By the time Drake’s fifth studio album, “Scorpion,” was finally released last Friday, its first two singles had already spent a cumulative 18 weeks at the top of the Billboard singles chart. Straight out of the gate, the mammoth double-album shattered single-day streaming records on Apple Music, Amazon, and Spotify, with the latter going the extra mile and changing the header image on its playlists — including ones that feature zero Drake songs — to various pictures of Drake. In other words, even if your music streaming regimen is restricted to Hungarian folk music and Klezmer, it was impossible to be unaware that Drake had a new album out.
So how does the 31-year-old feel about attaining a level of cultural ubiquity usually associated with strongman leaders of military dictatorships? Not great, apparently. “There’s times when I wish I was where I was back when I was wishing I was here,” he raps early on. The phrase “I’m so tired” is spoken several times, in addition to “I’m upset,” “I’m sick of this s—,” “I’m jaded,” and “I’m exhausted and drained.” He mentions that upon the release of this very album, he will be out of his record contract, and sounds none too concerned about the prospect. On “Is There More,” he attempts to perform a self-audit on his own catalog of soul-sucking excesses, only to get distracted by a glimpse through the past month’s expense reports: “Is there more to life than taking trips to Dubai? / Yachts on the 4th of July, G5 soaring the skies? / Is there more to life than all these corporate ties and all of these fortunate times?”
Existential dissatisfaction with his own success has been one of Drake’s driving themes for the better part of a decade now, but rarely has his sense of exhaustion felt so palpable, and so easy for the listener to sympathize with as “Scorpion” stretches out to 90 numbing minutes. Which is not to say that the album is a failure. Drake is one of modern pop’s few remaining too-big-to-fail artists: His ear for hooks is as sharp as they come; his gift for phrasing still allows him to imbue even the corniest punchlines with undeniable wit; and his production team (spearheaded, as always, by Noah “40” Shebib, with assists from No I.D., DJ Premier, and Boi-1da) ensures that every sample, snare snap, and bass swell sounds exactly as expensive as it probably was. But listening to “Scorpion,” nonetheless, feels less like taking a journey than circling around and around on a cul-de-sac in a luxurious gated community, with Drake too enamored with the lushness of his landscaping to realize he’s reached a dead-end.
Consisting of an unwieldy 25 tracks, “Scorpion” is split into two “sides,” with Side A featuring aggrieved, combative hip-hop, and Side B focusing on moody, bruised R&B. Both have their moments: Singles “God’s Plan” and “Nice for What” have lost none of their earwormy insidiousness; the Southern-fried flows on “Nonstop” and “Mob Ties” may raise eyebrows, but they also show off Drake’s versatility; “Summer Games” and “In My Feelings” cast Drake’s signature nocturnal musings over interesting new textures; and Jay-Z and Ty Dolla $ign both bring welcome energy to their guest slots. But it’s hard to listen through the entire expanse without performing a backseat edit, and even after several spins, too much of the album remains an indistinguishable muddle.
The beauty of great kitchen-sink monster-albums, from “The Beatles” to “Sandinista!” and “Wu-Tang Forever,” is that they seem to demand curation and customization; within all the bloat and the left-field experiments, there are infinite different track combinations to suit every mood and aesthetic inclination. On “Scorpion,” however, the filler couldn’t be more obvious or less interesting. Glacial slow-jam “Finesse” might have worked with a powerhouse belter there to enliven it with some drama or athleticism, but with only Drake’s understated whisper-singing there to distinguish it, the song disappears from the memory the second it ends. The same certainly can’t be said for the baffling “Ratchet Happy Birthday,” which comes across like the sort of drunken studio goof that would usually be unearthed for the bonus material on a super-deluxe anniversary edition years down the road.
As much as the album’s length might challenge digital-age attention spans, addiction to social media haunts “Scorpion” just as thoroughly as alcohol haunts a Townes Van Zandt album, or heroin does a ‘70s Lou Reed album — Drake’s typical night alone seems to consist of hours and hours of timeline-scrolling and DM-sliding, even though he’s well aware that the experience will leave him feeling awful. “Back and forth to Italy, my comment section killin’ me,” he raps, too engrossed in the latter to enjoy the former. On “Summer Games,” he offers a succinct snapshot of the sad drudgery of Instagram love affairs: “You say I led you on, but you followed me / I follow one of your friends, you unfollow me / Then you block them so they can’t see you liking someone just like me.”
Even though he’s one of the world’s most recognizable humans with the GDP of a small country in his bank account, Drake seems dead-set on convincing us that his downtime is just as lonely and unfulfilling as ours. These types of lyrics quickly grow monotonous, but perhaps that’s the point. On album standout “Emotionless,” anchored by an unlikely yet ingenious Mariah Carey sample, he manages to build his Instagram ennui into a generational thesis, rapping: “I know another girl who’s crying out for help but her latest caption says ‘leave me alone’ / I know a girl happily married ‘til she puts down her phone … look at the way we live.”
And then he drops the bombshell: “I wasn’t hiding my kid from the world, I was hiding the world from my kid.” For those rare few who have been living a Drake-proofed bomb shelter over the past month, Drake recently allowed himself to be suckered into a back-and-forth feud with Pusha T. It proved to be the hip-hop equivalent of launching a land war in Asia: Pusha struck first with a few lines on the Kanye West-produced “Infrared”; Drake landed some punches of his own with response track “Duppy Freestyle”; Pusha then went nuclear on the follow-up, alleging — among many, many other things — that Drake was concealing a love-child.
Whether Pusha’s investigative foray deep into Drake’s family business was fair game for a rap battle is an open question, but judging by “Scorpion’s” retreat into sudden candor and a few subliminal potshots, Drake was hard-pressed to respond in kind. If anything, his approach here demonstrates just how much Drake has changed hip-hop’s classic calculus. By traditional standards, Pusha won the battle, pushing Drake until he had to step back and concede defeat; but by owning the criticisms and responding with introspection, inviting his audience’s empathy rather than firing back at his opponent, Drake may well have won the war.
But which war? References to parenthood flash by here and there throughout “Scorpion,” but Drake saves the real drama for the closing track. On “March 14,” he tries to come to terms with his new status as an absentee father, especially as a child of divorce himself. “I got an empty crib in my empty crib,” he laments, going on to describe buying his son a glut of Christmas presents, only to later learn that he had already outgrown them. This is the saddest song in Drake’s entire catalog, to a degree that even the artist himself might not recognize, making the previous 85 minutes’ worth of petty grievances seem even smaller and pettier than they did on their own. Drake has spent most of his career sketching out the contours of a vast persecution complex, in which his attempts to be hip-hop’s resident good guy are constantly besieged by critics, faithless lovers, and jealous rivals. Here, the ground has shifted, and he’s finally confronted by a dilemma that he can’t humblebrag his way out of. Whether he uses this as an opportunity for growth, or simply more retrenchment into old habits, remains to be seen.