A canny and clever man who’s never been known for wisdom once said, “A wise man once said nothin’ at all.” That man was Drake, and he said it on Scorpion, the new album he released last weekend. There, at feature-movie length, 90 minutes across 25 tracks, Aubrey Drake Graham as usual says a whole lot of nothin’. Plus, a bit more than usual, enough choice bits of somethin’ that, if you’re at all absorbed by the combination of reality TV and “black CNN” that is mainstream hip-hop in 2018, you can’t help cocking an ear, no matter how worn out that ear is bound to be by the end. And no matter that, aside from a dull pout from Drake at “the president” on the Future collaboration “Blue Tint,” Jay-Z is the only one who brings the news on this record, declaring that the “streets is done” because the vexing young artist XXXTentacion got gunned down last month while George Zimmerman still stalks the same state of Florida.
The album’s sprawl maybe does and maybe doesn’t have to do with a strategy to close out Drake’s current record contract with the Cash Money label. But the good news is that song by song, Scorpion is more concise than Drake’s brainbreaking last couple of releases, the 2016 studio album Views and the 2017 “playlist” More Life. The conceit of Scorpion as a double album, one half emphasizing rap and the other R&B, may be conceptually conservative for an artist who made his bones hybridizing the two forms. But it does allow for a refreshing mid-game shift. And personally I prefer the more R&B “side.” More stirringly, his studio collaborators here (led as ever by Noah “40” Shebib) are blasting on all jets acoustically, meaning that even the tracks where Drake is just blabbing on are almost never unrewarding as background music. There are a lot of moody “40” sounds from the 6 (Drake’s nickname for Toronto), but with of-the-moment touches to make them stand up beside current Drake tour mates Migos, for instance, plus some Dirty South touches from Aubrey’s dad’s home base of Memphis, among other variations. While many lyrical moves make it up to the minute, I’ve no doubt that this collection has been in progress for a far longer time.
And there’s often much more to enjoy than the sonic wallpaper, on songs such as “Elevate,” “Emotionless” (in which Drake’s not-quite loss for words is mirrored by the sample of Mariah Carey’s escalatingly nonverbal 1991 melisma), the New Orleans bounce tribute of “In My Feelings,” the audacious flex of the Michael Jackson feature “Don’t Matter to Me” (which draws on a previously unreleased 1983 team-up between MJ and Aubrey’s fellow Canadian Paul Anka), the Ty Dolla Sign collaboration “After Dark,” and especially “Summer Games”—the 1980s synthwave banger that Lorde and Taylor Swift producer Jack Antonoff might have contributed if he’d been invited, but with a drum part that’s beyond Antonoff’s ken. Not to mention the fine singles you likely already know, “God’s Plan” and “Nice for What,” though I’m pointedly excluding the petulance-foregrounding “I’m Upset.”
Often Drake falls back into the smug passive-aggressive misogyny that he usually gets too much allowance for (see “I’m Upset”) because of his supposed sensitivity. But more than ever there are women’s sounds all over this record. They’re mostly sampled, such as Mariah’s “Emotions,” Lauryn Hill’s “Ex-Factor” on “Nice for What,” Dorothy Ashby’s harp on “Final Fantasy” (which is just about the only good thing on that track), and an in-concert Nicki Minaj performance on “That’s How You Feel” (which not only rescues but rocket-launches the song). But there’s also Nai Palm of the Australian band Hiatus Kaiyote covering longtime Drake favorite Aaliyah on “Is There More?” (an otherwise dull track), and Miami’s City Girls rap duo guesting on “In My Feelings.”
It’s transparent what Drake is doing here, covering his ass with these virtual or direct female co-signs in an era of feminist scrutiny, but the tokenism that bugged me so much when I first saw the “Nice for What” video (with all its Insta-friendly lady cameos) does get diluted by just how extensively he’s trying here. I still feel like “Nice for What” makes unfair hay of riffing off Hill in ways I don’t mind when Cardi B does it, or even when she rides the back of an old boogaloo hit for a smash that’s rivaling “Nice for What” in the current summer-song sweepstakes. I’m not sure I have an objectively justifiable argument, but if Drake is going to make a claim on the summer’s beach song, I would love it to be “Summer Games” instead. Its sad-happy vibe curiously reminds me of Brian Wilson–era Beach Boys on songs such as “Don’t Worry Baby.” The melody when Drake sings, “How can you be angry on a night in July/ And be warm with me when it’s freezin’ outside,” is for me the album’s most perfect pop moment, nearly making the whole ride worthwhile.
