Drake is a polarizing guy—an emotive singing rapper whose penchant for petty clap-backs and romantic self-depreciation fits as seamlessly into the purview of Refinery29 or Cosmo as it does this publication. Certainly, this dichotomy is part of what makes his exploits so divisive and ripe for comment. Yet this self-demarcated space is also where Drake is most comfortable, no matter how much he may claim to dislike it in songs.

The Toronto-born artist’s fifth studio album, Scorpion, is a prodigious 25-track offering that finds Drake delivering exactly what you might expect. Apple Music’s Editor’s Notes—typically an unnamed writer’s measured synopsis of a project—is instead a moment of peak unapologetic Drake-ness that announces his intent from the jump. It is quite literally a running list of Drake critiques, in all caps.

“I HATE WHEN DRAKE RAPS,” “DRAKE DOESN’T EVEN WRITE HIS OWN SONGS,” “DRAKE MAKES MUSIC FOR GIRLS,” “DRAKE THINKS HE’S JAMAICAN,” are just a few. And, true to form, the curated list of takedowns ends with a dismissive, “YEAH YEAH WE KNOW.” Indeed, these are not uncommon opinions, but as usual, Drake beats his naysayers to the punch, a technique he mastered early in his career. Still, if Scorpion’s length is any indicator, Drake believed that fans would listen.

Twenty-five songs is a heavy lift for anyone, and even Drake, who has consistently landed at the top of charts, can’t quite manage to completely swing it. The neat separation between the rap-facing A-side and slower, silkier B-side helps the project feel more palatable. It’s easy and natural to view them as two separate albums, a la Nelly’s 2005 double release, Sweat and Suit.

Scorpion’s opening number “Survival” delves straight into Drake’s assorted beefs. “I’ve had real Philly niggas try to write my ending/I’ve had scuffles with bad boys that wasn’t pretending,” he rhymes, referencing his 2015 feud with Meek Mill and the Diddy-administered punch heard around hip-hop one year prior. And although his battle with Pusha-T ended with more of a whimper than a bang, he also takes time to address the G.O.O.D. Music rapper’s jabs at his father’s garbs, saying, “Daddy got suits like Bernie Mac, he dresses himself.”

For an artist who rejects controversy while simultaneously thriving on it and shaping it to conform to his agenda, it’s an intentionally titillating start—one that fits Drake’s M.O. perfectly. One of the hallmarks of Muhammad Ali’s boxing style was evasion: He’d dodge blows with catlike reflexes, all in an attempt to strike without incurring damage to himself. When he did spy an opening, he was quick, brutal and measured in delivering his punches. Drake’s approach to conflict is similar, yet in boxing it’s exciting; in rap it starts to get predictive—banal, even. Drake is calculated in which opponents he chooses to address and when, and he almost always finds a way to pivot controversy to his advantage. “Emotionless” is a prime example. The quickly mocked rationalization, “I wasn’t hiding my kid from the world, I was hiding the world from my kid,” doesn’t name names, but nevertheless neatly dismantles the narrative that he is ashamed of his son. It also subtly villainizes Pusha’s revelation of his existence as damaging to the child’s wellbeing.

Much of Scorpion’s A-side is peppered with these verbal sleights of hand, which now feel as native to Drake as his assumed mantle of 6ix God. In “Nonstop,” a hat tip to Drake’s father’s Memphis roots with a little-known sample from Mack Daddy Ju, he addresses the allegations that he offered $100,000 to anyone with dirt on Pusha-T. “I’m a wig splitta, I’m a tall figure/Money for revenge, man, that’s hardly an expense.” Similarly, “8 Out of 10” digs into his reputation as soft, while also weaponizing it as a saving grace to his enemies. “As luck would have it, I’ve settled into my role as the good guy,” he concedes.

Fatherhood, which emerges as another often-visited theme in Scorpion, reveals a more readily reflective side of Drake. “8 Out of 10” also addresses Pusha’s allegations that he is a deadbeat father, “The only deadbeats is the beats I been on, rappin,” he says before going on to detail kissing his son on the forehead. Given Drake’s complex relationship with his own father, which he has detailed throughout his career, it feels appropriate that he would respond to any accusations that he was less than present in his son’s life.

