You invoke the spirit of Michael Jackson at your own risk and in doing so, draw an unwelcome comparison with arguably history’s greatest pop star. Jackson was extraordinary not just because he dominated pop music but also how he dominated. He became the King of Pop in a decade when the image and status of the modern pop star was defined, battling Madonna, Prince, Whitney Houston and more for dominance. To find a similar period of invincibility, you need to look back to The Beatles or Elvis Presley, or forward to Mariah Carey’s unstoppable run of 90s hits. In those cases, artists were not battling against as fearsome competition as Jackson did.
It could be argued that the competition in pop is heating up again. After the apolitical stars of the 2000s, pop music feels invigorated and important once more. With the likes of Beyonce, Rihanna, Kendrick Lamar, and even more lightweight competition such as Cardi B and Post Malone, chart-toppers are stranger and more ambitious than they have been in a long time. The most apolitical pop stars, namely Ed Sheeran and Bruno Mars, still shift units but they feel insignificant in comparison. Sat in between these camps is Drake, who carefully walks the line between crowd-pleaser and artist, as Jackson used to so gracefully.
‘Don’t Matter To Me’, the Jackson-Drake ‘collaboration’ on the rapper’s new album Scorpion, attempts to frame him as the successor to Jackson’s throne. It’s a power-move, partly because there aren’t many people who could have got Jackson on a track when he was alive and because it tries to present the two artists as equals. It’s also a lot better than you’d expect, dispelling most of the inherent creepiness of having a dead man’s voice on an album of R&B jams. But, as effective as ‘Don’t Matter To Me’ is, the comparison puts Drake in an uncomfortable position, because it’s hard to ignore the fact that Jackson would never have released an album like Scorpion in his prime.
Like Drake, Jackson saw himself as an underdog, first battling against an industry that refused to acknowledge his talent and then against sensational tabloid reports. His response was to let his albums speak for him. When Jackson left the 1980 Grammys with only one award for Off the Wall, he was determined to make sure critics could not ignore his next album. The record he made became the best-selling album of all time. The success of Jackson’s music almost negates the most troubling rumours about his personal life. No matter what his reputation was, ‘Billie Jean’, ‘Smooth Criminal’, and ‘Don’t Stop Til You Get Enough’ gave him enough goodwill to keep him on pop radio.
If Drake shared Jackson’s attitude, Scorpion would be his Thriller, a chance to prove doubters that there is more to him than his hit singles, and for a few months, it looked like it could be. ‘God’s Plan’ was an effortlessly simple mega-hit that leaned heavily on his natural charisma and presented a man at peace with his demons. Its follow-up, ‘Nice for What’, was even better, showing Drake at his most joyful. Paired with a scene-stealing feature on BlocBoy JB’s ‘Look Alive’, the singles have made sure he’s barely spent anytime out the US top 10 all year. In fact, Drake has spent 18 weeks at the US no. 1 already in 2018. That is a Jackson-esque example of dominance.
However, the album that arrived on Friday feels closer to the disappointment of Views than any of Jackson’s opuses. It is a bloated, deliberately disposable record, designed to only hold his fans’ attention until the next release. It approaches music as a public service, an idea that is implicit in the idea of streaming, that songs are just something you have on in the background.
Scorpion is not intended to be listened to as a full project and by splitting itself into a rap side and a R&B side, it is the most user-friendly Drake album yet. The songs are almost parodic in how clearly their roles are sign-posted. There’s a song for when you’re pissed off (‘I’m Upset’), one for when you’re in your feelings (‘In My Feelings’), and one for when you want to turn up on your birthday (‘Ratchet Happy Birthday’). The ideal way to listen to Scorpion is to take your favourite tracks and leave the rest.
The album is no more cohesive than More Life, Drake’s recent ‘playlist’ that openly embraced the throwaway nature of much of his music. It’s frustrating then that there is a story worth telling on Scorpion about Drake’s personal growth, informed by his newfound responsibility as a parent. However, references to that narrative make up a small section of the album’s run-time. Among other conflicting messages, ‘March 14th’, the closing song which directly addresses his son, feels like an afterthought. At worst, it sounds like a cynical marketing move.
Scorpion is the third 80+ minute Drake album in three years and its length appears to be an attempt to game the streaming system. It’s easier to break the one-day streaming record when there are 25 songs to listen to rather than 12. What’s irritating is Drake doesn’t need to prove he can post big numbers on streaming services; he already proved that with Views, and the album’s flab does more to harm to his legacy than any streaming records can help.
Drake is between five and eight major albums into his career now, depending on how you classify More Life and his other ‘projects’, and he is still without a universally-accepted classic. His best candidate for that status is Take Care but while that album is well-loved and undoubtedly influential, it doesn’t have the untouchable aura of Jay-Z’s The Blueprint, Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, or Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly. It is also a secondary source for most rappers, as an extension of the sound that was pioneered on West’s 808s & Heartbreak.
The criticism is so common he even addresses it on the album. “N***** want a classic, that’s just ten of these,” he smirks on ‘Sandra’s Rose’, presumably referring to a combination of his studio albums and early mixtapes. It’s a classic Drake-ism, in the sense that it’s a cute deflection that’s rhetorically flawed. No-one seriously believes that Drake thinks every record he’s ever made is a classic, nor does anyone expect casual listeners to believe it.
Drake could potentially represent a new type of star, who, in a musical age that rewards constant content over considered statements, may no longer need albums to solidify his greatness. It is fair to ask questions about whether the album format deserves to be the pinnacle of artistic achievement anymore. But, nearly ten years into his career as a major artist, it’s still hard to say what the definitive document of Drake’s talent is. We know he has great singles but great albums are what separate classic artists from merely decent ones because they provide an opportunity to show depth and ambitious vision. In short, it’s what separates a Michael Jackson from a Lionel Richie. As a result, Drake’s career so far is anchorless, drifting from one so-so project to the next.
There is disagreement over which tracks are the weak links on Scorpion but almost everyone agrees some level of editing would have improved it, and few are suggesting it is a classic. In contrast, no-one seriously claims Thriller is too short. The decision to stretch another project out to feature-film length might be a smart business move but it’s a dumb artistic one.
Of course, it would be naive to assume Drake doesn’t know this, as he’s hyper-aware of his reputation. But, we also know Drake tends to duck out of fights that risk getting ugly. Recently, he ducked out of a battle with Pusha T as soon as it got serious and previously, he stopped short of all-out warfare with Kendrick Lamar after years of subliminal disses. His decision to play to streaming numbers over artistry may be a similar move.
Drake knows he can destroy any streaming record he wants, while producing a tight, thematically cohesive album would be new territory for him, territory that he may doubt his ability in. We also know Drake is a pragmatist, that’s what has elevated him to super-stardom, but pragmatism is not a trait you often associate with legends. If he wants to be remembered as one, which he has the talent for, he needs to step out of his comfort zone. Maybe Drake could produce an album on par with the greats, but Scorpion is just another example when he’s failed to do it. Streaming numbers aside, that does him more harm than good.
The double album features JAY-Z, Michael Jackson, Nicki Minaj, Future, Ty Dolla $ign, and Static Major. Scorpion boasts 25 tracks, including his singles “God’s Plan,” “Nice for What,” and “I’m Upset.”
Words by Conrad Duncan