Days before we’d heard about the son Drake was allegedly hiding, I was trying to explain to a friend why I no longer get much joy out of the Canadian rapper’s music. Drake was fun in 2011, and 2013, and even parts of 2015, but the older I get, the less pleasure I find in songs chronicling the wounded, petty, messy feelings of an adult male with all the money in the world, and a series of chips on his shoulder.
Many artists end up retreading familiar creative terrain — just about every song the Ramones recorded was about punk rocking — but Drake’s emotional awareness feels increasingly limited now that he is a wildly successful thirty-something who still raps about the same feelings of dissatisfaction he had earlier in this career. “Your music for the past few years been angry and full of lies,” Pusha-T rapped on “The Story of Adidon,” an excellent piece of music criticism. As an ostensibly mature adult male myself, it’s become increasingly difficult to follow along with Drake’s paranoid dourness, as he continues to make the same proclamations about how fake the women can be, and how much he loves his boys. And because Drake is so popular — literally, he’s the most popular artist alive — I can’t help but think about what his fixed emotional state means for everybody who purports to relate.
“Maybe Drake is still good because he’s making new music for people going through those feelings for the first time,” said my friend, in an excellent display of galaxy brain logic. This isn’t strictly untrue: Feelings repeat themselves through successive generations, and perhaps Drake is playing it safe by updating his tried-and-true perspective with a modern palette of sounds and collaborators. He has successfully taken advantage of trends and streaming rules to stay constantly in the charts, and on people’s minds. Maybe it doesn’t matter if his music glides along well-worn pathways and is as inevitable as the sunrise.
Counterpoint: With the release of Scorpion, his latest album (and a double album, at that), this stunted lameness has become even more of a weakness. Lameness is different from being corny, a vibe the rapper has always leaned into a little bit, like those canned dance moves in the “Hotline Bling” video. Trend-hopping isn’t an unforgivable sin when you’re releasing a steady stream of fun, engaging singles — this year’s “Nice For What” and “Look Alive” clear the bar — but given time to expand his feelings on an album, his forward-sounding adoption of trends can’t conceal the limitations of his worldview. Take this intensely unfortunate verse on “Emotionless,” which is set to a novel Mariah Carey sample, for example:
I know a girl whose one goal was to visit Rome
Then she finally got to Rome
And all she did was post pictures for people at home
’Cause all that mattered was impressin’ everybody she's known
I know another girl that's cryin’ out for help
But her latest caption is “Leave me alone”
I know a girl happily married ’til she puts down her phone
I know a girl that saves pictures from places she’s flown
To post later and make it look like she still on the go
Look at the way we live
Or this meditation on sending sexts that morphs into a murderous threat:
End up gettin’ loose and gettin’ pictures from my ex
SMS, triple X
That's the only time I ever shoot below the neck
Or the entire vivid sex fantasy of “Final Fantasy,” which sounds like a teen venturing into an AOL chat room for the first time.
Or his pale defense of being a deadbeat dad (“The only deadbeats is whatever beats I been rappin' to” — doesn’t that make it sound like the beats suck, not that he’s killing them?).
Or, God, this whole back-and-forth with a woman on “Summer Games”:
Yeah, you say I led you on, but you followed me
I follow one of your friends, you unfollow me
Then you block them so they can't see you likin’ someone just like me
One could go on and on, cherry picking bad lyrics that sound even worse without music, but this would be unfair. (The beats sound occasionally very good, but that’s sometimes ruined by how much Drake insists on singing.) The album’s closing sentiment sums it all up. “I'm changing from a boy to a man,” Drake raps on “March 14,” a nominally tender song about his absent son. But Drake is not having his bar mitzvah — again, he’s 31! Considering part of Drake’s whole appeal is that he’s a sensitive rapper, someone more in touch with his feelings than his peers, to hear his self-awareness cap out at such a low level is just super embarrassing.
It doesn’t have to be like this. He could, again, just stick to the breezy singles, the energetic low stakes affairs like last year’s diverse More Life (billed as a “playlist”) or the raucous If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late (billed as a “mixtape.”) But Drake seems to interpret the mandate of an “album” as an opportunity to get serious, even though his personal growth seems dubious. The mature Drake wouldn’t necessarily sound any better, but the aging process is literally unavoidable, and at some point every youthful artist must decide how they’re going to mature. Jay-Z finally got there, and plenty of others embrace the “dad rap” label.
Drake is 31 and still mad about… how women use Instagram. Good grief, man. Cynically speaking, I wonder if his refusal to grow up — again, because no 31-year-old man should fixate on how women allegedly use Instagram — allows other stunted adult males to stay in their emotional comfort zone, only without the millions of dollars. Many, many people take their cues from pop culture; the dominant genre of cultural criticism assumes that if a piece of art might have any bad influence on the listener, it’s worth chiding. The cause-and-effect isn’t always so obvious, but who doesn’t cringe thinking about the potential dozens — or hundreds, or thousands, or even millions — men listening to Drake, and thinking, Yes, this is how I feel? Ah!
I circle back to “I'm changing from a boy to a man,” and the title of the song it’s on. Drake hasn’t explained why March 14 is such a pivotal date to focus on, though many speculate it’s when he got confirmation of his parenthood. That said, we already know what he was doing that day. He was playing Fortnite.
Correction: A previous version of this story misstated the title of “Summer Games.”