Drake Was Once R&B’s Savior. On ‘Scorpion,’ He Returns to the Genre He Reinvented
As news that Drake‘s Scorpion would be a double album swept around the internet this week, it was quickly followed by a tantalizing rumor – one of the two LPs would be rap, while the other would be entirely R&B. Drake became a star by mixing these forms; now he would devote himself to each individually.
This wasn’t a completely crazy idea: Drake, under duress after being bloodied in a rap-scrap with Pusha-T, would return to his comfort zone. There was also a healthy dose of wishful thinking here from fans with fond memories of Drake’s early years, when he initiated a paradigm shift in R&B. From his 2009 major-label debut, the So Far Gone EP, through 2011’s Take Care, Drake worked heavily in the genre, but in the years since he turned much of his attention elsewhere, exploring other genres and often passing R&B digressions off to guests.
Like many of the rumors swirling before the release of Scorpion, Drake’s R&B album turned out to be largely a myth. Still, there are seven singing-heavy tracks on the second volume of Scorpion, many of which blur into a crawling stew of romantic anguish and missed opportunity; it’s the most R&B that Drake has delivered personally in years. This feels fitting, as R&B is more prominent now than it has been during any other moment in Drake’s career. He’s diving back into a genre that he almost singlehandedly re-tooled and, commercially speaking, helped revive.
When Drake started scoring hits regularly in 2009, R&B was struggling for attention in the mainstream; the dollars were all in Top 40 pop, and to a lesser extent, hip-hop. To get by during this period, R&B titans like Usher and Ne-Yo were forced to appear on numbing EDM records. “It was a point where people were saying R&B was dead,” the singer Ro James tells Rolling Stone. “But Drake showed a different perspective.”
He’s diving back into a genre that he almost singlehandedly re-tooled and, commercially speaking, helped revive.
On Drake’s singing records in those early years, some of his choices had a clear lineage: Noah “40” Shebib, his go-to producer, is on the record as a Tank fan, and you can hear echoes of Tank’s “Coldest Winter” in the beats of “Successful,” “Fireworks” and “Marvin’s Room.” But Drake redefined R&B singing with startling speed. “He made it acceptable to be simple again,” says Tiffany Fred, a Grammy-winning songwriter who has also released an entire EP of Drake covers. “He took the thought process of a rapper into singing and proved you don’t need all the theatrics,” adds Brian Warfield, one half of the writing-production duo Fisticuffs (Jazmine Sullivan, Miguel).
For decades, R&B was synonymous with vocalists who could execute virtuosic runs and slather tracks with wrenching ad-libs. “Before [Drake], when recording the hook in an R&B song, you would stack it four times, you would have background vocals,” Warfield explains. “Harmonies and ad-libs was where you got to flex your muscle, show your vocal ability and your ear.”
Drake dispensed with much of that tradition, or imported it – via samples of Nineties singers like Jon B or features with rising stars like the Weeknd. The primary vocal lines stayed approachable. “Drake doesn’t do vocal acrobatics most of the time,” Fred says.
This democratized a genre once known for heroic feats. “Drake sets his octave lower, so it’s less flamboyant,” explains songwriter August Rigo (Kehlani, SWV). “And because it’s in an octave close to speaking, it allows everybody who can’t sing to sing a Drake song. His sing-ability is a ten.”
“He made his own lane, and the person I would compare him to in that regard is Lionel Richie”
Drake also inverted structural expectations for R&B songs. He loves Jodeci and sampled them, but a Drake ballad never erupts like a Jodeci ballad. He sings in long, graspable lines, snuggling up to notes rather than attacking and embellishing them. His song form matches this vocal approach – even in “Passionfruit,” an undeniable hit, there is no cathartic release during the hook. “Usually songs build from the verse and the chorus explodes,” Rigo says. “In Drake songs, the chorus will come in and everything will drop out – it’s kind of backwards.” R&B singers are often known for jumping up the scale; Drake is just as likely to modulate downwards.
