At the end of “After Dark” on the R&B side of Drake’s double-volumed Scorpion, the song concludes with a radio aircheck of disc jockey Al Wood from Buffalo’s 93.7 WBLK. From the 90s into the aughts, Wood hosted the station’s quiet storm program on weeknights—spinning records from Hall & Oates, Troop, Fantasia, Chaka Khan, Jill Scott, and Luther Vandross, all the artists he name-drops in the outro. His silky smooth voice promises four hours of relaxation, warmth, and safety to those listening. This particular moment not only reveals one of Scorpion‘s many intended B-Side concepts (that being, Drake’s simulation of a personally-designed quiet storm playlist for Summer 2K18), it also highlights how the radio format and its consequential quiet storm genre has consistently influenced the Canadian rap-crooner’s artistry throughout his career.
The day of Scorpion‘s June 29 release, Drake uploaded a snap on his Instagram story of a letter from WBLK’s brand manager Jay Hicks. Hicks congratulated Drake for his latest recording accomplishment and thanked him for the Al Wood shout-out. Drake captioned the photo with, “This station raised us.” Only a two-hour drive of less than 100 miles, Toronto and its neighboring Ontario suburbs managed to receive the American station’s signal. For Drake—growing up as a Toronto suburbanite with a love of R&B and hip-hop—WBLK had been the only station that played “urban music.”
The tradition of quiet storm is long-running since the format’s conception on a Sunday night in May 1976. Melvin Lindsey, a college intern for Howard University’s 96.3 WHUR, became a last-minute substitute for the evening DJ who called out. Scrambling with a bit of inexperience, Lindsey grabbed vinyls from his personal collection, including The Isley Brothers and Delfonics. Listeners that night enjoyed his string of melodic R&B midtempos, slow jams, and jazz fusion instrumentals, Lindsey’s deep silky voice resonating the most during brief pauses in the rotation.
Hungry to be DC’s top-rated station, WHUR’s brand manager at the time, Cathy Hughes, wanted niche programming for uncatered-to demographics within ranging social economic backgrounds. Lindsey’s first stint behind the mic coincidentally handed her the dream program for affluent black women she couldn’t configure by herself. She offered the young college student a regular Sunday night gig, naming the program “Quiet Storm” after Smokey Robinson’s 1975 song.
After a brief hiatus, Lindsey returned back to the station in 1977 where he was promoted to host every weeknight. The show’s fanbase grew, with over 220,000 loyal listeners each night. Soon, other radio stations across America followed suit, imitating the original trademarked style of WHUR. Labels realized quiet storm ballads were a necessity. The format launched the careers of Sade, Luther Vandross, and Anita Baker in the 80s. Its sophisticated drizzle of champagne-and-strawberry slow jams permeated the mainstream. The chart success of Toni Braxton, Mariah Carey, Boyz II Men, and Whitney Houston in the 90s proved that pop consumer interests shifted in buying the singles of the radio’s most played.
Drake’s fascination and love affair with radio is unparalleled to any contemporary artist currently releasing music. With the singles roll-out for this current era, Drake’s not only striving to be the Kingpin of Streams but also of the traditional airwaves. Scorpion‘s first two singles would fit in any hip-hop radio station’s 24-hour cycle, as well as those strictly R&B, with “God’s Plan” and “Nice For What” interchangeably working for the morning talk shows, noon lunch hour mixes, and the afternoon drives after school and work. “I’m Upset” would find its way in the dinnertime megamixes—a legion of DJ Funkmaster Flex imitators nationwide hyping the song up.
Side B of Scorpion attempts to fulfill the late-night spot, with “After Dark” being on the nose in regards to the quiet storm format. The disc’s eleventh track is quite reminiscent of the late 90s-to-2000s renaissance of debonair playboy-branded quiet storm. At that phase, hip-hop soul, electro, and neo-soul began swaying the adult contemporary-friendly genre. Artists such as Tyrese, D’Angelo, and Carl Thomas portrayed embattled lovers, introspectively analyzing their failures while finding new lines for seducing purposes and to win back their exes.
While Al Wood speaks at the end of “After Dark,” a blasé section of Maxwell’s Urban Hang Suite plays in the background. Although de facto historical implications provided Maxwell a sample credit, it should be considered a tactful move on Drake’s part. Regarded as a pioneering album for neo-soul, Maxwell’s 1996 debut LP, Urban Hang Suite, consequently re-established quiet storm’s affinity of groovy music fit for hotel trysts. “After Dark” models after its predecessor, the instrumental’s whooming trumpet recalling that album’s distinct musical details.
