How Drake Made ‘Scorpion,’ the Most Ambitious Album of His Career – Rolling Stone


Drake‘s ambition grows more grandiose every year. In 2017, he released the genre-hopping, 22-song More Life playlist, which sounded like an attempt to conquer every sector of popular music at once. He one-upped himself last Friday with Scorpion, a 25-track double album designed to shock, awe and discombobulate. Pulpy Nineties R&B samples collide with piercing drums; morose singing drones beneath emphatic raps, modern Memphis hip-hop rubs up against retro New York boom-bap, slow-rolling Houston rhythms battle nervy New Orleans bounce, a wispy Michael Jackson sample stares down a blasé Jay-Z verse.

Scorpion is a miracle of modern big-budget record-making – think Quincy Jones and Michael Jackson, except the drummer is sending his parts from Tennessee, while the backing vocals are beamed in from Australia, where the lead singer of an off-kilter R&B group spends six hours stacking the parts on an Aaliyah re-harmonization.

To achieve this sort of synthesis for 25 tracks, Drake has to be a musical omnivore, highly collaborative – nearly 30 different producers are credited on Scorpion – and acutely discerning: “Drake is one of the pickiest guys when it comes to beats and tracks,” says Tyler “T-Minus” Williams, a longtime Drake collaborator who co-produced the Scorpion track “March 14.” Drake casts a wide net, sifts through his haul, picks out beats and melodies that suit his purposes and re-shapes them to his own ear and taste.

Speaking with 10 of the producers credited on Scorpion alongside singer Nai Palm, whose vocals appear on “Is There More,” reveals that Drake has an insatiable appetite for new material. Along with the members of his inner circle, he engages in a never-ending hunt for sources of musical ingenuity, soliciting submissions from recently-viral sensations and established producers alike. The star then works closely with his team – who also contribute plenty of rhythmic and melodic ideas – to sample, edit and shape, recording verses and melodies and coaxing the raw material into the form of an album from a rich stew of influences.

The range and length of these albums correlates roughly with the growth in Drake’s creative web. “When I started working with Drake, it was really just me, Boi-1da and 40 [Noah Shebib],” Williams says. 2011’s Take Care included 12 different producers; Scorpion features 29. Nineteen85  (“Don’t Matter to Me”) became a close part of Drake’s support team around Nothing Was the Same (2013); PARTYNEXTDOOR (“Elevate”) began to pop up on Drake releases regularly starting with If You’re Reading This It’s too Late (2015); Murda Beatz (“Nice for What”) and Maneesh Bidaye (“Sandra’s Rose”) showed up for Views (2016); Noel Cadastre, Drake’s longtime engineer, started receiving producing credits in 2018 and helmed Scorpion tracks like “Jaded” and “Finesse.”

Just as the leader has his network, each member of Drake’s group appears to have his own sub-web from which to source beats. In September 2017, the video for “Overwhelming,” a track by the prepubescent rapper Matt Ox, went viral. Not long afterwards, Oogie Mane, who produced the song, received a message on Instagram from OB O’Brien, one of Drake’s associates. “He’s like, just keep sending records all through the year, the boy’s always working,” Mane says. Mane remembers O’Brien adding, “this is how we start off a lot of producers – I’m gonna make you like the next Murda Beatz.” (Murda Beatz worked with many of Drake’s collaborators before graduating to appearing on the star’s albums.) Mane responded with enthusiasm, “sending so many records;” one turned out to be “I’m Upset,” a petulant outburst that appears smack in the middle of Scorpion‘s first side (and became the album’s third single). Mane made that instrumental in 2015 – so long ago that he had lost the original files backing up the beat, and had to recreate them.

Like Mane, many of the producers who spoke for this article said they forward a steady stream of material to Drake’s camp through intermediaries. ModMaxx, a former professional snowboarder who only recently devoted himself to full-time beatmaking, connected with OVO signee Roy Woods in Toronto; Woods eventually put him in touch with 40. The beat for “Can’t Take a Joke” was one of many that ModMaxx sent over; he doesn’t even remember making it.

For Nonstop Da Hitman, who worked on “Elevate,” the conduit to Drake was singer-songwriter-producer PARTYNEXTDOOR. Once PARTYNEXTDOOR returned from a tour of Europe in February and began to work on Drake’s album, “he was like, ‘please send me anything you do before you give it to anybody else,’” Nonstop da Hitman recalls. One submission was a beat Nonstop Da Hitman put together in his Atlanta house during a January snowstorm. “It looked like I was in a cloud when I opened up my blinds,” the producer recalls. “It was real angelic, so I started playing around with that choir sample. Party wrote a song to it and gave it to Drake. He flipped his lid when he heard it.”

Drake also does plenty of trawling for beats himself. The star reached out to Tay Keith after Keith produced Blocboy JB’s “Rover,” which became a local hit in Memphis earlier this year; Keith went on to produce “Look Alive,” a hit for Drake and Blocboy JB, and “Nonstop,” a similar-sounding track on Scorpion. “I just keep flooding him with beats,” Keith says.

