Drake Gets Up Close and Personal at L.A. Tour Stop: Concert Review

Michael Chase Gordon
The Toronto rapper brings sincerity and raw emotive power with an impressive headlining performance at Staples Center.

On “Pound Cake,” a track off his new album, Nothing Was The Same, Drake raps, “You know it's real when you are who you think you are.” The line, something of a throwaway amongst all of the Toronto rapper’s emotionally revelatory lyrics, was the fulcrum on which Drake’s performance Monday night at Los Angeles' Staples Center revolved. The artist has been heavily lauded for his authentically raw lyrics and so-called emo delivery, particularly on this latest release, the rapper’s third full-length, and his live performance feels similarly open-hearted and self-aware.

The stage, laid out with a gleaming architectural set featuring two giant O’s (for the rapper’s label OVO), became a forum for Drake to offer himself up to a screaming audience of fans that included Matt Kemp, Kevin Hart, several Kardashians and Wiz Khalifa. Drake rose onstage amongst white smoke after opening sets by Future and Miguel, an entrance made even more dramatic thanks to its stark visual simplicity. He stood alone, the backing band and his DJ, Future the Prince, nestled in the center of the lower O, accentuated only by the glow of a curved video screen. For Drake, the appeal of a live show is his continual connection to the crowd, a bond drawn deeper by his modernly sparse production employed only when it served to bolster the emotional tone of a song. “L.A.,” the rapper shouted, referring to the city as his second home. “Are you ready to have a good motherf---ing time tonight or what?”

The performance was punctuated by several moments of intimacy, despite the massive, nearly sold-out room. Before performing “Hold On, We’re Going Home,” Drake brought a middle-aged blonde fan named Gina onstage, telling her, “I’ve been having problems with all these young girls lately, so I figured maybe me and you could get on the same page maturity-wise.” The rapper proceeded to croon the single directly to the audience member, improving the line, “Gina, you look like Martha Stewart tonight.” There was a collective gasp of jealousy from the crowd as he urged her to wrap her arms around him, her hands pressed on his chest. As she departed the stage Drake told the audience, “What Gina doesn’t understand is that I will put this young thing in her. I will peel off those floral pants tonight.”

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Later in the evening, as Drake began to wind down his 90-minute set, a massive metallic oval walkway descended over the crowd, connecting to the stage. Drake told the audience this was his favorite moment, when he got to talk directly with the fans who’ve brought him to this point. “I see you baby with the red hair,” he said, gesturing over the crowd. “I see you big dog with the grey shirt and you brought your iPad to the show. I see you all the way in the back right there.” The walkway rose and lowered, taking the rapper to each corner of the massive arena, pulling him closer to each fan. There is a distinct sense of recognition, real or imagined, when Drake looms over you, the lights of the arena illuminating the section in which you’re seated. For the fans, it is significant that he not only sees them, but that he acknowledges so many individually. And for Drake, there is no real separation between artist and audience, no line drawn to maintain the mystique of the performer.

Drake brought out numerous guests throughout the show, from opener Future to Cash Money label head Birdman to Nicki Minaj. He invited Snoop Dogg onstage, citing the California rapper as “one of the most important people I ever met -- not just in music, but in the world.” The duo unloaded three of Snoop’s hits, including “The Next Episode” and “Drop It Like It’s Hot,” fostering a dynamic of collaborative enthusiasm. As Snoop exited, Drake referenced his Toronto music festival, saying, “I feel like I brought OVO Fest here to L.A. tonight.” But the guest appearances, although impressive, were merely icing on the cake. That is, Drake doesn’t need them. He is so emotionally sincere and so open with the audience that it is enough for him to stand onstage, blue ocean waves lapping on the giant screen behind him, and deliver songs like “No New Friends” and “The Motto.”

In contrast to Kanye West, who recently brought his intricately wrought Yeezus tour to Staples Center, there is a distinct sense of minimalism to a Drake performance. From the gleaming modernism of his set pieces to the lack of any real production beyond lights and an occasional video, Drake finds his strength in realism and self-awareness. It’s an impressive feat to engage fans on the premise of authenticity and emotional earnestness, whether that sincerity is actually a performance-based façade or not.

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Eschewing a traditional encore, the rapper concluded the set with “Started From The Bottom,” a single about earning your success and thanking those who’ve helped you along the way. The video screen rolled black and white footage of a younger Drake, one who hadn’t yet achieved this level of intense fame and critical devotion. As he spit the track, the rapper shifted a lyric: “Now I’m here in L.A. / Half a million for a show.”

For the finale, Drake stood at the stage’s nadir, a white plume of smoke again billowing around him. He thanked the fans for their support, boasting that Los Angeles was one of the best crowds of the tour (although, to be fair, he likely says that to all the cities). “What you gotta understand is that I’m 27 years old,” Drake continued. “I don’t know many 27-year-olds who could get onstage in this building and do what we do.” It was not his most humble statement -- although it pales drastically in comparing oneself to God Himself -- and it rang true.

Over his past three albums, Drake has developed a reputation for being among the most formidable -- and also accessible -- rappers in the game. Proving that equal opportunity purview, he spent a good portion of his set rapping songs by his peers, from A$AP Rocky’s “F---in Problems” to Migos’ “Versace,” but in the end, it was his impassioned delivery on his own work that resonated. Even after hearing the radio station booths outside Staples Center unload “Hold On, We’re Going Home” multiple times prior to the show, that track felt new and poignant as Drake performed it live. At one point, Drake paused and called out, “L.A., y’all feel me when I say that shit?” referencing his lyrics. And everyone did.

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