June was a monumental month for hip-hop, with massive releases from the likes of JAY-Z (with Beyoncé), Nas and Kanye West. Somewhat unsurprisingly, the biggest release of the month came from Drake, the current commercial king of rap, whether the culture’s devotees like it or not.
Drake’s fifth (or seventh, depending on how you classify If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late and More Life) studio album Scorpion is set to sell close to one million equivalent album units in its first week available. It marks a return to Nielsen Soundscan glory after he was ousted from his No. 1 spot by Kendrick Lamar last year. Those numbers have Drake headed towards the biggest first week sales of the year and, with Adele and Taylor Swift unlikely to reemerge for several years, it will likely stay that way.
With his latest platinum effort, Drake re-establishes himself as the music world’s Marvel Cinematic Universe. He is, unto himself, a factory, churning out glossy, CGI-filled and lucrative blockbusters annually, even if they lack the depth of the award-winning but less profitable competition to which they’re constantly compared.
Sure, Kendrick Lamar has in-depth storytelling, nuanced cohesion and incredible lyrical performances, but Drake has Spider-Man stealing Captain America’s shield and the Black Panther fighting side-by-side with Thor. Just like those movies, reviewing Scorpion seems redundant, as the album is exactly what you expected, and comes with all the bells and whistles you’d expect from such a big-budget production. There are hits, there are misses, and Drake is Drake. It’s going to be a massive success, no matter the mediocrity involved, just like any Marvel movie.
In filling that role within rap’s ecosystem, Drake is the industry’s foremost hitmaker, but he still leaves something to be desired whenever he decides to release an album. Whereas his closest competition—the likes of JAY-Z, Kendrick and J. Cole—seem to only make and release music when they have bursts of inspiration and something to get off their chest, Drake seems to do so when it’s time to hit his annual quota and make sure his checkbook balances.
His general aversion to more poignant material, and the decision to value economics over artistry have left Drake’s career with a void. Nearly a decade into his historic run, he lacks the transcendent body of work that rappers and rap fans covet: the classic. That undeniable body of work that typically separates the All-Stars from the legendary all-timers.
But Drake seems to have no desire to achieve that landmark, or combat one of the longest held and most strident criticisms of his career. In fact, it seems to be the complete opposite. “Niggas want a classic,” he raps on Scorpion‘s “Sandra’s Rose,” both matter of factly and defiantly. “That’s just 10 of these.”
Drake is apparently of the belief that the classic is no accomplishment at all, and is something he could cook up just as quickly as Thanos snaps his finger and destroys half of the universe. He believes he could do that whenever he wants, as evidenced by his endless list of classic songs and uncanny Billboard streak. He has anthems that will last forever, so in Drake’s world, he doesn’t need a classic, all of those songs are even better than that.
It’s conceit of the highest degree, bordering on ignorance, but it does explain why Drake has never truly exhibited the focus necessary to craft a classic. Classics are born out of brevity, and Drake has never been one to be concise. His albums often carry the same criticisms: they’re bloated, a few out-of-place songs too long, and could benefit from some revision and an increased emphasis on the overlying objective. The notion is always that Drake simply lacks the ambition to forge a classic, and on Scorpion he outright confirms that.
Now, we have a little bit of insight into why. On another Scorpion track, “Can’t Take A Joke,” he brags, “If I touch the studio then we got one.” The rhetoric is hardly new for Drake, as he’s previously rapped that his “latest shit is like a greatest hits” or that he should be called Hit-Boy because he has “all the hits, boy.” It goes on and on, and it’s apparent: Drake thinks every one of his songs are hits, and they’re all important.
Apparently, Drake truly believes we not only want to, but that we need to hear every single song he makes. He somehow came to the conclusion that 25 songs was necessary for Scorpion, in a world where Kanye West is busy experimenting with seven-track albums (for better and for worse) and where the person who is maybe his truest competition, Beyoncé, released a nine-song album with her husband.
His last three albums have averaged over 22 tracks per outing, and that’s not including the various loose tracks he’s released that didn’t end up on the albums. He’s had only one solo album or mixtape with less than 16 tracks, when factoring in bonus cuts. His debut mixtape was 23 songs; his most highly regarded album, 2011’s Take Care, is 20 songs with its bonus tracks. Drake’s answer to one of his longest-held and most echoed criticisms isn’t to fix the problem, it’s to amplify it.
Some argue that it’s Drake looking to manipulate the flawed metrics in place for Billboard charting that factor in streaming to an almost ridiculous degree. Within that system, more songs equals more streams, which means more “sales” and more chart success. Drake, like his labelmate and friend Nicki Minaj, has displayed an affinity for numbers, constantly referencing them on records and leaning on them as his chief accomplishments. Those numbers are the reason why Drake believes himself to be head and shoulders above his competition, even if critical analysis says otherwise.
So, between his conceit, and his desire to inflate his numbers as much as possible, it’s likely Drake will never partake in the meticulous curation and delicate fat-trimming necessary to construct a true classic. History says he’ll load up his albums and continue to serve them in nonsensical Costco-sized packages, whether that’s the industry standard or not.
Which is not to say Drake’s music is bad. No, it’s quite the opposite, and his ability to churn out anthems that make the world sing is a skill that some competition can’t match. But it is shallow, and can sometimes prove frivolous when compared to the work of some of his contemporaries and closest competition. Candy is tasty in small doses, but every kid learns at some point, one’s diet can’t consist of just Skittles and gummy bears alone. That only leads to stomach aches and cavities, and after nearly a decade of Drake, some of us are in need of fillings and some veggies.
Still, his music resonantes, whether in the car late at night pondering love’s ills, or in the club celebrating all levels of opulence. On “8 Out of 10,” he brags about everybody playing his music, from your sister to your friends, your trainer, your nanny and, most importantly, your wifey. He’s right, everybody listens to Drake, even if they don’t like it. Drake’s metrics exceed all of his contemporaries, a fact he’s keenly aware of, and something he brags about on “Is There More”: “My peers are a talented group / But even if you take all their statistics and carry the two / Even if you rounded up the numbers and rounded the troops / There’s still nothin’ they could really do.”
Between that success, and his unprecedented ability to not only shrug off normally career-altering scandals, but to somehow devour them and become stronger because of them, Drake has plenty of reason to be conceited.
In just the past three years Drake has been ousted for: having ghostwriters, been accused of being urinated on in a crowded movie theater, been exposed for having a secret love child, been famously curved by a woman he professed his love to on stage at the VMAs, lost a rap feud in embarrassing fashion and so many other faux pas.
None of it has mattered, he’s rolled through it all and now it’s become a punchline for him as he’s highlighted it all in his album’s Editor’s Notes on iTunes. It has become fodder for his raps, and his immunity to it all has become ammo for his fans. Drake has proven invincible, so no wonder he’s not worried about checking any obligatory check marks off his résumé.
Much like his success, Drake’s demise is ultimately his own doing. He may not feel the desire to make a classic, but the culture is practically demanding it from him. If it truly is just “10 of these,” it’s time for Drake to humble himself and make those 10 songs and package them into a new sort of blockbuster. Sometimes we don’t need Spider-Man teaming up with Iron Man and the Guardians of the Galaxy; sometimes, Spider-Man saving cats from a tree on his own is just fine.
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