Supah Mario, who co-produced the Scorpion track “Blue Tint,” keeps in touch with Drake as well. “Him or his engineer [Cadastre] will call me, text me on a regular basis: ‘Yo, you got some new shit?’” the producer says. “I keep him loaded up – in every pack [of beats] I make, at least one or two is going to him.” The “Blue Tint” instrumental, which drips with southern funk, was first intended for Big K.R.I.T. But when Big K.R.I.T. didn’t record to the beat, Supah Mario sent it to Drake instead.

In addition to fishing for raw material, Drake and Co. also connect singers to beats and beatmakers to samples, using their keen ears – and star power – to spark creative interactions. When the famous New York rap producer DJ Premier texted 40 asking to be a part of Drake’s record, 40 came back to him with a pair of tracks started by Maneesh and specific instructions: “Drake likes the way you bounce your beats; would you be down to put some drums to this, do it the Preemo way?”

Drake also sent a number of instrumental ideas to Nai Palm, lead singer of Hiatus Kaiyote, to see if they triggered melodic inventions. “He sends me shit he’s working on; I send him shit I’m working on,” Palm tells Rolling Stone. “I had nine to 10 songs [from him] to write to throughout the course of the year. Some were more finalized; some he hadn’t even recorded to. Some were beats he just made – he’d been up all night, was driving home, ‘I made this,’ and would send it to me.”

A number of the demos Drake floated by Palm this year ended up on the album. “‘Finesse’ was one of my favorites, but I didn’t think I needed to add to it,” she says. She also heard a version of “Final Fantasy.” “We were discussing singing about sex in music,” Palm remembers. “I wrote the first song I’ve written about sex, but I made it about nerdy mating rituals from the animal kingdom. He messaged me out of the blue like, ‘I realized I’ve never really written a sex song.’ He sent me, I can’t remember what it’s called, maybe ‘Final Fantasy’? I was like, ‘you’re gonna break the internet with this one.’”

Drake spends so much in the studio that Palm has coined her own nickname for the star: “Mr. Dynamite,” in honor of his “crazy, James Brown work ethic.” BlaqNmilD, the New Orleans producer who joined Drake in studios in Los Angeles and Toronto during the Scorpion creation process, says 40 takes a similar nose-to-the-grindstone approach. “40 is me times five,” BlaqNmilD states. “I’m crazy in the studio, but 40 was working so much – he’d mix a record, lay down and take a nap, get up and mix another record.”

Even when Drake’s relaxing, he also seems to be working. “He invited me to his spot in Toronto; he was playing [basketball video game] 2K,” Murda Beatz (real name: Shane Lindstrom) remembers. The two discussed possible options for a beat, decided that they needed a vocal sample from a female singer, and settled on Lauryn Hill. As Drake continued to play 2K, “I just made the beat in front of him,” Lindstrom says. “He obviously paused the game because the beat was fire. Then he wrote and cut the record. We probably had the beat and song done in an hour and a half.”

 

Thanks to the breadth of Drake’s dragnet and his live-in-the-studio approach, he snares a huge number of songs; culling these to fit into an album – even one with 25 songs – is a heroic feat of editing. This is not just a matter of what tracks make the album; Drake pays close attention to small details. “We’d show him our best work, the craziest stuff, and he was still pushing the bar higher – it was just not good enough,” says J. Valle, who co-produced “March 14.” “He was encouraging and gracious. But all week long it’s like, what does it take to get this guy to want a song?”

Of all of Palm’s ideas, just one made Scorpion, the intricately harmonized Aaliyah cover that ends “Is There More.” When the producers Nes, Black Mic and Hue submitted a beat that sampled Boyz II Men’s “Khalil – Interlude,” according to T-Minus, the star “took that and stripped it back down” – on the album, you hear Drake singing over the nearly naked sample. DJ Premier is famous for putting the sound of vinyl scratches on his records, so he added those to “Sandra’s Rose,” but Drake discarded them. “He said he really liked the way the track breathes after he does his verses,” DJ Premier says.

Inevitably, tough decisions are made during the editing process; several collaborators thought they would have more credits on Scorpion than they did. But the benefit of being caught in Drake’s web is that a producer never knows when, or for what reason, his instrumental might be called into service.

In January, the star entered the studio in Miami for a week with T-Minus and Valle. “I was in one room cooking up, Drake was in another, and we’d just bounce back and forth,” T-Minus says. On the last day of their scheduled sessions, inspired in part by the sampling on Kanye West’s “Devil in a New Dress,” Valle decided to flip D’Angelo’s “Lady.” “I sampled the intro, reversed it and pitched it,” Valle says. “T really fleshed it out to where it is now, added drums and chords. I added a synth line you hear every now and then. We probably did the idea in 30, 45 minutes.” When they finished the track and played it for Drake, the star decided to hold on to the beat. “It was in limbo for a while,” T-Minus adds.

This song resurfaced on Friday – with that forlorn Boyz II Men-referencing outro appended by Drake – as “March 14,” the closing track on Scorpion. After the overwhelming excess of this double album, “March 14” stays with you: Over the D’Angelo-sampling beat, Drake uncorks all the guilt and anxiety he feels about fathering a son that he rarely sees, a son the public did not know about until the rapper Pusha-T released the much-discussed diss track, “The Story of Adidon,” in May.

T-Minus was unaware that his beat would soundtrack Drake’s moment of radical vulnerability. “I know what it’s like to be a single father,” the producer says. “I’m glad if we had one record on [the album], it was that one.”



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