If you are in it for the beef, Drake’s now–semi-retired recent feuds with Pusha T and (less so) Kanye West, you’ll get plenty of juicy side dishes but no full-course meal, which is part of what the “wise man” line is about. More so, though, it’s about why Drake hadn’t previously addressed the rumors that he’d fathered a child. He was not “hiding my kid from the world,” he was “hiding the world from my kid,” he says—that is, protecting his infant son as well as the baby’s mother from the slings and arrows of fame to which Drake himself always has been so permeable. Nonetheless, he makes a full account of his paternity, his barely existent relationship with the mother, and his (so far mostly theoretical) intentions to father better than his own father did on the closing track here, “March 14.” It was apparently named for the day the DNA tests came back positive and Drake toasted them with his crew in Miami.
That song ends with Drake singing about needing to grow now from a boy into a man himself, over a sample of a Boyz II Men song, as if to remind us how much cheesiness Drake really has in him. Which makes one think, despite the ample counterevidence, that he maybe can carry off this fatherhood thing. He’s definitely always had the dad jokes—consider this example from Scorpion’s “Talk Up”: “You may think I’ve taken lumps/ Only if we talkin’ ’bout sums.”
And yet Michael Jackson’s ghost reminds us that Drake also has some of that Peter Pan syndrome. (He references MJ again on “March 14,” saying, “She not my lover, like ‘Billie Jean,’ but the kid is mine.”) Even if Degrassi was no Jackson 5, and Drake’s daddy issues no match for the those left behind by last week’s casualty, the abusive Joe Jackson, he tends to keep digging his nails into the child star’s birthright of perpetual stunted irresponsibility.
We’re left to wonder whether this album would have had a “March 14,” along with its other references to being a “dada,” if not for Pusha’s already infamous accusation, “You are hiding a child.” (Can we pause to note how strange that swiftly and widely adopted wording was? It made me picture a network of covert blackmailers and safe houses, rather than a celebrity keeping some complicated life events to himself.) My guess is that Drake might have gone there anyway, but less directly, since layering concealer over tell-alls is the essence of his lyrical style.
There’s a dialectic in hip-hop between those who play perp (Pusha, Jay-Z) and those who play victim (Drake, Kanye). Kanye changed rap by spreading his whole personal mess out on the table, musically and verbally, shielded only by the defensive force of his ego. Drake’s twist, an inherently commercial (and Canadian) one, was to intensify that sense of intimacy while actually withholding more of himself, the better for listeners to project their own desires and insecurities onto him. This is why Kanye is the most artistically vital rapper (and rap producer) of the century, but Drake has emerged as more commercially successful—as he raps, hyperbolically but not unjustly, on Scorpion’s “Sandra Rose,” “Every title doing numbers like I’m Miss Adele.” (That’s another of the album’s best songs, incidentally: one of Drake’s many tributes to his mother, but this time with vintage beats by hip-hop giant DJ Premier.)
So it’s rich that the more naked confessionalism of Scorpion also has been prompted by Kanye West. The past few months of uncensored (and unwise) statements from Kanye, plus the Wyoming-retreat production of his series of seven-song albums by G.O.O.D Music artists including Pusha (and some guest work by Drake, it turns out), have raised the stakes in what mainstream rap artists must do to make an impact.* Just as Kanye’s Ye used frankness about his shaky mental health to try to expiate his recent offensive public statements, Drake on “March 14” is using the public confessional to cleanse himself of the damage to his reputation left by Pusha’s attacks—while also flooding the zone with music, as Kanye was doing with his week-after-week releases as a producer, to distract from the focus on him as an individual.
Last week, in a New York Times interview by Jon Caramanica, Kanye also gave Drake an assist by speaking openly about routinely using co-writers to help put his songs together—helping to expunge the lingering taboo around Meek Mill’s and Pusha’s accusations that Drake uses ghostwriters. Since this has been an open secret about big rap stars forever and a much smaller transgression than Kanye’s misbegotten statements about slavery as “a choice,” it was a brilliant feint for Kanye to make, but it also seemed like a conscious gesture to shut down that noise on Drake’s behalf just before he was about to take over the discourse. Which is of course the trick about current rap beef: that unlike the bad old years, it’s usually just a potluck where at the end of the day everyone will end up around the same table.
This is the thing about rap capitalism now, which probably no record has exposed and celebrated as much as Jay-Z and Beyoncé’s just-released Everything Is Love: If it’s working, it’s working for everybody, or rather everybody within the blessed circle. Of course there are skirmishes, wounds, some of them even with social resonance. But on another level, everyone in the conversation already has won. Just as in the polity at large, one is left wondering, is there a version of this that isn’t a game? For all the pleasures of Scorpion—named, cozily, because Drake and his son share an astrological sign, and less cozily because they each still could inflict a deep sting—that’s a question that remains outside its boundaries, and one that all the summer bumping to follow will have to leave unanswered. One that still leaves us looking for that man, woman, or otherwise, who has much more to say than nothin’, or could refuse to say it in the wisest way.
*Correction, July 6, 2018: This article originally misidentified the recent string of albums produced by Kanye West as being recorded in Wisconsin. They were recorded in Wyoming.