The rapper-singer plays to his strengths and burns through the hits
Drake can't sing, yet he's one of my favorite singers. Does that make him punk rock? Only in the sense that he didn't let his limitations stop him from pioneering a hybrid of rap and R&B that has become deeply entrenched in hip-hop, but really that's more Short North boutique than south campus DIY. He is a man of glitz and glamour, a consummate schmoozer, and on Saturday night he romanced the Schottenstein Center.
In the studio, Drake's limitations as a singer are tidily swept under technology's rug. Plus he's working in a pop landscape in which natural talent is no longer a prerequisite for singing; next to guys like mentor Lil Wayne and major influence Kanye West, he sounds damn near angelic. On stage it's different. He can easily adjust his trademark slink between rapping and singing, conveniently converting any unattainable melodic peaks into top-of-his-lungs spoken word. But when it comes time to coo smoothly or belt it out, he's screwed. He can't nail ballads, so he simply avoided them for the most part. "The Real Her" and "Doing It Wrong," two highlights from last year's "Take Care," were omitted from Saturday's set. "Marvins Room" was mercifully shortened.
Instead he concentrated on what he does best -- entertaining. That meant leaning heavily on his increasingly impressive rap skills and burning through hits at a rapid clip like a DJ bent on stimulating his generation's shrinking attention spans. His setlist was broken into mini-medleys of a sort; he'd bang out a single verse and chorus then burst into the next track, rarely leaving us a chance to catch our breath. (For instance, he opened with tightly segued snippets of "Lord Knows," "Underground Kings," "I'm On One" and "Over"). The effect was thrilling, like a basketball team dominating the NCAA tournament by masking its weaknesses with brilliant strategy.
When things finally did slow down, he concentrated on rap-centric ballads like "Look What You've Done" and "Cameras." Much to my disappointment, early hits "Best I Ever Had" and "Successful" weren't performed, nor was anything else from his breakout "So Far Gone" mixtape save for the Buckeye-repping"Uptown." Speaking of Buckeye-repping, Drake insisted that Ohio was his favorite place to perform, a claim that left me wondering if it was a nightly pickup line. Seemingly less scripted was the 10-plus minute segment near the end of the show in which Drake shouted out individuals in the crowd with lines like "I see you sexy in the all denim!" and "Shout out to this girl for coming to the show with a broken foot!"
By the time the concert wrapped up with a triumphant video-infused rendition of "Headlines," he had cemented his status as a master of aesthetics, a bravura entertainer and an immensely personable rapper. Yet the canned singing on the chorus left a nagging "What if?" in the back of my mind. If the guy worked with a vocal coach to make singing a central part of his live show, he would be unstoppable. One of the great thrills of listening to a Drake record is hearing him glide effortlessly across the rap-sing spectrum, switching gears at will, a master of his domain. For all its positives, Drake's Club Paradise Tour could not recreate that experience. Achilles heels might make for good theater, but they still hinder great concerts.