Friday, July 6, 2018

album review: 'scorpion' by drake

Hey folks, are you sick of Drake yet? Or are you well past that point and are just sick of people complaining about being sick of Drake? Or have you reached the point where you've just accepted Drake in the same way you do the movement of the tides and the stars, that once a year he'll vomit out over an hour of mediocre hip-hop and R&B and it'll bulldoze over the charts and by the next year you'll forget any of it ever happened outside of maybe the singles muscled onto the radio.

If you're in that third camp... congratulations, happy to have you. I get the feeling I was early to reaching this place thanks to Billboard BREAKDOWN, where my annoyance at Drake overexposure began in 2015, worsened in 2016, and finally faded into exasperated shrugs by 2017. I've weathered multiple album bombs, I've seen the shifts from pitch-black Future collaborations to utterly misconceived flirtations with grime to a lingering obsession with midtempo tropical tones that serve as perfectly serviceable background music. And for those of you who expect your R&B and hip-hop to have passion or intensity or wordplay that doesn't sink into a quagmire of concern trolling or unwarranted paranoia... heh, you must be new here.

But I will admit I did have a smattering of curiosity about Scorpion, at least at first. 'Nice For What' was a really damn good single, and when Pusha-T delivered a wounding blow with 'The Story Of Adidon', it became known that Scorpion had to be good to save Drake's career. And those hopes were promptly dashed when it was revealed that Scorpion was nearly an hour and a half, 'I'm Upset' was a mediocre slog of a song, and that Drake was going to make an R&B track over an unused Michael Jackson song that came from the same Paul Anka session that spat out 'Love Never Felt So Good' a few years ago - Justin Timberlake didn't get a pass, and you can be sure as shit that Drake's not going to get one either for this brand of graverobbery. So yeah, my patience was burned away years and dozens of forgettable songs ago - so will this Scorpion survive or get crushed beneath my merciless boot?

Honestly folks, does it even matter? And yes, this is another case where I don't feel like I'm bucking the critical consensus or even saying much that we don't already know at this point: Scorpion is a bad album. It's tough to tell whether it's Drake's worst project, but it's by far his most inept project in terms of overall song construction, production, delivery, writing, and structure, the sort of album where you can tell that the machine that's been running on empty for years now is finally starting to break down. Not only that, if Drake was intending to frame Scorpion as a recovery from the blows Pusha-T inflicted... yeah, that didn't happen, no matter how much slapdash pandering Drake tried to cram in.

But really, we have to start with structure first, and since Drake won't stop trying to take potshots from the sidelines at his camp, let's compare to Pusha-T and DAYTONA on a structural level... and there really is no comparison. Drake's records have always had a bad case of the bloat, but typically that can be deflected by catchy features or smart sequencing or a sense of unearned bombast or flair, and yet instead of chopping things down for a focused parry or even just a project that can be easily digested by the mainstream audience that couldn't give two shits about rap beef, Drake instead threw twenty-five of his most malformed, undercooked, and underproduced joints at the wall in the prayer the volume would smother any criticism. And yet it starts falling apart at the seams almost immediately, mostly because for as much as Drake claims one disc is hip-hop and the other is R&B, it's more clear that one side is for his male fan base and the other is for the women - there might be a little more singing on the second half, but still plenty of rapping, which doesn't allow you to easily segment this project the same way you could for, say, 4eva Is A Mighty Long Time by Big K.R.I.T. - hell, 'Blue Tint' was a beat that was originally intended for that album! And what's more distracting is that not only is there not an appreciable difference in sound and texture between the discs, the subtlety of Drake's approach is near-completely gone: half-formed minimalist beats with the occasional oily, jagged synth melody if we're lucky for the bangers, an expensive R&B or soul sample when he's trying to seem sensitive - samples that, for the record, nearly always draw attention to artists I'd much rather be listening to than Drake! Yes, you got a samples of Mariah Carey and D'Angelo and Lauryn Hill and Boyz 2 Men, samples where you're counting on the audience recognizing them as a subtle form of bragging that you could afford those samples, but for me they nearly always remind me of better music I'd much rather hear! And we might as well get the Michael Jackson sample issue out of the way now, because honestly the groove behind 'Don't Matter To Me' is genuinely good, with the slick handclaps and thrumming trap of the low end - yeah, the lyrics are gross in their concern trolling and we will get to that, but I'll say the same damn thing I said about when these Paul Anka/Michael Jackson sessions were sampled by Justin TImberlake: if MJ wanted these below-average cuts released he would have done so decades ago, and for artists to use these samples for cheap brand association is genuinely gross and disrespectful to the legacy.

