It has always been a complicated time to be Aubrey Graham, but now especially. His status as rap’s most undeniable force — one who controls the world of streams and memes seemingly at will — has also made him one of the most polarizing figures in modern pop history.
Not until the revelatory and decidedly sadistic verbal assault unleashed by Pusha T has anyone come close to challenging his legacy. And so 2018 finds Drake in a rarified position: How do you acknowledge the shots aimed at your character without reigniting a thwarted feud and yet still reclaim your post as rap royalty? It’s quite a task to endeavor, but when considering the subject’s credentials, perhaps less so. Drake is a star, a multi-faceted virtuoso who’s always been more interesting when he feels the need to prove himself. This is not to say he’s unscathed by what has transpired over the last several weeks, but as he rapped on “Do Not Disturb,” the final cut on 2017’s More Life, “I’ll probably self-destruct if I ever lose, but I never do.”
If More Life was steady and sprawling, Scorpion — Drake's latest album, released on Friday (June 29) — is, by contrast, a kind of reckoning. For starters, it’s a double album, comprised of 25 tracks and clocking in at 85:44. It distinguishes itself in form from the brevity that has marked some of the year’s other most anticipated releases. It’s also a tacit response to anyone who might attempt to deter him or make him stumble off course.
From the outset, Drizzy is brash and sharp-tongued, laying the groundwork for what is a nuanced and often mesmerizing project. “House on both coasts but I live on the charts,” he gloats over the masterful No I.D.- and 40-produced “Survival.” It’s a reminder that even when he’s lying low, he’s always on the periphery, waiting for just the right time to strike. He practically bleeds on “Emotionless” — a reflective, Mariah Carey-sampling interrogation of fake love, facades and fatherhood. “Look at the way we live/ I wasn’t hiding my kid from the world, I was hiding the world from my kid.”
Drake’s propensity toward confession, which has long been one of his most enthralling traits, sings throughout. The lush sounds on tracks like “8 Out of 10” and “Sandra's Rose” — produced by DJ Premier and Maneesh — are downright captivating and provide enough space for Drake to deliver a constant churn of memorable couplets. “Talk Up,” featuring an astute JAY-Z, rounds out A-SIDE as the energy dips for the second act.
On his last few albums, the Drake sound has been a sort of patchwork, finding him – occasionally to his detriment – in prolonged conversation with his deepest influences. Here, instead of borrowing rhythms and cadences from the Caribbean, Africa and Europe, the master curator dishes an onslaught of slow burns and trap-fueled R&B jams that sometimes fall short (“Peak” sounds like a passable but less compelling “Marvins Room”) but mostly soar. “Jaded,” produced by Cadastre and featuring background vocals from Ty Dolla $ign, is dark and beautifully textured. By the time we get to the more buoyant “Ratchet Happy Birthday” and the almost sinister Nicki Minaj-assisted “That’s How You Feel,” we know Drake is really in his bag. As someone who has been obsessive about legitimizing his narrative, Scorpion is him attempting to take back control with a sense of gusto. “Final Fantasy” is a visceral, two-part number accentuated by soothing keys and Drake’s effortless flow.
Drake’s frustration and fatigue have been something of a through line in his art. Scorpion sees him energized and perhaps more self-aware than ever. He’s a narcissist, sure — someone who needs to be loved and will demand it until he breaks down your defenses — but that’s part of his charm. He may have Pusha T to thank, whose blistering indictments caused Drake to go back to the drawing board and fashion a calculated album worthy of his own name. Call it a baptism by fire.