Aubrey Drake Graham may as well have entitled his revelatory new album Phoenix over Scorpion. The Canadian hip hopper has been somehow revived after being bodied by Pusha-T in a long-simmering feud centring on authenticity.
Following Meek Mill, King Push called out Graham for ghostwriting in Infrared. Graham fired back with Duppy Freestyle, questioning both Pusha-T's rap persona as a drug dealer and his relevance (and involving his fiance).
Then, Pusha-T dropped the lethal The Story Of Adidon – accusing Graham of having a secret love child, Adonis, with the ex-porn star Sophie Brussaux. The artwork depicted Graham wearing blackface from his days as an aspiring minority actor. It was a Total Clipse of the Art. Still, as the Michael Jackson of rap in 2018, Graham is invincible. And he knows it. Graham opens Scorpion with the triumphal Survival. The Scorpio has got a mighty sting.
As the official follow-up to 2016's VIEWS, Scorpion arrives at the end of an epic month for hip hop heads, with Kanye West presenting five buzz albums from his Wyoming Sessions – starting with Pusha-T's DAYTONA, housing Infrared. But, while Yeezy (and hip hop generally) is embracing economy with micro-albums, Graham extols excess. With Scorpion, the King of Streaming Platforms has gone all out with a double-album. It has 25 tracks. This has allowed the 6 God to show off his inherent dualism as an artist.
On 'Side A' he primarily raps but 'Side B' is R&B with Graham singing and getting in his feelings. Scorpion has already spawned three singles: the trap mega-hit God's Plan, from January's Scary Hours EP, Nice For What and I'm Upset – the latter helmed by the rising Oogie Mane. (Graham orchestrated an OMG reunion of his old Degrassi: The Next Generation cast – including Nina Dobrev – for the I'm Upset video, but the song inexplicably floundered in the charts.)
Sonically, Scorpion is less adventurous – and less expansive – than last year's "playlist", More Life. There is no obvious pop crossover moment like Hold On, We're Going Home, Hotline Bling or One Dance. Graham has apparently moved on from his dancehall phase, leaning towards trap and an amorphous electronica. If anything, he's now digging New Orleans bounce.
However, Scorpion is credible musically with Graham's chief producer (and OVO Sound cohort) Noah "40" Shebib joined by No ID and DJ Premier. Premo creates a soul-drenched '90s throwback in Sandra's Rose, named for Graham's mother. The LP's most innovative cut is Summer Games – all electronic percussion, courtesy of 40 and No ID. And, as a curator of curators, Graham gets the wow factor of a canny sample. Where for Nice For What, Murda Beatz pitched up Lauryn Hill's Ex-Factor, Graham raps over a loop of Mariah Carey's Emotions (as remixed by C+C Music Factory) in Emotionless.
Graham minimises marquee features. Aside from his onetime foe Jay-Z, and the ubiquitous Ty Dolla $ign, the big star here is the late Michael Jackson himself. Indeed, Don't Matter To Me, sleek avant 'n' B, repurposes previously unheard vocals by the King of Pop from sessions with Paul Anka.
Yet Jackson isn't the only R&B figure to make a ouija board appearance. Static Major – aka Stephen Garrett, who, though a member of Playa, also wrote for Aaliyah – posthumously 'guests' alongside Ty on After Dark. Graham again extends love to Melbourne future soul band Hiatus Kaiyote by having Nai Palm exquisitely sing lines from Aaliyah's More Than a Woman on the metaphysical Is There More.
Graham doesn't necessarily introduce lyrical topics on Scorpion. The thirtysomething's favourite themes remain celebrity existentialism, wealth and women. But what emerges is his self-awareness, and droll humour, especially in the songs I'm Upset and Can't Take A Joke. Graham has actually published his own 'review' of the album on Apple Music under the Editors' Notes, acknowledging all the missives directed at him by haters – very meta and very Yeezy. ("I HATE WHEN DRAKE RAPS…")
Graham is a master of the sub-diss. But, on Scorpion, he addresses his older beefs – notably with Meek in Survival. Graham challenges, too, those who would police his biracial identity in the excellent (and Pusha-T-like!) Nonstop. Weirdly, he references the controversial rapper XXXTentacion, who was fatally shot in an alleged robbery on 18 June, in Mob Ties: "Louis bags in exchange for body bags, yeah."
Jay-Z goes further in politicising XXXTentacion's death in the reflective Talk Up, produced by DJ Paul of Memphis' Three 6 Mafia. Here the vet notes the irony of how George Zimmerman faced no consequences for the death of Trayvon Martin but X was murdered: "Y'all killed X and let Zimmerman live, shhh, streets is done."
Nonetheless, Graham spills some tea. He confirms Pusha-T's daddy reveal – which reports suggested he'd planned to discuss on Scorpion, anyway. Curiously, I'm Upset alluded to an alimony matter. But, on the aforementioned Emotionless, Graham rationalises his concealment. "I wasn't hidin' my kid from the world/I was hidin' the world from my kid."
In The Story Of Adidon Pusha-T insinuated that Graham was a deadbeat dad. In the raw album finale March 14, Graham, himself raised by a single parent, confronts his own fears of inadequacy as a father… Alas, Graham is still negotiating commitment issues with women. He doesn't analyse the dissolution of his relationship with Rihanna, who chided him in a Vogue interview. But the experimental Peak could be about Graham's rumoured short-lived romance with UK singer Jorja Smith – who, while showcased on More Life, is MIA on Scorpion.
As a rap populist, Drizzy has always operated on instinct. In Scorpion, he has ultimately made an album for the lovers, not the haters. He's giving fans what they want. And more.