In the creative universe, hip-hop is unrivalled for provoking squabbles. East Coast versus West, Biggie versus 2Pac. Jay-Z versus Nas. Kanye West versus, well, just about everyone, except for Donald Trump. The most common beefs – who shot who, who was involved in which relationships, who ripped whom off – have inspired more feuds, violence, deaths and, it should be added, art than any other form, musical or otherwise.
The competitiveness can be ascribed to all manner of things. The do-or-die context of street culture, the rap-or-fail culture of freestyle MC battles, the influence of heavyweight boxing buffoonery and souped-up WWE dramatics. If we cast our net wider and more seriously: inveterate racism in the United States and a crisis of masculinity in which men mask their genuine sensitivities with macho over-correction.
Which brings us to Drake – born Aubrey Drake Graham – and his fifth album, Scorpion. As the headlines accompanying its release have made clear, Scorpion, which has already broken streaming records, has been forged from various grudges.
The most piercing example against Drake is Pusha-T's The Story of Adidon, which sampled that arch name-caller Jay-Z (and, really, he should talk) to accuse Drake himself of, among other things: being a self-hating racist (the cover art is a genuine but slippery photograph of Drake in blackface and a Jim Crow shirt); and a lying, absentee father waiting for a branding endorsement to publicly acknowledge his son's existence: "You are hiding a child, let that boy come home… Adonis is your son/And he deserves more than an Adidas press run, that's real /Love that baby, respect that girl... Let her be your world."
The usually poised Drake seemed unusually rattled by this, explaining (on Instagram, inevitably) the satirical intent behind his Minstrel impersonation. But his paternal tales, he poured into the lyrics in Scorpion, which is accompanied by "editorial" notes that summarise diverse critiques and make you wonder if Drake has elbowed caps lock by mistake. Here are some highlights:
I HATE WHEN DRAKE RAPS
DRAKE SINGS TOO MUCH
DRAKE IS A POP ARTIST
DRAKE DOESN’T EVEN WRITE HIS OWN SONGS
DRAKE DIDN’T START FROM THE BOTTOM
DRAKE MAKES MUSIC FOR GIRLS
DRAKE THINKS HE’S JAMAICAN
Two hundred years ago, English poet John Keats published a similarly defensive preface to a new work, Endymion, which he introduced by highlighting his own "great inexperience, immaturity, and every error denoting a feverish attempt, rather than a deed accomplished".
The critics killed him, to use Byron's word. But it was another line from Keats' nervous prologue that leapt to mind as I listened to Scorpion's whopping 25 tracks. "The imagination of a boy is healthy, and the mature imagination of a man is healthy; but there is a space of life between, in which the soul is in a ferment, the character undecided."
Keats was 23, learning his craft at an alarming rate, but still a raw talent and an inexperienced, unproven young man. At 31, Drake is a veteran by comparison, both in creative and human terms: he can't stop boasting how much money he earns, how many women he has seduced (or vice versa); and how many millions hang on his every online utterance.
Nevertheless, Drake lyrics suggest he's every bit the man-child, caught between sensitive confessions and cloth-eared machismo. See 8 Out of 10's couplet: "Kiss my son on the forehead then kiss your a** goodbye/As luck would have it, I've settled into my role as the good guy." Doubtless Drake's "new" family is dysfunctional, but the newly revealed dad doesn't sound especially "good" here.
This lyrical confusion is enacted by Scorpion's musical schizophrenia: side A (if such distinctions exist in the digital age) is mainly rap; side B is sung. Drake the MC doesn't take long to establish his capacity for narcissism: "My Mount Rushmore is me with four different expressions" he drawls over opener Survival's heartbeat bass pulse. "Who's givin' out this much return on investment?/After my run, man, how is that even a question?"
From here, it's a hop, skip and a jump to Drake's toughness ("I've had scuffles with bad boys that wasn't pretendin'"), his unfairly injured pride ("I fell back a hundred times when I don't get the credit") and his immense wealth ("House on both coasts, but I live on the charts/I have tea with the stars and I swim with the sharks/And I see in the dark, wasn't this cold at the start").
At least this final admission hints that a sliver of self-interrogation underlies the surface bravado: "Think my soul has been marked, there's a hole in my heart." Similar world-weariness underpins Drake's bellyaching on the impressive, Mariah Carey-sampling Emotionless: "I can't even capture the feeling I had at first/Meetin' all my heroes like seein' how magic works." And perhaps he is thinking of Pusha-T when he adds: "The people I look up to are goin' from bad to worse/Their actions out of character even when they rehearse."
As Drake himself has suggested, his rapping is not everyone's cup of tea. His delivery can be attractively downbeat, but monotonic in sound and syntax, especially when compared to the nimble tongue-twisters of the likes of Kendrick Lamar, Danny Brown and Eminem. This droning works to his advantage on the relentless Nonstop, whose ominous bassline lends swaggering gravity to Drake's musing on the biz, success and keeping on: "This a Rollie, not a stopwatch, s*** don't ever stop."
But the basic absence of verbal sparkle and rhythmic variety can grow sludgy. Drake's a big one for hammering a point home. His repetitions can approach rhetorical power, for example on the album's central revelation on Emotionless: "I wasn't hidin' my kid from the world/I was hidin' the world from my kid." But elsewhere, on I'm Upset, it sounds like Drake has been hiding, too – from his responsibilities: "Thankful for the women that I know... Every month/I'm supposed to pay her bills and get her what she want… My dad still got child support from 1991."
The album's more melodic, song-based second half may be no more profound, but sonically it is far more arresting. Peak's chilly synths and clipped beats lift the bar instantly, even more so when Drake's glorious, slightly Auto-Tuned voice floats in on a lovely melody.
You can't avoid Drake's verbal nonsense when he raps. When he sings, he could recite the phone book and make it sound meaningful – sort of. Peak, weirdly, is a hymn to English women: having exalted Princess Diana, he proclaims "England breeds proper girls". Finesse, rumoured to be about model Bella Hadid, is tedious enough to sound like a parody Drake Twitter account: "Should I do New York? I can't decide/Fashion week is more your thing than mine/I can't even lie, I'd rather stay inside/I can't do suit and tie." Somehow, the melancholic piano chords married to Drake's committed vocal elevates this beyond another vapid Insta post.
But nowhere is his voice's ability to charm the birds from the trees – and elsewhere, presumably – better exemplified than on Summer Games. I still can't decide whether this poppy ode to Instagram romance is genius or tedious: "Yeah, 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 likin' someone just like me." While there's a prurient thrill from eavesdropping on the world's biggest pop star grumbling about such trivia, it's trivia nonetheless.
And yet such is Summer Games' melodic bounce, combined with Drake's off-hand delivery, that you begin to feel unwarranted sympathy. "How can you be angry on a night in July/And be warm with me when it's freezin' outside/You're confusin' me, don't have me wastin' my time." Not since Alanis Morrisette's Ironic has someone sounded so baffled by simple contrast.
As befits a double album, Scorpion is at times egotistical, beautiful, bonkers and boring. Drake is so self-focused, you worry he isn't attending to anything except business – personal and economic. Little beyond Drake's sphere penetrates the windows he praises in a late track Blue Tint: there's a passing reference to the "President doin' us in", but that's it. He will be back, but this is more than enough for now.