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Review: On `Scorpion' Drake is tired and tiring — but as beautiful an artist as ever

Review: On `Scorpion' Drake is tired and tiring — but as beautiful an artist as ever
Drake, seen performing in 2016, has a new album, "Scorpion." (Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

When Drake tells us approximately 10 minutes into his new album that he’s “exhausted and drained,” it’s clear we’re supposed to sympathize with him. The revelation comes in the song “Emotionless,” just after the Canadian superstar has more or less confirmed widespread rumors that last year he secretly fathered a child.

“I wasn’t hiding my kid from the world / I was hiding the world from my kid,” he insists, going on to describe the fatigue created by a culture in which “empty souls … just wake up and look to debate” the intimate dealings of celebrities like him.

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But the only reason the internet is obsessed with Drake’s personal life, of course, is because he’s been singing and rapping about it since he broke out nearly a decade ago.

And here this dude has the audacity to complain about being tired before he’s even finished four songs on “Scorpion”? Imagine how the rest of us feel an hour and 20 minutes later, when he finally brings this 25-track double album to a close.

Released Friday, when it leaped instantly to the top of any streaming-service chart you looked at, “Scorpion” is sure to test the endurance of even the most committed Drake fan. Split into two halves (or “sides” as the musician calls them), the project showcases both Drake the hip-hop blowhard and Drake the R&B sweetheart.

Whatever the setting, though, he clings doggedly to the same storyline, which basically amounts to: Drake has been maligned or misunderstood, and that hurt his feelings in a major way — but also he doesn’t care because there’s nothing anybody could do to bring him down (except for so-and-so doing such-and-such).

The result might remind you of another thin-skinned bully with a very public platform if Drake didn’t steer as clear of politics as any A-list entertainer right now. (“President doin’ us in,” he raps almost as an afterthought in “Blue Tint,” and your first instinct is to wonder which gossip blog or famous ex-girlfriend he’s referring to.)

Yet for all its tiresome megalomania, “Scorpion” is so beautifully rendered — from vocals to samples to features to beats — that Drake ends up pulling you over to his side, much like Kanye West did on his similarly vexing “Ye.”

“Emotionless” sets those thoughts on the empty souls of the celebrity-industrial complex against a churchy snippet of Mariah Carey’s “Emotions,” which provides a tenderness the song wouldn’t otherwise have had. Ditto an appearance by Nai Palm (of Australia’s Hiatus Kaiyote) in “Is There More,” where her interpolation of a few lines from an old Aaliyah song gives some weight to his rich-guy hand-wringing about whether or not there’s “more to life than going on trips to Dubai.”

“Scorpion” is full of vivid female vocals, both performed and sampled — a smart but cynical tactic (for a guy eager to show he’s not the womanizer his lyrics often suggest) that Drake deploys most effectively in “Nice for What,” which layers Lauryn Hill’s sped-up “Ex-Factor” over a hectic beat inspired by New Orleans bounce music.

That’s just one of the regional styles that Drake, perhaps hip-hop’s savviest curatorial mind, nods to here; he also looks to the Memphis rap scene in “Talk Up,” produced by DJ Paul of Three 6 Mafia, and “Nonstop,” which samples an underground rapper from that city delightfully rhyming “smoking the chicken” with “bass is kicking.”

But “Scorpion” also has sounds that suggest Drake and his expansive team of producers and songwriters were reaching for new territory, as in “Summer Games,” a gorgeous synth-pop ballad about the ways people play with one another on social media.

“You say I led you on, but you followed me / I follow one of your friends, you unfollow me,” he croons over a thrumming groove, “Then you block them so they can’t see you liking someone just like me.” Only Drake could make this into high drama.

Even in the more familiar stuff, though, he exercises a remarkable attention to detail: Check out how he and the production duo of 40 and Nineteen85 carefully stitch together parts of a previously unreleased Michael Jackson vocal to have the late King of Pop accompany him in the moody “Don’t Matter to Me,” or listen to him savor the title word in “Finesse.” (It’s practically an instance of onomatopoeia.)

“Scorpion” ends, no surprise, with Drake’s full accounting of the one thing he could be sure folks would stick around for: his unexpectedly becoming a parent with a woman he says he met only two times.

“Sandi used to tell me all it takes is one time,” he raps, referring to his mother.

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And for its first few minutes, “March 14” is uncharacteristically raw, with Drake peppering his frank single father’s lament with sharp images like “an empty crib in my empty crib.”

But just as you’re wondering whether Drake might’ve broken through to some new plane of emotional maturity, the hard-knocking hip-hop track transforms into a plush R&B jam in which he quotes Boyz II Men to insist that he’s all alone and needs shelter from the rain.

It’s as self-pitying — and as pretty — as could be.

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