Every week, we tell you about an album we think you need to spend time with. This week’s album is Drake’s Scorpion.
If our shifting digestion of celebrity culture has proven anything, it’s the following: whatever cultural and capital gain acquired through one’s efforts to attain celebrity are rarely ever worth it in the end. Whatever one’s perspective, the fans and stans of now have cracked our former ideas of celebrities, our fingertips daring to split the fissures even further apart with every listless thought cast into the digital abyss. It’s not enough to be “good” and untouchable, and seclusion is less apt a technique for anyone thirsting for a spotlight. Privacy isn’t a premium for the new superstar because their public deserves everything. Eventually, We — the people, the Internet — find everything; even when we’re wrong, we’ll scavenge for answers and rarely forgive the mistakes of these symbols we’ve consumed until their humanity withers to nothing.
Aubrey Drake Graham’s mastery of this space has been caving in on him for three albums now, but his first true failure in a public squabble came at the biggest cost — opportunity, perhaps — he’s faced yet: His defensiveness and paranoia now implicates a life he’s brought into the world. Whatever Pusha-T truly accomplished in his successful bait, his impact is grand and visible on Scorpion: a film-length collection of the same and similar, permeated by a sadness so ineffable, Drake wouldn’t tell us the words whether he found them or not. This sadness isn’t laced with the calculated maliciousness of If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late: the spoils of his efforts so palpable, his ego remaining the first line of defense for the incoming pressure of keeping what you have. No, from the opener “Survival,” Drake’s sputtering and hesitating, leaning in like a confidant only to recoil from us like we’re strangers:
*“And I see in the dark /
*Wasn’t this cold at the start /
*Think my soul has been marked /
*There’s a hole in my heart /
*Yeah, I was about to — /
*Man, I thought about it…/
It’s unsettlin’ to talk about it.”
About to what? Talk about what? A simple reading could be a passing mention of the now-mythical response to “The Story of Adidon,” shelved at J. Prince’s request, but considering the grander implications of how fame’s consumed the Drake we know, how grave is the weight of his world? Where’s his humanity resting as his image glitches in public? Which survival tactics will weather the personal hell he’s created?
Scorpion excels when Drake ceases tapdancing around the ring and reconciles with the blows he knows we’ve ceaselessly replayed. The Mariah Carey-sampled “Emotionless” sets the tone for his digging, but Drake’s fleeting responses about concealing his son Adonis from the inherited cruelty of celebrity on your name prove far less interesting by the time we reach Side A closer “Is There More.” Classic Outro Drake, drowned-out sample with minimal dressing, he pokes and prods at the existential dread of maintaining his success in a manner that perfectly articulates the futility of it all. Though he doesn’t fully indict the mirage, his inquiries prove the self-awareness remains: He knows he’s a product, hands tied, his personhood incomplete and incompatible with the business of himself. Still, it’s difficult not to imagine the day he shoves his discontent to its extremes though he’ll never find the answer; right now, he clearly cannot without jeopardizing the act.
The matter of Side A vs. Side B will fall to preference and which Drake one comes for; the overall Drake fan will find something to like over the course of 89 minutes, which doesn’t justify taking the whole 89 minutes to take as few artistic risks as possible. “Nonstop” isn’t risky, but it’s menacing and unbelievably fun as Tay Keith laces Drake with the space to wax poetic about claiming respect he already has. Side A shows flashes of Comeback Season in the Boi-1da and DJ Premier soul flips on “8 Out of 10” and “Sandra’s Rose,” respectively. We also witness Drake’s chameleonic agility take off in the Playboi Carti-mimicking “Mob Ties,” followed by the signature grandstanding on “Can’t Take a Joke.” Considering the darker context of Scorpion, “God’s Plan” rings far darker than its donation visuals: Drake’s more concerned with death and legacy than ever, and understandably so. He’s also not above the usual condescension, considering “I’m Upset” now registers less famous hypothetical and more a tantrum on the strain with Sophie Brussaux, Adonis’s mother. Drake’s had better days lyrically, but those days feel farther in the rearview than they ever have; his production value remains top-notch — it can’t falter, that’s unforgivable — but there’s a difference between coasting in one’s strength and letting one’s stature result in passable laziness.
In the Scorpion universe, especially on Side B, he most intriguing moments happen via sample: DJ Paul’s the Side A exception to flip N.W.A.’s “Dopeman” for “Talk Up” only to have JAY-Z cancel the streets for murdering XXXTentacion while shaming folks poorer than him for not having the gall to extrajudicially murder a white-passing man who murdered a Black child. Side B finds Murda Beatz flip Lauryn Hill and Big Freedia on the show-stealing backdrop for “Nice for What,” Cadastre pulling a live snippet of Nicki Minaj on the decent “That’s How You Feel,” and TrapMoneyBenny conjuring Magnolia Shorty with a dash of Lil Wayne on the standout “In My Feelings.” The posthumous calls to Michael Jackson and Static Major prove intriguing choices as well: the former appears via sample on “Don’t Matter to Me,” where Drake eventually depicts having a woman attempt to bait him into hitting her in an argument? The latter appears with Ty Dolla $ign — a man who can’t miss on features this year — in a late-night duet fit for the lowkey freaks to ride around to, a fitting tribute to a singer gone long before his time.
Side B’s just as mixed a bag as its sibling, but it’s the crux of liking Drake: He doesn’t have the range to get too drastic, but we’ve let him get this far off the resonance of what he conjures in our spirit. It’s what makes “Jaded” a fantastic exercise in spitefulness: imagine dealing with a significant other’s parents only for it to go nowhere! But the repetitive subject matter feels distracting from moments like “March 14,” one of the most resonant Drake pieces in years. He shows us the strain of critiquing his parents for an entire career only to have the shakiness of his new family life become the next public punchline. He even shows us the “empty crib in my empty crib,” the somber instrumental fading into a piano section where he quietly wails about loneliness and accepting his fatherhood without healing his own wounds. When records like “March 14” pierce the listener like the Take Care and Nothing Was the Same of the past, one’s exhaustion with bloated albums that have passable records is past justifiable. Imagine shaving this behemoth in half, even a third, and watch one of Drake’s most mature works rise from the ether; that’s what makes Scorpion, ultimately, more empty than it should be given the circumstances.
Despite the fun we’ll undoubtedly have with the singles we already love, and the tides we’ll later turn for records we grow fond of, Scorpion is yet another extended incompletion, a failure to fully seize the opportunity to grow in front of us. Historically, Drake’s been the man who can messily lay his soul bare no matter what or whom the expense. It’s the reason why we’ve allowed him such expansive room: We revere his victories and cherish his foolishness as reflections of our own, watching the lives and careers of others crumble and stagnate in the wind of his success. But at his most exposed, we get snippets of the picture, which returns to the original point: is he truly prepared to take us there? Furthermore, what do we even deserve? Imagine Aubrey’s exhaustion with us, the Drake he’s made facing outward to please everyone but himself as his demons teeter on spilling outward. Recalling his 2015 FADER profile, he’s so “in tune with this life,” the fun don’t even feel fun no more. Is this what we came for?
Michael Penn II (aka CRASHprez) is a rapper and a former VMP staff writer. He's known for his Twitter fingers.