Static Major’s featured role of singing the title of “After Dark” also holds major weight, as the late singer-songwriter influenced the contemporary quiet storm wave. In addition to his role in the R&B trio Playa, Static Major penned hits that still exist on the late night format today, including Ginuwine’s “Pony.” Drake’s history of resurrecting Static Major recordings during the latter’s afterlife can be traced back to a sample used on Take Care‘s “Look What You’ve Done.” In that deep cut’s background is Static Major singing “If U Scared, Say U Scared” while his Playa bandmate Smoke E. Digglera plays piano.
The thinned-out and hollow vocals of Static Major in “After Dark” warrant Take Care comparisons for its ghostly and whispery affect. It also highlights Drake’s unwavering attention to death, alongside a lyrical reference to Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes, who died in a fatal car accident before her solo career could really take off. As expressed in his short 2010 MTV doc Better Than Good Enough, Drake has always been fearful of succumbing to irrelevancy and being (as his Take Care interlude suggests) “Buried Alive” in the pits of balancing fame and what’s expected with the public’s constant demands for reinvention. Going alongside Drake’s propositions with death, Scorpion brings up the notion that a former life must die in order for “Survival” through this challenge and the opportunity to “Elevate” the game.
In ways, it’d be appropriate to suggest that “After Dark” is a time-traveling relic, not only for the quiet storm genre, but for Drake’s domineering impact of the modern music landscape. The linkage with Ty Dolla $ign—who’s having a hell of a run this year with noteworthy features off the cusp of his 2017 album Beach House 3—could be read as symbolic as well. Just like Drake, Ty Dolla $ign finds himself in a R&B maestro position for blending his hip-hop influences with his brand of romantic crooning. Here, we not only experience homage to quiet storm forefathers, but a torch passing to those reigning supreme in the genre’s post-contemporary world.
On the A-side of Scorpion, Drake seems bored with rap, his flow and bars mundane and consciously plateaued. It passes off the allusion that Drake has succumbed to his fear, and that in order to remain in his hip-hop afterlife following Pusha T’s “The Story of Adidon” diss, he needs to go through the industry motions. His sarcastic editor’s note on Apple Music accompanying the album (“I hate when Drake raps”; “Drake took an L”) mocks the public.
The chartmaking and streaming history from opening week prove that through artistic death and reputation mishandling, there are still monetary gains. Drake understood the philosophy that what the consumers often assassinate you for is what they secretly crave if finessed right—a page taken from Kanye West and G.O.O.D. Music’s own juggernaut rollout. Side A challenged us with a pop sensitivity just as Taylor Swift did a summer ago with “Look What You Made Me Do.”
While Drake’s sound is consistent on Side A, the showstealers happen to be the samples and features. At the end of the rap side’s final track, “Is There More,” is an interpolation of Nai Palm— Drake’s (and hip-hop’s) favorite Australian soul singer—covering Aaliyah’s “More Than A Woman” (co-penned by Static Major). “Is There More” caps off the icy, slow-moving production comprising Drake’s hip-hop quiet storm. He introspectively ponders why being happy and vulnerably in love happens to consequently threaten his hip-hop image.
Swirling in the background are the sounds of a female ghost who eventually emerges with Aaliyah’s final plea for romantic commitment. That moment transitions to the R&B disc, starting with the levitating opener “Peak.” In this moment, Drake nods to the influence the gone-too-soon Baby Girl had on his artistry. On the quiet storm format, Aaliyah would be responsible for introducing electro-hop&B thanks to 1996’s “One In A Million.” Drake has even sampled her popular cover of the Isley Brothers’ “(At Your Best) You Are Love” on Thank Me Later‘s “Unforgettable.” He and producer Noah “40” Shebib even ensued controversy after remastering an unreleased recording of Aaliyah’s “Enough Said,” which managed to creep on rhythmic radio as a cult favorite.
Scorpion forces listeners to examine artistic legacies of not just Drake but others, and then back at him once more. Oddly enough, through “Jaded,” “After Dark,” and “Finesse,” we’re reminded that Drake co-existed in the same wave of new millennium R&B that the likes of Aaliyah and Static Major revolutionized, just a generation removed. Relatively speaking, 2007 would begin the tail-end of that phase, as trap slowly started to become the new commercial provider for R&B by the turn of the decade. That year, Drake gained a buzz in the music industry with his second mixtape, Comeback Season—which featured “Bitch Is Crazy,” a cut replicating D’Angelo’s psychedelic soul.