Yet Scorpion’s B-side contains the most unguarded details of his journey in fatherhood. On album closer “March 14,” he looks back at his own single-parent childhood and blames himself for repeating a cycle that he promised to break. “Single father, I hate when I hear it/I used to challenge my parents on every album/Now I'm embarrassed to tell 'em I ended up as a co-parent/Always promised the family unit/I wanted it to be different because I've been through it/But this is the harsh truth now,” he reflects. The song—an open letter to his son, Adonis—also provides glimpses into his relationship with Sophie Brussaux, the mother of his child, who he claims to have only met twice. “Hopefully by the time you hear this/Me and your mother will have come around/Instead of always cuttin' each other down,” he reveals.

Much of the rest of the B-side falls well within Drake’s comfort zone as a singer. Offerings like “That’s How You Feel,” which samples Nicki Minaj’s “Boss Ass Bitch” and the DJ Khaled posse cut “Take It to the Head,” are familiar and catchy, setting Drake’s velvety crooning up for easy wins. “In My Feelings” expands on the resonance of Big Freedia’s bounce sample in “Nice For What,” melding fellow New Orleans bounce artist Magnolia Shorty’s “Smoking Gun” with Lil Wayne’s “Lollipop.” The uptempo backbeat provides the perfect foil to Drake’s melodic callouts: “Kiki, do you love me? Are you riding?” he sings, before going on to mention Resha and JT of the duo City Girls. It’s just the kind of twerk-inducing summer time track that hits that sweet spot between club banger and slow jam—a Drake specialty, if you will.

If anything is disappointing about the softer side of Scorpion, it’s Drake’s lack of self-awareness. Where he unpacks false friends and the pitfalls of celebrity with obsessive precision when he raps, his views on intimacy and women remain even more static than the constantly rehashed narrative of enemies at every turn. The story here is, again, the misunderstood nice guy who constantly gets duped by bad girls and ice queens.

In “Jaded,” he details falling for a woman he thought was his perfect match, only to have her move on to someone else, who in his opinion, is nowhere near as good as him. It’s a story we’ve heard from Drake many times before (“Marvin's Room,” “Good Ones Go (Interlude)”). And it’s rather disheartening in that it shows he has not progressed past the narrative that he deserves to be with a woman just because he is a nice guy. “Said you need some time but I should stick around, for what?/Always felt like sticking ’round’s the same as being stuck/Pretty little young thing/Had a nigga convinced, got me too excited/Yeah, you played me, you played me, you played me/Lowdown, dirty, shameful, crazy/I need to know how the new nigga you got does the same thing /I do for a living but is way less wavy.”

Unsurprisingly, none of this reflection comes with a side of introspection about what his tendency to categorize women along a good girl/bad girl binary might mean. Or even how this mentality might prevent him from viewing them as multifaceted beings in the same way that he sees men.

Instead, his pattern of praising women by comparing them to ones he feels are lesser re-emerges. “Thankful for the women that I know/Can't go fifty-fifty with no hoe/Every month/She don't even love me, she just puttin' on a front/She gon' try and settle outta court and make a run,” he raps in “I’m Upset.” The irony is Drake rarely if ever takes accountability for how or why he constantly ends up in romantic entanglements where he feels ill-used and taken advantage of, rather it becomes the sole blame of the unnamed women he references. For someone whose music focuses so intently on romantic relationships, Drake is due for some growth around how he relates to women.

Yet amidst the passive-aggressive asides, heavy-handed jabs and reflections on lost love, Scorpion’s production and features, while at times chaotic, add needed dimension. Legends like DJ Premier and DJ Paul are among the non-OVO producers, and Drake also calls in background vocals from Travis Scott, Ty Dolla $ign and Future, as well as a posthumous contributions from Static Major and Michael Jackson. The album is a hulking catalog of Drake in his comfort zone, a space in which his ability to create memorable music that sits perfectly in the cradle of the cultural zeitgeist is unmatched. Still, the excessive 25-song tracklist is a misstep.

While Scorpion has more than a few future hits, it also comes with the baggage of too many options. Oddly enough, it’s like Drake’s Apple Music notes and the final project weren’t truly in sync: One conveys that he doesn’t care about the critics, while the other feels like an attempt to please everyone. Maybe he should've named the album Gemini. —Stephanie Smith-Strickland

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