Photo: Paul Charbit (Getty Images)

The worst thing that ever happened to Drake was becoming a great rapper. He was always good—funny, direct, emotive—but on his first few releases anytime the bars weren’t coming he’d skip his voice up into some melancholy melody, shape-shifting Boi-1da’s airy, ambient beat into an R&B track. But as he became an increasingly confident and accomplished emcee, releasing back-to-back mixtapes and felling Philly phenom Meek Mill in 2015, his records were increasingly pulled in two directions—the nebulous string of women to whom he dedicated his softer tracks, on the one hand, and the relentlessly competitive claimants to rap’s throne, on the other. This made for increasingly diffuse listening, albums that flipped between soft Drake and hard Drake almost track by track. Last we heard from him, he was refusing to even call 2017’s More Life an album, referring to it instead as a “playlist.” Drake albums have become increasingly defined by good tracks, moments that work. He’s at his best these days on guest spots, unannounced SoundCloud uploads, and little multi-song missives like the Scary Hours EP.

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On Scorpion, he attempts to solve the problem structurally, roughly devoting the first disc to rapping and the second to singing. It is the album-length equivalent of the “get you a man who can do both” meme, and it is longer than hell: over 90 minutes of ceaseless, unyielding Drake, always being Drake as hell, complaining about Instagram and ex-girlfriends and the travails of being Drake. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. He’s always had a penchant for the ridiculous, and part of liking Drake is making fun of Drake. But Scorpion is serious about it. The first disc conjures a string of opulent, expansive beats not seen since the glory days of Roc-A-Fella records, from the low-riding Memphis creep of “Nonstop” to the gliding Uber noir of “Can’t Take A Joke.” Drake prowls through these big, melancholy spaces like rooms in a rented mansion, listening to old Mariah Carey and Nas records on repeat and wondering if there’s anyone left in the world for him (“Don’t link me / Don’t hit me when you hear this and tell me your favorite song”). That self-pitying streak is exacerbated on the second disc, a string of Take Care-style late-night voicemails that may be about Rihanna or Jorja Smith or Bella Hadid or his high-school girlfriend or someone he just happened across on IG. The bottomed-out misanthropy of the first disc and the needy yearning of the second disc roughly etch out a journey toward album closer “March 14,” the cut most directly about his recently revealed son, which ends, “I’m changing from boy to a man.” Sounds good—but Scorpion sounds a lot like the boy.

It’s a drag, but a compulsively listenable one, with velvety production and Drake’s typically elegant taste in guest voices. (Ty Dolla $ign’s exuberantly randy verse on “After Dark” would be the best on the album if a years-old Nicki Minaj clip didn’t cut like a butcher’s knife through the melted butter of “That’s How You Feel.”) And while the album is most noteworthy for its compositional clarity, it’ll probably linger in the memory only for a bunch of good Drake moments, like the opening line “My Mount Rushmore is me with four different expressions” or the heart-in-chest emo-synth anthem “Summer Games.” It’s a kick hearing him go in on a DJ Premier beat (“Sandra’s Rose”), an occasion he rises to with aplomb (“I make them hoes walk together like I’m Amber Rose”), and, later, guesting with a spectral Michael Jackson. These are twin ambitions realized on a pair of discs that seem designed to please a segmented fanbase that exists only in Drake’s head—some nebulous critic who wishes he’d stop rapping or stop singing entirely, and who now, presumably, has exactly half of an album to be mildly pleased by. With the exception of its glorious singles, which feel like glimpses into an album whose rollout wasn’t derailed by Pusha T, the record’s best moments are low-stakes and radio-unfriendly stuff, like “8 Out Of 10” or “In My Feelings.” Ironically enough, Drake’s most tightly composed album in half a decade is the one that sounds most like a playlist—too long, fitfully enjoyable, easily fading into the background.

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