No current rapper is more divisive than Drake. Despite only recently relocating to L.A., he's been both championed and criticized on West Coast Sound. Simone Wilson called him an “emo little piglet“; Ian Cohen praised him as an incredible lyricist. Critics grudgingly acknowledge his success (try to find a review of his latest album, Take Care, that doesn't follow a compliment with a quick counterpoint), and even the general public has made punchlines out of everything from his sweater collection to his birthplace, Canada, to his former acting career to his softness to … the list could go on and on.
I neither hate nor love Drake, but after his show last night, I understand his deal: He's just a theatre nerd.
USC's Galen Center was packed, and anticipation of a sold-out crowd prompted USC Transportation to issue a severe traffic alert. It seemed a smart move — sharing the bill on Drake's “Club Paradise” tour are A$AP Rocky and Kendrick Lamar. The former is a blog darling who got a three million dollar deal last fall; the latter is widely considered the best young rapper out.
To stand in line and listen to girls in tight dresses and platform heels that likely would twist their ankles at a later, drunker hour, though, Drake was the only draw. “We're missing Kendrick Lamar,” one said to her friend. “Like that's gonna kill us. Who is that?”
They were missing A$AP, actually, but they were right. The Harlem rapper's show wasn't much to miss. Stroll back and forth across the stage, call crew out, sway in a cool way — it was New Rapper Show Template #1, though his final and most popular song, “Peso,” roused the audience.
Kendrick Lamar fared better. Of course, he has a few years of performing on Rocky and had the home team advantage. During his roll call of L.A.'s cities, “South Central” elicited the biggest cheer. To be a more cerebral rapper, he's still compelling onstage. When he cut off his DJ for “I Am,” I got chills even though I've heard him do the song numerous times.
But the audience wasn't really there to be moved in that way; the roar when the DJ played “Rack City” in the set change confirmed that.
When Drake appeared to “Lord Knows,” the whole place went wild, and not just the girls. Dressed very theatrically in all black, a gold cross around his neck, he stood silently on a riser, then dramatically dragged his hand underneath his nose like a boxer flicking away blood. Yep, we know. Someone's always punching him.
As expected with his extensive theatre background, he's an engaging and almost charming performer. Doing goofy little dances, he even poked fun at his most famous role — and source of one of his disparaging nicknames — the wheelchair-bound Jimmy on Degrassi: The Next Generation. After announcing, “I'm 'bout to hit this Wheelchair Jimmy right quick,” he did the Cat Daddy. Funny.
Playing tortured during The Weeknd's haunted chorus on “Crew Love,” Drake wandered the stage with his head to the sky, beseeching God (?). Playing the difficult combination of cocky and concerned, he performed “Shot for Me” while screens projected girls taking shots of liquor and scrunching up their faces. (In)appropriately, he concluded the song with a “R.I.P. Whitney Houston one time.”
Drake isn't a camera hog. He brought out plenty of guests — LoveRanch, Meek Mill, J.Cole — and let them do their songs solo. And he's trained for endurance, performing for almost two hours.
But most remarkable were the 15 or 20 minutes he spent addressing the crowd. Not in a general way. No, he turned the spotlights on individual sections of the entire Galen Center one at a time and pointed out different people. “You in the purple shirt, looking all pretty. All these people sitting in a section behind the stage, that's love. Dude in the sunglasses, I see you, all serious. He dead ass serious, he don't wanna joke at ALL. You in the tights, killed an animal for that jacket, okay. I love the outfit choice tonight.”
It may all be an act, but Drake knows how to take care of his customers.
Personal bias: I can listen or not listen to Drake.
Overheard in crowd: When Drake emerged in a tank top before “Marvin's Room,” a girl screamed, “Take it off! I wanna see your tits!”
Random notebook dump: J. Cole is better in one-song appearances. Even Power 106 can't kill my enjoyment of “Up.”
Set list below.
I'm On One
Shot For Me
I'm Going In
Up All Night
We'll Be Fine
Round of Applause
House Party and I'm a Boss (Meek Mill)
Can't Get Enough (J. Cole)
Make Me Proud