landing the Rocket Richard trophy with ease, doomed to never hoist the Stanley Cup. Maybe it doesn’t matter, as the ride has always been enough for Drizzy. But has the perception turned? Though he styles himself a scorpion, at times, he feels more like a chameleon. Shifting from hero to villain, Casanova to heel, made man to public enemy. His nature never changes, only the narrative. For better or worse, the album never really stood a chance; at least, not in this most vocal court of public opinion. Instead, Scorpion felt doomed to be cursed by an inherent set of unobtainable expectations. Perhaps that was our own masochistic doing.