And we might as well talk about the other guests that are here... what few of them there are. That's another thing: for as long as Views and More Life were, Drake's presence was divvied up by other MCs and singers, which you need for balance when you're not an especially dynamic singer or rapper. And for the record Drake can be dynamic as a performer, but his choice on Scorpion to double down on his most tedious and basic flows leaves you desperate to hear anyone else, almost enough to convince you that Jay-Z verse on 'Talk Up' is actually good. Don't get me wrong, it's okay for this brand of bragging, but when you get lines like 'Y'all killed X and let Zimmerman live' is the sort of endorsement I didn't expect nor want to hear from Jay. And from there... look, you hear uncredited snippets from Nicki Minaj on 'That's How You Feel' and from Future on 'Blue Tint' and again, I'm not a fan of either of them but for a break from Drake I'd be fine just to hear more of a verse. And it'd make sense too: you'd think Drake would use this time to gather his friends and crew instead of just usurp their contributions - even moreso with PARTYNEXTDOOR and Ty Dolla $ign - you know, the exact same nonsense for which you tried to call out Pusha-T on 'Duppy Freestyle'! We'll come back to the volumes of Drake hypocrisy in a few minutes, but it does tie into a larger issue of framing - the reason he's not bringing his friends and family closer is to project more than ever a sense of isolation, to garner sympathy from the audience, to be the good guy once again...

And man, the second you start digging into the content it just doesn't work, and the first problem is how it feels markedly less personal than previous albums. Go back to records like Take Care or Nothing Was The Same and how so much of the appeal was built on hearing the 'real' Drake, enough so that Meek Mill was convinced exposing his ghostwriters would be enough to take him down in undermining that personal narrative. But I'd argue Drake does even more damage on that front on this album, and a huge part is a lack of real vulnerability and storytelling. Let's put aside Pusha-T altogether for a second, there's nothing close to the genuine questions of angst or mistakes that were at the core of what made songs like 'Marvin's Room' work, instead replaced by utterly bored bragging songs like 'Nonstop' that sound like unfinished demos without any real melody, or the sour-faced bitchiness of 'I'm Upset' that I've already torn up on Billboard BREAKDOWN, or the repeated assertions off songs like 'God's Plan' that this was predestined for Drake - which takes away the stakes, so congratulations for undercutting any sense of paranoia or tension or drama! But this is where Pusha-T's shadow looms heavy over this album, because there are also a fair number of tracks where Drake tries to gaslight the audience into thinking he didn't lose this beef and that everything is truly fine and he's still on top, which not only undercuts his veneer of being the honest good guy - hell, he even says it directly on '8 Out Of 10' - but also does serious damage to the record as a whole. Go back to '8 Out Of 10' where he's goading that he could have taken it harder and ended things, but given that he never did, why in the Nine Hells should we believe him - framing this like you're above the whole situation makes you look like a pompous jackass who got exposed and can't respond, and framing your shots as just playful jabs on 'Can't Take A Joke' is even more galling - if you're squaring up to fight, you can't call it off just because you're losing! Now granted, there's a running question how much of Drake's beef is really with Pusha-T or more directed at Kanye, and there's references to support that, but you can't just sidestep the main guy firing the shots when it's clear you might want to go at someone else, or at the very least dispatch him first before you destroy Kanye. And it makes songs like 'Is There More' completely wasted: of course there's more beyond the fame and corporate connections and your asinine girl problems - we're getting to those, I promise - because if you truly didn't care and wanted to settle this once and for all, you would have ignored J. Prince - yes, I know that 'Mob Ties' is partially a reference to that but it doesn't change the overall situation - placed yourself above anyone who wanted to control you, and ended Kanye and Pusha's careers - if you're that powerful, you would have done it! But you didn't, and we know you didn't, because you couldn't, and all of a sudden that scorpion doesn't seem to have nearly so much venom, does it?

