When Rihanna released “Anti” in 2016, critics were aloof. “The ultimate impression the album leaves isn’t just that of an artist who failed to follow through on her vision, but who never bothered to conceive one in the first place,” wrote Slate. Two years later, we look back on “Anti” as a front-to-back classic, whose low-burning flame and disparate approach only served to set Rihanna apart from her try-hard contemporaries and inspire a new generation of exploratory oddballs.
Drake’s “Scorpion” arrived two weeks ago to similar disinterest. Critics and fans slammed it for its bloat, its lack of innovation, its mopiness, its scattershot aesthetic. This all feels very familiar.
“Scorpion” is not the breathtaking breakthrough or the scathing rebuttal we hoped for. It is a workmanlike body of excellent songs stacked one after another that prove that no other artist creates indelible hooks and flows so effortlessly. It is purely an exercise in taste: Drake picks the best beats, and then picks the best flows for those beats. From where I’m standing two weeks out, it is Drake’s best album yet.
So why has the critical response been so muted? (The album currently clocks at 68 on Metacritic, a tick worse than the dreary slog that is “Views.”) Here are a few reasons, and why those complaints miss the point.
-The Statement Album Complex
Beyonce and Kanye are the main culprits for this. We’ve come to expect that every time a pantheon artist drops an album, it will be a dramatic artistic shift; that it will be loaded with #meaningful #personal #heartbreaking #insights; that it will be cohesive and grandiose; that it will further a larger career narrative of cutting-edge adventure at every juncture. The effect of this is that the focus of an album rollout becomes subsumed by everything but the music itself. And because the soul-inflected beats and melodic cadences on “Scorpion” all feels very similar to “Views” or even “Nothing Was the Same,” we accuse him of being stagnant rather than realizing the ways in which he has perfected his craft. The album is not ambitious, but it is wildly gorgeous. Just listen to how he lingers over his syllables on “Finesse”; listen to the terse and coiled energy of “Nonstop.” Monet painted lilies for 20 years, and they were all dope.
This is Drake’s own fault for trying to fight a pitbull on his own junkyard. Pusha T’s “The Story of Adidon” was so devastating not because it provided closure but because it opened up so many questions; it forced Drake into a narrative track that he was unprepared to strap himself into. So he had two options: 1) To continue playing on Pusha’s turf and force himself to share a spotlight with a rapper who, as a 41-year-old CEO, is playing with house money, or 2) turn the other cheek, keep his ammo, acknowledge that Pusha’s strengths are not his strengths, and to put out an album that thrives on his own terms. He chose option two, which temporarily made him a coward, but also excluded himself from Pusha’s narrative and allowed him to take back control of his own career. Instead of opening himself up to new attacks, he lets the wound heal until it fades away into a footnote.
And after Kanye’s run of fun-sized albums, even the act of listening to a 25-song and hour and a half long project seems like a cruel and arduous task. The length is an act of sheer hubris; it rings false amidst all the mopey self-laceration and whiffs of a ploy to game streaming services.
But here’s the thing: most of the songs on “Scorpion” are very good. And all of it will appeal to someone out there. And when I put myself through the exercise of cutting it in half to create one concise 45-minute project, found the task impossible. The moment I found myself unable to cut my edit below 15 songs was when I realized “Scorpion” is a modern classic. Here’s my edit.
This version leans heavily toward side two, where he slips into pillowtalk and other muted tracks that slink and vibe, and excises the middling rap-heavy pontification of side one. A couple Q&A’s with myself:
How many different favorite songs have you had since the release?
Four. “Nice For What,” “Nonstop,” “That’s How You Feel,” and “In My Feelings.”
Why did you leave “Summer Games” off?
The four bars about the drama of following and unfollowing on Instagram are inexcusable. Hard pass.
Is “Nice For What” the best Drake song ever?
It’s definitely moved into the top three. I can’t explain how radical “Marvin’s Room” felt to me at the time, though. If you ever see me entering another period of listening to “Marvin’s Room” on repeat please hospitalize me immediately.
Will “In My Feelings” go Number One?
Yes, and deservedly so.
Would Ty Dolla Sign be an amazing point guard?
Yes. Just look at these assists he’s racked up over the past couple years: Kanye’s “Real Friends” and “Violent Crimes,” Vince Staples’ “Rain Come Down,” Post Malone’s “Psycho,” Christina’s “Accelerate,” Jeremih’s “The Light,” and now “After Dark.” Step aside CP3, there’s a new Point God in town.
What would a Kanye-style 7 track “Scorpion” look like?
“Nice For What,” “In My Feelings,” “God’s Plan,” “Emotionless,” “After Dark,” “Nonstop” and “Ratchet Happy Birthday,” in some order.