Drake: Scorpion review – A painfully dull barrage of lifeless tunes
Young Money/Cash Money
Hip-Hop & Rap
There’s nothing more powerful than the illusion of power. Varys knew it to be true. “Power resides where men believe it resides,” Game of Thrones’ Master of Whispers once said. But even he would struggle to understand how Drake has remained a powerful monarch at the top of the hip-hop hierarchy for the best part of a decade now.
Drake’s powers have been withering. His last album Views was a lumbering beast of a thing, maddeningly long and totally devoid of joy. The self-indulgency of the record – coupled with questions about his artistic legitimacy in a genre that values realness above all else – should have sunk the rapper. But we live in a political world where nobody is held accountable for anything and facts don’t matter one little bit. So maybe Drake is an appropriate star to sit on the throne right now.
How did we get here? Maybe power is actually in the presentation. I should have known that to be true in 2010, when Drake helmed the song Forever, a loosie that appeared on the soundtrack to LeBron James’s More Than a Game documentary. There was Drizzy, a kid with no album to his name, rapping over triumphant horns with none other than Lil Wayne, Kanye West and Eminem in supporting roles. Drake was photogenic with an open-book writing style and a to-the-point flow that produced instant quotables. With help from influential friends, he built his star on emotional sad-boy songs about scarring relationships and drunk dialing ex girlfriends.
Drake’s character has been attacked over years with accusations that he uses ghostwriters – a mortal sin when you’re an emcee proclaiming your historical greatness. His enemies have tried to decapitate the star by pointing out the styles he mimicked and the records he’s suspected to have plagiarised. But somehow Drake’s heart has kept on beating. The illusion of power making him a near unimpeachable presence over the rap landscape.
Then comes Pusha T, a superior artist who has always enjoy taking swipes at Drake and other Cash Money Records soldiers. Having tempted Drake into view with a public beef last month, King Push delivered the most devastating of haymakers. The Story of Adidon was a Primetime-esque exposé that accused Drake of hiding a secret son and being a deadbeat dad. Wow Pusha, how could you do this? Immediately it entered the pantheon of most devastating diss tracks of all time.
Drake’s defeat was crushing – finally an indication that Drake’s position at rap’s head table may be in danger. A classic album could strengthen his claim. Scorpion is not that album. But Drake’s fans are loyal and I have a nagging feeling that this will shore up the base. “You know a wise man once said nothin’ at all,” he raps on Emotionless, appearing to dismiss any chance of futilely firing back at Pusha. From there he plays to his crowd.
At 25 tracks, Scorpion is another painfully long release from Drake with beats mostly provided by long-standing collaborators (Noah “40” Shebib, Boi-1da, No I.D.). The record is split into two halves – a double disc album in old money – with the first section ostensibly intended to be the rap side and the second the R&B half. But for Drake, the difference between the two is little more than primarily spitting on Disc 1 and singing on Disc 2. So the move seems, at best, perfunctory and, at worst, counterproductive, as his best music has often seen him unite the two, deploying whatever vocal style he felt necessary verse-to-verse.
Emotionless appears on the first half. Rapping over a prominent Mariah Carey sample, Drake’s reveal that Pusha was speaking truth about his secret son comes with all the pomposity you’d expect. Having gone off on a pseudo-intellectual rant about the trappings of Instagram, Drake comes with the big line: “I wasn’t hidin’ my kid from the world/ I was hidin’ the world from my kid.” Seems admirable enough, but remember that Pusha’s claims that Drake plan was to reveal his son to the world as a part of an Adidas collaboration remain unrefuted.
There are some good moments on Scorpion. I’m Upset is a pretty solid Drake single with a catchy hook. Mob Ties, an unlikely title for a Drizzy song, is a welcome plunge into a grittier style as the rapper severs links with some fake allies. Elsewhere, the pulsing electropop of Summer Games is amusing and effective. Call it a Summer Nights for the social media generation as Drake starts this goofy boy-meets-girl romance by laying out the politics of following someone you’re crushing on. Sometimes Drake wins by going fully daft.
Closing song March 14 offers Drake’s top-down examination of fatherhood. It’s a topic that should be potent fuel for a rapper who many moons ago underwent a forbidden experiment to have his heart permanently relocated to his sleeve. “Single father, I hate when I hear it,” he raps before revealing his embarrassment of telling his parents he was going to be a single dad (“Always promised the family unit”). In these lines Drake, hardly a figure of conservatism, reveals the pressure to adhere to traditionally structure families that continues to linger.
But most of Scorpion, like Views before it, is just painfully dull. Jaded is precisely that – downtrodden to the point of inertia. Jay-Z sleepwalks through his guest verse on Talk Up while Drake’s gravelly, robotic rap voice has become so easy to parody that he sounds like an impressionist. That’s why it’s so hard to take a song like Final Fantasy, a sleazy sex jam, seriously.
On the single God’s Plan, Drake raps in a tuneless, half-sung style devoid of any on-mic presence. The instrumental is built around some monotonous organ stabs and the lyrics are laughable. The only enjoyment I’ve pulled from this number is watching an online clip of Bradley Walsh singing along to it.
There’s an unlikely Michael Jackson collaboration in Don’t Matter To Me, with an old recording of the King of Pop summoned from the archives and deployed as a chorus. Jackson’s segment is lovely, his vocal loop floating over the warm ‘n’ woozy orchestration which comes off as a kind of downbeat version of Liberian Girl. Unfortunately, Drake is the worst thing about the song, his depressed coos sounding formless and without conviction.
I recently revisited Drake’s breakthrough and best release So Far Gone (the mixtape, not the shortened EP of the same name) half-expecting it to have aged terribly. Here was a kid so sure that he was going to be a star. The bars rippled with vitality, while his crooning carried genuine sentiment. When Drake paid homage to the Houston rap he loved it sounded just like that – an enthusiastic young guy paying his respect, not boosting a hot style to further his own star.
His first album had some strong songs but was ultimately a little aimless, while second album Take Care fully established Drake’s ability to record party rap records that could shake arenas. Since then his style has begun to wither and decay. Drake sounds like a pastiche of himself, unwilling to stray from the formula of glum beats and songwriting that treats every minor feel-feel he has as worthy of its own emotive number. We’ll be listening to him rap over the same Noah “40” Shebib beat until this planet plunges into the sun.
Man, what else is there to say? Except that if there’s any justice in the world (a crazy concept in 2018, I know) then the time will soon come when Drake can no longer serve up these lifeless tunes and get away with it. There’s nothing more powerful than the illusion of power – it keeps dictators from being toppled. Strip that away from Drake and all that’s left is rap music that’s no fun at all.