But let's talk about the songs about women, shall we, because if there's a reason this slog of a second disc even exists, it's to repair the damage to that fanbase... and if there's a place where Drake could have salvaged something by owning the L and delivering a confessional narrative, regained the integrity brand that he tries to hide behind and I've never bought, it's here. And no, I'm not talking about that stupid line from 'Emotionless' 'I wasn't hiding my kid from the world / I was hiding the world from my kid', already heralded by every other deadbeat dad, I'm talking about a cut like 'March 14', where at the very end Drake tries to build some sort of narrative with his son and her mother, with whom he doesn't seem to be on good terms. And you'd think that Drake would have at least tried to direct any songs at her or at least make a stab at something genuinely heartfelt, but that doesn't happen. Instead, we get Drake calling out girls for fronting on social media on 'Emotionless' - as if he doesn't do the same or doesn't say the girl is fine to do so on 'That's How You Feel' - or how he calls out English girls who don't have good manners on 'Peak', or how he's ever so careful to make it clear she was the one who said 'I love you' first on 'Summer Games' to avoid any deeper culpability, or how he once again shouts out old exes on 'In My Feelings', or the majority of the passive-aggressive bullshit he pulls on the second verse of 'Jaded' reportedly about Jorja Smith how he could have shaped her potential and how she's still a baby and yet going out to meet her family was such a waste of time! And all of that kind of undercuts that 'sensitive gentleman' side Drake wants to project, especially with him making songs like 'Nice For What' and 'Ratchet Happy Birthday' which in context is just pandering, and in the former case the sort of song that might just bite Drake in the ass when Sophie sings it in his face.

And you know what's really frustrating, that I felt about six listens in? This album could have possibly worked, but it would have involved taking artistic risks that I doubt Drake cares enough to attempt. Assuming that he's too scared to J. Prince to go against him and truly end Kanye or Pusha's career, what he should have done was double down on the accessible, pop-leaning for his female audience. Forget the undercooked, sloppily written, mostly forgettable brag rap - although that Young Thug impression he was working on 'Mob Ties' was a decent high point and 'Can't Take A Joke' and 'Sandra's Rose' were solid enough too - work on refining the R&B tunes with some actual groove that could cross over instead of these dreary, bassy drones, and if you're going to throw down  bars, take lessons from the more mature wave of emo rappers who can get vulnerable to accentuate their maturity and reality of their situations. It wouldn't be a response to Pusha-T and you'd still get shit, but it'd sure as hell be better than the unconvincing half measures taken here. And while I could go on about how on more than a few of the R&B joints Drake chops his voice up to fill up verses - even 'Nice For What' doesn't escape that - or how the fidelity and placement of the samples and synths and even Drake's voice is all over the damn place, or how this record has no momentum whatsoever, but I think by this point you get my point. Because at the end of the day, for me covering Drake has become work, a slog of overlong records that because of stream trolling have to be covered all over again on Billboard BREAKDOWN. And when the record is bad, as this is, there's no excuse - light 4/10, only saved from worse by the four or five passable tracks that save this twenty-five song gelatinous ooze from being unbearable. For fans... look, take the good cuts and leave this behind, there are better ways to waste an hour and a half than listening to Drake masturbate over his delusions of grandeur. And considering how many listens I gave it, I think I'm about done cleaning up the mess.

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