The first time I saw Drake perform was at Summer Jam in June 2010. I wasn’t that impressed. By the numbers, it was a great show; he performed a bunch of hits and the crowd went crazy. But I’d seen Kanye West on the Glow in the Dark Tour by then. I’d seen M.I.A. at the height of Kala. He wasn’t bringing it on that level. It made me feel like he was better as a recording artist, tucked deep within the textures of 40’s sonics, where his mythos could flourish. On stage, no matter how much he skipped around and scrunched his face up, too much of that dorky kid from Degrassi was shining through.
Flash forward to three and a half years later. “Over” was the highlight of that Summer Jam performance. In contrast, neither “Over” nor any other songs from his debut album was even performed during Would You Like a Tour? So Far Gone’s “Best I Ever Had” is still his highest-charting pop hit and it was nowhere to be found last night, but the crowd at Staples Center had no problem with that. They were there to see the new Drake. Nothing was the same, for real.
Better songs are the core appeal of Drake’s vastly improved show. He jumps around the stage as if he knows this, like he’s his own biggest fan. This amplifies the impact of his performance because there’s an unprecedented confidence. You’re looking for those loopholes in persona that are so often exposed on stage, but after building his catalogue and garnering a bevy of tour and life experiences, they’re nonexistent.
The Los Angeles show was special. He lives in this city. That place where he resides that “looks like a resort inside” is just a matter of miles away from Staples Center, and he seemed particularly eager to win over this audience. He told us that he’d been “sitting on that tour bus counting down the days” until this date, and once the date arrived, he delivered.
The first portion of Would You Like A Tour? is what Drake calls “the test to see if y’all are fucking with that Nothing Was The Same.” We were. The set list was almost a literal interpretation of the album’s track list: it began with “Tuscan Leather” then moved into “Furthest Thing,” “Wu-Tang Forever,” “Own It,” and “Connect.” More than a test of whether the crowd enjoys his album, it was a test for how it goes over in a live setting. By the time 18,000 people were screaming “eyes closed, just swanging” in unison, you could feel the potential of the record fulfilled.
Over the course of the past few years, Drake’s made his name off collaborative work just as much as his own, and that element is central to his tour. The middle portion of his set has him running through “Pop That,” “No New Friends,” “I’m On One,” and “Versace.” As is to be expected in major markets like Los Angeles, there was also a guest component. Future comes out for “Love Me” and “Same Damn Time” at every show, as does Jhené Aiko for “From Time.” Drake’s mentor Birdman surprised everyone with a “Still Fly” run through, but there was more in store.
Despite rumors of tension between the two, Nicki Minaj showed up for “Make Me Proud” and sent the arena into a frenzy. Then, in true West Coast fashion, Drake invited “one of [his] best friends” Snoop Dogg out for a medley of a few of his classics. The response was predictably massive, but still, at the end of the day, this was Drake’s show. There was no upstaging.
That idea is reinforced by moments that only make sense coming from Drake. The segment where he personally calls out and identifies dozens of fans in the crowd is a concept lifted from Jay Z, but he’s made it his own. Last night, he took a minute out of his show to talk to a couple, ask them “how they’re enjoying the relationship so far,” how long they’ve been dating, and to encourage them to have sex later.
This understanding of his own tropes is why a Drake show is so much better in 2013 than it’s ever been at any point. There’s no apprehension or settling in. Drake knows exactly what the people came to see, and he gives them that. It’s a more manageable task when his songs are sharper, but it helps that he has a stronger awareness of the space he occupies in our culture.
Yes, the awkward kid from Toronto overshadowed the popular new rapper when I saw Drake perform over three years ago, but now he closes the show with black-and-white Degrassi visuals running on stage while he tears down the stadium with concert-closer “Started From The Bottom.” He still is the kid from that series, but now it defines, rather than hinders, him. “I don’t know too many other 27-year-olds who can do we what we did tonight,” he said towards the end of the show. He knows he’s gotten better, or as he put it on Nothing Was The Same, “You know it’s real when you are who you think you are.” —Ernest Baker