By the time of So Far Gone‘s unprecedented release as a commercial mixtape that promoted singles in 2009, Lil Wayne and Static Major earned a Billboard Hot 100 No. 1 with “Lollipop” and Kanye West released 808s & Heartbreak, indicating trap&B’s impending takeover. Drake managed to experience this shift as a pupil and ride that wave. It was with So Far Gone‘s “Sooner Than Later” that Drake first exhibited the techniques of his 2000s R&B forebearers while laying out new foundations for quiet storm.
Drake rewrites his own rules again, but with an ear interested in making quiet storm suitable for various regions across America. On “Summer Games,” he revamps Take Care‘s emo-R&B that inspired the SoundCloud generation of Lil Uzi Vert, with a hook belonging in a Jersey club mix. “Ratchet Happy Birthday” evokes dysfunctional gogo perfected by the likes of DRAM, stemming from the DMV tri-state area. “In My Feelings”—which seems poised to possibly be Scorpion‘s third No. 1, thanks to the viral dance challenge—not only borrows NOLA culture with “Lollipop” and a bounce beat, but also hits Miami jook music with uncredited vocals from the rap duo City Girls.
Although quiet storm is meant for romance, listen to a majority of songs released in Drake’s generation after Comeback Season, and a lot more emphasis is placed on heartbreak and skewed perceptions of maturity. Looking at both that mixtape’s album cover and Scorpion‘s, we notice a visible growth from a 21-year-old who will turn 32 come October. On both visuals, he’s wearing a trench coat and stares at the camera with a stone face, living up to the mysterious good-guy role Drake willingly subjects himself to. However, Comeback Season is in staunch coloring; Scorpion is in a portrait black and grayscale.
Ironically enough, quiet storm has evolved into the genre of babymaking music—and, well, that’s what Scorpion proclaims: Drake is a father. Through the usage of ghost recordings and revisiting of his older sounds, the artists kills the good guy in order to enter manhood. With “Ratchet Happy Birthday” and “Peak,” there are sound effects that could be equated to those existing on Nintendo or PlayStation video games—analogous to his younger R&B cuts “Brand New” and “Shut It Down.” Those records marked boyhood for someone inclined to always play games in relationships. All of that changes on Scorpion by “Don’t Matter To Me.”
“Don’t Matter To Me” is primed to join late-night rotation, because of its soft rock spin on quiet storm, replicating the 80s. Michael Jackson sings the hook from beyond the grave, the recording coming from a 1982 studio session. Quiet storm radio plays Jackson on occasion, but particularly his more brooding singles such as “Human Nature” and “You Are Not Alone.”
R&B’s history of musing the King of Pop—particularly after his premature death and Chris Brown’s emotional breakdown at the BET Awards tributing “Man in the Mirror”—denotes that Jackson best represented finding manhood while gamechanging the industry. Those seeking a new tier in their quest for legendary status use the greatest as a seal of approval. (For hip-hop, reference JAY-Z shutting down Summer Jam with a cameo from Jackson in the middle of his set.) Eerily, as the original legend, Jackson works as a substitute for The Weeknd who has since tapped into those influences for his own signature sound.
Nineteen85, the producer who gave Drake “Hotline Bling” and “Hold On We’re Going Home,” keeps that theme in mind on “Don’t Matter To Me.” Drake mentions “you tested my manhood,” as he confronts an ex who reveals she’s over him. The sorrow exists on the track but, through it, is a leading man whose adjusting to his new responsibilities.
While quiet storm could be labeled a safe route for someone like Drake to go, since he comfortably executes the genre, it also made for a bit of a gamble. Quiet storm remains popular on R&B radio, well after Lindsey’s death in 1992, but in the mainstream, just like its parent genre, it barely has a charting or streaming presence.
It may be easy to fault Drake for going back on his old ways, but he’s not shy about why he’s selecting to do so on Scorpion. The first reason being Drake now has to maintain his wealth in order to support a living being his missteps resulted in, and through that he must continue providing the pop-tilting hits that feed relevancy. The other being, Drake has finally ensconced himself in a curator position.
But unlike how he manages this duty on Views and More Life—where it’s solely about the hits and insighting the rumor mills of dating speculation—on Scorpion he discerns his ability to preserve the history and legacies of one of R&B’s most successful niches, understanding the world is paying attention to the highly regarded contemporary instructor, who happened to weather the storm he created, first hand.
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