Drake’s innovations worked like crazy. “He made his own lane, and the person I would compare him to in that regard is Lionel Richie,” says Mark Batson (Beyoncé, Anthony Hamilton). “When everyone was doing hard funk music, Richie created this smooth lane, and wrote great songs.” (Drake did Richie one better, since he was across the aisle making the modern day equivalent of hard funk – hip-hop – at the same time.) The purest example of the Drake R&B sound remains “Marvin’s Room” from 2011, surely one of the least dynamic tracks to reach Number 21 on the Hot 100. The single is magnetic precisely because Drake’s puddle of jealousy never boils over musically – there is no resolution in this R&B, no satisfyingly angsty explosion, only stasis.
An entire class of young singers took this style as gospel – here were tools they could use to survive in a world driven by hip-hop. You hear echoes of Drake in Bryson Tiller and Tory Lanez, Tinashe and Jhene Aiko, Post Malone and Kehlani, A. Chal and 6lack, Majid Jordan and PARTYNEXTDOOR, Roy Woods and DVSN (the last four are all signed to Drake’s OVO label). For years, it was impossible to turn on the radio without hearing a Drake disciple. The allure of this template was such that even R&B veterans like Alicia Keys and Beyonce, who specialize in old-school vocal displays, moderated their energy on tracks Drake co-wrote (“Unthinkable (I’m Ready)” and “Mine,” respectively).
Since all these artists were pushing Drake’s sound, it was easy for him to indulge other interests. Starting after Take Care, when singing and swinging for the charts, Drake began jetting to new genres, including Jamaican dancehall, Nigerian afrobeats and South African house. He allowed other artists to take the lead vocals on entire tracks – letting PARTYNEXTDOOR wail and moan on “Wednesday Night Interlude,” handing the mic to Sampha on the keening “4422.” And even though Drake had so much success elevating melody, he worked hard to hone a bruising, quarrelsome rap style, which carried him from “Worst Behavior” to If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late, from What a Time to Be Alive to “Free Smoke” and “No Long Talking.”
For much of Scorpion, especially the first half, this remains Drake’s mode: Head down, fists up. But the second part of the new album serves as a change of pace. The transformation is foreshadowed on the final track of Side One by Nai Palm of Hiatus Kaiyote, who harmonizes with herself during an impressive snippet of an Aaliyah cover. When Drake returns on Side Two, he is staggering around in a familiar R&B-induced stupor. “Peak,” “Jaded” and “Finesse” are wonderfully lackluster – no one could deliver the line “honestly, I can’t stand ya” with less bite than Drake. These could all be one long track, artfully deflated and eminently singable. There’s more momentum in “Summer Games,” “Ratchet Happy Birthday,” “Don’t Matter to Me” and “After Dark,” but you know these partially-committed melodic patterns and nonchalant croons – you’ve been hearing them for almost a decade.
For Drake, this part of Scorpion is both a welcome return to form and surprisingly conventional. When R&B was struggling, he helped clear a path for it move forward. But now he offers up a rigid vision of R&B – especially at a time, maybe the first in a decade, when his grip on the genre is weakening. Several young singers on the charts today, including Daniel Caesar, Ella Mai and Jacquees, owe little to Drake’s sound. And by far the most successful R&B act of the last three months has been Ty Dolla $ign, who loves the sort of vocal drama that Drake sent into exile: For Ty, the more complex harmonies and melismatic acrobatics, the better.
So when Ty shows up twice on the second half of Scorpion it feels startling and momentous, an alien incursion in Drake-land. He’s there in “Jaded,” emoting wildly somewhere behind Drake like an R&B feelings-translator. And on “After Dark,” Ty moves into the forefront, pleading and ad-libbing through an entire verse without restraint. After years of relying on Drake’s blueprints, R&B is moving on. But these two songs suggest that Drake might consider moving with it.
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