Last summer, in the realm of hip-hop, amidst the infernal afterglow of Pusha T’s public condemnation that Drake had illicitly fathered – and hidden – a child, the Toronto-based recording artist released his fifth studio album Scorpion (2018), named in honour of his astrological sign. A musician of mythic, millennial legend, his legacy falls somewhere between harsh, armoured rapper and soothing, caramel-inflected R&B troubadour: with this album affirming his ability to seamlessly masquerade as each.
In Scorpion, Drake resurrects the image presented on the cover of his 2011 album Take Care: a lonely soul seated at a burnished throne, staring forlornly into a chalice against a backdrop of marble walls and gilded paintings; aglow in the flickering light of a single, Roman candle. Through soft monotones we hear Drake-as-jaded-knight confess the cruellest of sins, with the candour characteristic of a Scorpio ascendant. On ‘Emotionless’ he raps ‘I wasn’t hidin’ my kid from the world/I was hidin’ the world from my kid’ over an ethereal Mariah Carey sample and dark, menacing bass: confirming the venomous rumours to be true: yes, he has secretly become a parent. The narrative unfolding here is weirdly Shakespearean; where the emotional toil between single fathers and their estranged (‘bastard’) children is explored across his plays. In Measure for Measure (1603), for instance, Signor Claudio is sentenced to public beheading for allegedly impregnating a woman out of wedlock. It reinforces what makes Drake so compelling: his use of classical melodrama, which tenderly burns throughout his oeuvre.
This isn’t the first time Drizzy has invoked renaissance art: his ‘6 God’ album artwork depicts the rapper’s hands clasped in ominous benediction, sketched with the empyrean gentleness of Albrecht Dürer’s Study for the Hands of the Apostle (1508); while on ‘Do Not Disturb’ (from 2017’s mix-tape More Life) he directly references a lack of Shakespearean desire: ‘I ain’t got no time to be no Romeo’. Themes of unrequited love, betrayal and deception abound. He could be performing 2013’s single ‘Hold On, We’re Going Home’ – featuring the lingering refrain ‘I can’t get over you / you left your mark on me / I want your hot love and emotion, endlessly’ – while billows of smoke unfurl like a snow-white elm from the slit of his lips; or melting the conflicting feelings that follow a break-up, as he dopily dances under fluorescent lights in his ‘Hot Line Bling’ (2015) music video, shrouded in pink mist – but Drake-as-rose-clasping-crooner is who we knoweth and love.
Text messages and more recently, the social media app Instagram, gradually became the arena in which these amorous tragedies intensified. On the More Life track ‘Sneakin’ he states ‘and she texting purple hearts ’cause she know we at war’; reminiscent of the verse in Shakespeare’s rom-com Much Ado About Nothing (1598) where ‘a kind of merry war betwixt’ the characters Signor Benedict and Beatrice – if they possessed AirPods and an iPhone 7. On ‘Love and Gunz’ (2010) after ‘20 missed calls’ from his beloved he exclaims: ‘Battle of the sexes / all’s fair in love and war / casualties expected’. Conflating romance with conflict recalls this popular allegory of the 16th century, which surfaces throughout literature as well as in the paintings of Titian or Botticelli. And the strange, hot glare of a distinctly 21st century wandering eye is the subject of ‘Summer Games’ (2018): ‘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’. While the lyrics are neither eloquent nor sophisticated – they’re just bizarre – the theatrical sensibility remains, however faintly.
Irrespective of his relatively consistent, emotionally intelligent disposition, there are taints of vice as well as virtue. Drake is flagrantly hetero-normative, while others in the industry, such as Cardi B and Ariana Grande, increasingly vaunt queerness. And although the anthem from Scorpion, ‘Nice for What’– a song about female independence – emphasises his feminist outlook, more recent singles savagely undermine any claims to nuanced gender politics.
Arguably the greatest love story that exists in popular culture today is the ongoing collaboration between Drake and Rihanna, where songs such as ‘Work’ (2015) are imbued with sweet nothings like ‘if you had a twin I would still choose you’ (What this mysterious compliment means, exactly, who knows?). Yet last month, Drake released a new single with Rihanna’s ex-boyfriend, Chris Brown, who is widely known to have physically assaulted the singer. It seems this blow is too lethal to repent. But perhaps under the prelapsarian, pastel twilight of a future summer, he’ll follow-up with a new record that attempts the princely thing again: expelling his evil, romantic spirits before faltering, graciously, upon his own sword.
Main image: Drake performs at O2 Arena, London, 2012. Courtesy: Getty Images, Redferns; photograph: Christie Goodwin