Drake (credit Anthony Mandler)
An hour into Drake’s Friday performance at a crowded Nationwide Arena, the MC, born Aubrey Drake Graham in Toronto, invited one lucky female fan onstage — a move that inspired immediate jealousy in at least some of those passed over.
“Who’s that b----?” said a woman to my left in a tone suggesting something far more severe than idle curiosity.
The rapper ignored the catcalls, took the fan by the hand and proceeded to shower her with compliments (“I like your necklace and your bracelet and all your accessories,” he sighed) before serenading her with a swooning “Hold On, We’re Going Home.”
It’s an approach Drake employed throughout his 90-plus minute concert. Between songs he slathered the audience, the city and the entire state in praise (“I’ve been waiting a long time to come back to Ohio!”), coming on like a man desperate to win the affections of anyone within earshot. At times he came on a bit too strong. During one 10-minute stretch, which actually felt much, much longer, the MC leisurely circled a metal catwalk that stretched into the crowd and individually thanked as many fans as he could, offering shout-outs to the woman in the leather skirt (“I see you!”), the big man in the striped shirt (“I see you!”) and the four gentlemen in the upper tier holding their arms up high (“I see you too!”), among many, many others.
When he wasn’t focused on his audience, the rapper looked inward, locking in on his various insecurities, jealousies and contradictions. His songs were filled with confessions, heavy-hearted laments for the women who got away and details of his various personality flaws. On one song he described himself as “the furthest thing from perfect,” and when he dropped a Jay-Z verse near the close of his set, booming “I’ve got 99 problems,” I’ll be damned if that number didn’t sound a tad low.
Drake countered his inner-Charlie Brown by occasionally adopting a playboy façade more suggestive of Charlie Sheen. He rhymed about his immense wealth, shouted out high-end brands like he had some sort of fashion-related Tourette’s and bragged about his skills in the bedroom. At one point opener Future, dressed as if he’d just come from fighting alongside Neo in “The Matrix,” joined Drake for a tag-team version of “Same Damn Time,” spinning details of a of a tag-team of a far more X-rated sort.
Of course, a big part of Drake’s appeal rests in his desire to branch out from these base subjects. “I want to take it deeper than money, [women], vacation,” he shot on “From Time.”
And there were times he certainly did.
A two-song duet with Jhene Aiko came across like a mature conversation between adults. “Talk to me,” offered Drake as the singer eased into a verse. Later Aiko appeared to challenge the rapper’s fear of commitment, singing, “What are you afraid of?” Rather than lashing back, the MC let the words sink in, replying, “I needed to hear that.”
The entire set list appeared designed to generate momentum. Early songs were lusher and more atmospheric, built on weirdly ethereal backdrops packed with unexpected details. On “Wu-Tang Forever,” for one, the rapper unburdened himself atop a beat that mimicked a music box playing back in super slow-motion. As the evening rolled on the grooves cut deeper and the volume and intensity increased. By the time “HYFR” hit, Drake’s three-piece band, which was positioned inside a circular ramp that could have passed for the command center of some futuristic spaceship, was fully locked-in, laying down a meaty groove so massive it could have caused turbulence in planes passing overhead.
For Drake, who repeatedly rhymed of reaching new heights in his songs, this almost certainly had to be a welcome sensation.