Mark Blinch / Reuters

Now let us make prayer hands: Drake is looking for the meaning of life. The rapper who christened himself “6 God,” coined our era’s WWJD with YOLO, and landed a smash chorus about “a higher power,” openly wonders about the status of his soul on his latest blockbuster, Scorpion. Astrology, “God’s Plan,” and mystical “stones and crystals” get mentioned across the sneakily engrossing double album. But what does he really believe?

Religion typically figures into Drake’s public persona only as ingredients of his identity mishmash: He was born to a Catholic father, raised in his mother’s Judaism, and is conversant in the Islam of his close friends (2018 headline: “Drake says ‘inshallah’ in new song … and Muslim girls are ready to marry him”). Yet spirituality acts as a subtle key ingredient both in his salty-sweet hits and in his overstuffed albums. Of course, a lot of rappers compare themselves to Jesus. But Drake moralizes more than most as he enacts one of the essential dramas of this secular age: an individual straining, and not quite succeeding, to cobble together a personal ethical system.

Dominance, not righteousness, has been the outward goal of Drake’s career thus far. Rap fans obsess over the notion of “the greatest,” and from a commercial standpoint, Drake can lay a claim: “Every title doin’ numbers like I’m Miss Adele,” he brags on Scorpion, an allowable exaggeration. This success undergirds the album’s most hackneyed religious—or really sacrilegious—lines: “I walk in godly form amongst the mortal men,” “Might go down a G.O.D.,” etc. But Scorpion opens with Drake saying “the crown is broken in pieces,” and by the end of “Side A,” he’s drowsily asking, “Is there more?” As in, deep breath, “Is there more to life than all of these corporate ties / And all of these fortunate times / And all of these asses that never come in proportionate size?”

It’s not just a question for him. Scorpion plays as a series of parables about the wickedness of modern life and its signal sins of greed, vanity, and pride. (Taken together, it’s also a showcase of Drake’s favorite vice: condescension.) Often, he’ll hold up female superficiality as a sign of inner emptiness:  “I know a girl happily married ‘til she puts down her phone,” goes one in a series of Instagram-related fables on “Emotionless,” followed later on “Don’t Matter to Me” by, “Wild things you’re doin’ at night / Trips to wherever feels right / Doin’ it all just to feel things.” When men are in his scope, he’s usually referring to the dangers of conquest. “Realize someone gotta die when no one’ll dead it,” he raps on the opener, with “i”t being the various feuds that he’s chosen not to escalate. Later, on “8 Out of 10,” he expounds, “As luck would have it / I’ve settled into my role as the good guy.”

The good guy—it’s an evolution upon Drake’s much-discussed “nice guy” persona, and it’s a swerve in a genre in which it’s often fun to play the villain. Drake has made a show of sanctity in 2018, whether by distributing a million dollars on camera for his “God’s Plan” video or by introducing the giddy single “Nice for What” as “a song for y’all to cut up to”: the gift of party music. The latter’s lyrics and video paid tribute—smugly, but pointedly—to women, and cemented the impression that radio’s greatest solipsist was finally looking outside of himself. Musically, both singles inventively reclaimed the sound of uplift in a generally drowsy pop-rap era.

But that narrative was interrupted by Pusha T, who unleashed an unsparing diss track about Drake “hiding a child,” who turned out to be the young son of the model and former adult-film star Sophie Brussaux. The deeply moralistic accusation: Drake was a deadbeat. On Scorpion, he tries to flip the revelation of his paternity into a story about doing the right thing. “Look at the way we live,” Drake raps. “I wasn’t hidin’ my kid from the world / I was hidin’ the world from my kid.” Also: “The only deadbeats is whatever beats I been rappin’ to.” Also: The closer, “March 14,” has him visiting his son and hoping to raise him well. If embracing fatherhood is the upstanding thing to do, it also defangs the substance of Pusha’s argument that Drake’s avoiding responsibility.

Emotionally, though, he doesn’t pull the transformation off. That’s because he overwhelmingly talks about fatherhood not as a blessing, but as a burden, a stance supported by music that generally emanates sullen reluctance. “Commitment / Going the distance / I’m new to all of this,” he croons on “Finesse,” a typically passive-aggressive kiss-off dirge. “I’m Upset” is the nadir, a knowingly childish rant—“I still got like seven years of doin’ what I want!”—that portrays the material demands of fatherhood as a spiritual drain: “They keep tryna get me for my soul.” The song’s grown on me like a sour beer sometimes can, and clearly it’s meant to set up a heroic turn later in the album. But what eventually arrives is only the flimsiest kind of redemption.

Because a deeper question nags: What makes Drake “the good guy”? Why is he embracing his son? If he opens up a parenting guide, he might read about Lawrence Kohlberg’s theory of moral development: Young children reason right and wrong by asking, “How can I avoid punishment?” and, “What’s in it for me?”—maturity then comes along in the form of thinking about the collective good and acknowledging universal principles. If Drake returns to his Torah studies, he’ll be reminded of Maimonides’s hierarchy of the kinds of charity, an assertion of why intentions matter. Drake appears to be somewhere in the middle of both schema. He’s doing the right thing, but for self-serving reasons.

This plays out in all arenas: romance, beefs, parenthood. In one troubling passage from the deceptively smooth “Don’t Matter to Me,” he seems to suggest a partner asked him to hit her, but then says, “You know I can’t jeopardize both our reputations.” On “Mob Ties,” he rejects the putatively enlightened rationales of Kanye West–types who try to patch up feuds: “It’s too late for all that lovey-dovey shit, I’m-your-brother shit.” On “March 14,” he complains of his tense relationship with Brussaux, but adds to his son, “I’m too proud to let that come between me and you now.”

Pride and reputation: These are Drake’s primary drives, along with consideration for how his legend will live on in death. Such drives are slippery things—needing constant feeding, and relying on the approval of others. They perhaps explain the hemmed-in emotional palette of Scorpion, which feels like a two-steps-forward-one-step-back advancement both narratively and musically. He’s stopped traveling the globe to alchemize influences and instead has retreated to brittle rap and muted R&B, supple and well-crafted, but safe. If there’s a signature sound to Scorpion, it’s the spectacle of intruding women: Nicki Minaj, Mariah Carey, Lauryn Hill, City Girls, and others appear in features or samples that are incongruously placed, echoey, and the album’s few bursts of exuberance. It’s as if he is relating to half of humankind—and maybe all of human experience—but only through a filter, a haze.

Though a staggering 25 songs long, Scorpion could be a mere prelude, a stopping point, before a greater epiphany. On “Is There More?,” the track that wonders what’s beyond asses that don’t come in proportionate sizes, he does have an answer for what that more might be: “like healin’ my soul, like family time.” He says it resignedly, half-heartedly, as if he knows, but doesn’t believe, it’s what he should say. The thought of happiness in duty, of loving the obligation, evades him. On the album’s blazing highlight, “Nice for What,” an urgent question is implied: What is the point of acting nice to others? There are some famous books, ancient and recent, that address this question. But Drake acts like he’s the first one to live this story.

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