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Drake hosted the ESPYs on Wednesday night, transforming from teammate to opponent for many of the athletes on hand. Though he is known for befriending a wide array of sports stars, the question entering the night was how he would square up against his athlete pals and whether he’d acknowledge his own conveniently timed fandom.
And like a crack of the bat on a first pitch, he opened his monologue with a self-aware joke: “There are so many people here I respect. So many people I admire, that I would trade my life with,” he said. “I love all of you, … until you start losing. Then you’re dead to me.”
Wearing a sleek black suit and no tie — his most buttoned-up look of the night — Drake delivered his opening monologue with a nervous step. He danced a little, slightly relying on the “ham” technique that would equate to trying too hard for the skilled entertainer. His jabs at Johnny Manziel (“I got a text from him asking if I wanted to do mushrooms and watch the ESPYs,”) LeBron James (“Do you know what $40 million buys you in Cleveland? Cleveland!”), and Richard Sherman (“Richard Sherman pissed off more white people this year than a crowded parking lot at Whole Foods,”) landed. What didn’t: He also flashed Texas Rangers first baseman Prince Fielder’s ESPN The Magazine Body Issue cover on the big screen and asked, “I hear that you’re vegan — did you start yesterday?!”
A strong bit called the “Lance Cam” was a can’t-miss, despite Drake’s continued acting technique: calling out Lance Stephenson for blowing in LeBron’s ear during the NBA playoffs may have been the lowest hanging fruit of the night, but oh, was it ripe. “I know the truth — you only blow into people’s ear whom you truly respect,” Drake said, before kneeling down to blow into Stephenson’s ear himself. The two then treated Paul George, Stephenson’s former teammate, and though the square that reads “attempts viral moment in crowd” can now be added to any award-show bingo scorecard (will anything top the star-studded Ellen DeGeneres selfie at the Oscars?), it was great. You blow in someone’s ear during a high-stakes game, you’re going to get called out at the ESPYs; that should be the minimum.
For Drake, no further call-outs needed. After a bit of a notable turn on Saturday Night Live in January, expectations were high for the actor-turned-musician. He and Clippers player Blake Griffin appeared in an extensive sketch compilation, in which they also impersonated each other: Griffin pretended to record a new track full of gibberish and a line that read, “I tell people I’m half-black, but really, I don’t know;” Drake sat in a Grantland interview with Bill Simmons and confessed, “I kind of look like a black guy that jumped into a pit of Cheetos and just laid for like ten days, and then popped off.” Plus, he made good on that rumored Chris Brown cameo. When he appeared alongside Griffin in the operating room sketch, just as Drake was about to go under, it was the official squashing of the feud between the two singers, which stemmed from a 2012 nightclub fight and allegedly centered around Rihanna. (Although, when Brown introduced himself as “America’s sweetheart,” it wasn’t too well-received.)
Later, Drake came dressed in looser gear — a Raiders jersey, a Notre Dame basketball jersey, vacation beachwear — and hit his more showman-like stride as a convincing character actor. He introduced Floyd Mayweather from behind a podium and between two trumpeters, and read Mayweather’s (real and fake) accolades with a British accent and from a scroll, as a red carpet was rolled out and a group of security detail surrounded him (which Drake referred to as “the T.I. treatment”). He poked fun Manny Pacquiao’s musical ambitions by impersonating the fighter singing “Let It Go” from Disney’s Frozen:
The “ham” even came back better than ever when he recited love poems for WNBA star Skylar Diggins. “Can I dig in?” he asked, spouting out rhymes with skilled dexterity. And in a move that surely no one saw coming, Diggins herself appeared to ask what it would take to make his infatuation, which all stemmed from a mysterious Instagram post, go away. “Oh, lordy, lordy, Mikey Jordy,” the now anxious Drake muttered. “I want a kiss!” Diggins then grabbed the singer’s face and planted a peck on his forehead.
But the hosting moment that truly showcased Drake in his element was when he spewed off melodies instead of punchlines. Or rather, melodies with punchlines. He performed two new sports-themed songs, “Honorable Mention” and “Side Pieces,” celebrating second-place losers and mistresses on the road, respectively. If all the previous ESPY hosts were to have a pageant, and Drake performed these two songs, he would unanimously win the talent portion; jokes and bits have been done, but few would be able to weave digs into a song catchy enough to inspire actual Internet demand.
“KD, I know you hear me. I know you understand me. Real winners don’t always win championships and real music doesn’t always win a Grammy,” Drake sang to Kevin Durant as the screen behind him showed Macklemore. “Side Pieces” featured an impressive complement by Brian McKnight, who also sang about having a starter but still filling out the rest of the team. Drake could have completed an entire set of this stuff.
A final track was inspired by “the side piece of the year — the elegant, the beautiful, the discreet, V. Stiviano,” complete with a music video showing auto-tuned clips of Donald Sterling‘s interviews and the hashtag #SterlingNeverLovedUs, which riffed off Drake’s own “Worst Behavior.” Yet the bit’s closer was obviously more infuriating than comedic, leaving him to walk offstage to awkward applause.
Altogether, the ESPYs are televised on the slowest day of the sports calendar, after the NBA and NHL have ended, before the NFL has started, and the day after the MLB All-Star Game. Celebrating the year in sports with entertainment’s greatest fan as its host was a hit, primarily because it’s all a diversion from the lack of competition on the calendar. The ESPY emcee is arguably the bigger draw than the awards, and having Drake sing horribly as Pacquiao or geek out in the presence of Diggins is certainly a great distraction from the absence, and the two new Drake songs that were every bit as funny as they were infectious, were the best.
Ashley Lee contributed to this report.
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