In November of 2002, Jay-Z was battered and bruised. He’d just been through a real knock-down drag-out feud against Nas. I’d argue that Jay won that feud — I once wrote a whole chapter for an anthology book arguing that Jay won — but, like Mike Tyson’s 1989 fight against Frank Bruno, it offered the first real sign that Jay could lose. He’d suffered the wrath of an absolute broadside dis track, a song with a title that effectively became a verb. He’d clapped back with low blows about condoms in baby seats, and his mother had admonished him to apologize. A few months earlier, Jay had been triumphant, full of swagger, the one true king of New York rap. After “Takeover” and “Ether,” he faced a bitterly divided electorate. Plenty of people thought he’d lost. Maybe he thought he’d lost.
So Jay did just what a superstar does in that situation. He released a vast, messy, expensive-sounding double album, full of portentous I’m-a-legend talk and leaden, contemplative beats. He publicly reckoned with everything that had just happened, with the blows that his perception had taken: “I will not lose, for even in defeat / There’s a valuable lesson learned, so it evens up for me / When the grass is cut, the snakes will show / I gotta thank the little homie Nas for that, though.” A year after he’d taken a bold jump into cohesive grown-man post-boom-bap on The Blueprint, Jay fell back onto the commercial-rap-star playbook, scattering love songs and street songs and fake-Southern songs and club songs. There are great moments on The Blueprint 2: The Gift And The Curse, but taken as a whole, the album is an indulgent slog, all the more boring for how safe it is. Jay had to fake a retirement to get his mojo back.
Sixteen years later, Drake finds himself in the exact same spot, and he’s doing all the same shit. Scorpion, Drake’s gallingly massive new double album, arrives just weeks after the spectacular flame-out of his Pusha-T feud, where Jay at least had a year to think things over. For what must be the first time in his career, Drake has been humbled, and he doesn’t yet sound like he knows what to do about it. On top of that, after spending years stringently and cannily protecting his public image, Drake now faces a world that knows exactly how messy his transition into fatherhood has been. Drake can’t do heartwarming new-dad raps when he’s only met his kid once, so now he’s doing angry and defensive absentee-father music. He’s venting pettily about relationships, the same way he’s always done, but it sounds even smaller and pettier than it ever did now that we all know that he’s going to have to face adult issues one of these days. Scorpion, like The Blueprint 2 before it, has a few strong moments. But like that album, it plays out as an overlong wallow in the self. And this time, we don’t even get an M.O.P. feature to break things up.
Musically, Scorpion is a more cohesive album than The Blueprint 2. (Cohesion has always been a very Drake virtue.) A year ago, on More Life, Drake was playing around with different genres of black music from around the world — trap, grime, house, Afrobeats. This time around, other than a couple of brief flirtations with New Orleans bounce, Drake is firmly in his Drake zone. Drums thump and shudder in restrained, thoughtful ways. Expensive R&B samples twinkle in the background. Synths mimic film-score strings. Drake swings back and forth between slow, sullen rapping and helium-Eeyore singing. Virtually everything Drake does on Scorpion is something we’ve heard Drake do before. He’s a turtle, venturing back into his shell when he’s threatened.
And while Drake the rapper certainly has his charms, the rapping here can’t hold a candle to what’s on The Blueprint 2. (Jay was the better rapper, while Drake is the better brand manager.) The one guest-rapper on Scorpion happens to be 48-year-old Jay-Z, who probably has the best verse on the whole album, even as he pulls the very Blueprint 2 move of getting mad at Florida street dudes for killing XXXTentacion but not George Zimmerman. When he’s trying to flex, Drake comes up with goofy shit like “My Mount Rushmore is me with four different expressions.” (Does Drake even have four different faces? There’s the gigantic goofy grin, the slightly-vexed scowl, the deep-in-thought pout, and then what?) When he’s talking about his relationships, things get dicier: “I make them hoes walk together like I’m Amber Rose.”
Most of the time, Drake is trapped in the contemplation of how his ridiculous success levels don’t make him happy, rendered in gluey humblebrag: “Is there more to life than going on trips to Dubai? / Yachts on the 4th of July, G5 soaring the skies? / Is there more to life than all of these corporate ties? / And all of these fortunate times? / And all of these asses that don’t come in proportionate size?” That tendency extends even to the Apple Music description, which Drake almost certainly wrote himself. It’s a litany of things that people might say if they were kvetching about Drake (“DRAKE TOOK AN L, DRAKE DIDN’T START FROM THE BOTTOM”) before finishing, finally, with “YEAH YEAH WE KNOW.”
The album’s lowest moments come when Drake attempts to halfheartedly clap back at Pusha-T (“The only deadbeats is whatever beats I been rapping to,” the part where he quibbles over which Original King Of Comedy his father best resembles) and when he presents his version of fatherhood. Album closer “March 14″ is a small masterpiece of dumbassery. I love this part: “Your mother say you growing so fast that they don’t even really fit / But man, you know, I still had to get it for my boy though, you know.” He’s bragging about buying his kid a trashbag full of clothes that don’t fit because he didn’t ask the kid’s mother what size he was. He just brought a bunch of random useless clutter into her house, and he’s patting himself on the back over it. Amazing. (Also, fathers don’t refer to themselves as “co-parents.” That’s not a thing.) And on “Finesse,” Drake tells another woman (Bella Hadid, according to rumor) “I want my baby to have your eyes,” as if he doesn’t remember that he already has a fucking baby.
Drake has, of course, been rapping and singing about being an asshole for years. This is nothing new. But only rarely has he rendered his assholery in such uncompelling, low-energy ways. Structurally, Scorpion mirrors another superstar-rapper double-album, the 2005 Nelly opus Sweatsuit. Like that album, it’s got one disc of Drake mostly rapping and another of him mostly singing. And both of them drag ferociously. Even when he’s singing, Drake is full of impotent, entitled frustration: “I can’t recover from our last conversation / You called me weak / And you tested my manhood as we yelled at each other.” Drake really tries to make himself sound sweet and sensitive when he offers up something like this: “You said ‘I love you’ too fast / So much for that / Summer just started and we’re already done.” And then later, on that same song: “I expected more from you, honestly.”
But then “Summer Games,” the song with those truly galling lyrics, is one of the few true moments of life on Scorpion. It’s gorgeously gooey synthpop with kodo drums that add to its majesty, and it might be the out-and-out prettiest thing that Drake has done since “Hold On, We’re Going Home.” “Nice For What,” the sweet little club anthem where Drake briefly pulls his head out of his ass, deserves its dominant-hit status. (If the Pusha stuff hadn’t happened, I wonder if Drake might’ve had a few more songs as bright and buoyant as that.) It’s fun to hear Drake teaming up with two very different ’90s luminaries, DJ Premier and DJ Paul, on consecutive tracks. And “Nonstop” is an absolutely nasty little rumble and a sure sign that Drake should work with BlocBoy JB producer Tay Keith as often as possible. The man could’ve just given us 10 songs like that, and it would’ve been so much more effective than the endless dirges that he offered up instead.
Those few bright spots aside, Scorpion is an absolute fucking chore — a marathon of self-important bitching from a transformational star who’s come to believe that his success is what makes him interesting. “I’m exhausted and drained, I can’t even pretend,” Drake huffs at one point. Yeah yeah we know.
Scorpion is out now on Young Money/Cash Money.