For those who drove past Amalie Arena in Tampa last night only to be caught unaware and trapped in gridlocked streets caused by mass pedestrian traffic, be advised that you can — as the Internet says — blame Drake.
The 29-year-old actor turned rapper-singer (who is also known as Drizzy, Champagne Papi, VIETBRAH, and Wheelchair Jimmy) turned in one of the summer’s most anticipated shows on Saturday night and propelled fans through a two-hour set that lasted until almost midnight before unleashing them to run through Brorein Street with several thousands of their woes. We’re willing to bet Jackson’s on Harbour Island and clubs in nearby Ybor City made extra bank hosting the unofficial after-parties of the cliques that filled Amalie to near sold-out capacity (CL is awaiting official attendance numbers, although we unofficially counted about 12,000 tipsy, jovial concertgoers packed in the place ).
The Toronto native arrived onstage at 9:30 p.m. decked in black jeans, Js, and — get this — his own Tampa Bay Lightning alternate black home jersey with Steven Stamkos’s no. 91 and last name stitched on the back. It would be the first of many not-subtle-at-all nods to Drizzy’s hometown (Stamkos is the Lightning’s star player and was born in greater Toronto). It was also a precursor to the special attention Drake gives fans in the live setting, which would have almost bordered on pandering had it not been for the strange, undeniable earnestness and innocence with which he delivered it (more on that later).
Drake, who was backed by a sharp live band and DJ, has created no gray area in his own quest for fame, fortune, and recognition for Toronto. He has lyrics on a 2011 single, “Trust Issues,” where he croons “all I care about it money and the city that I’m from." That’s all very evident in the way he’s built a modern-day music empire complete with an Apple Music x Beats1 radio show for his October’s Very Own camp (OVO) as well as clothing lines, and — yes — custom Jordan sneakers (Drake is the first non-athlete to get a signature shoe from the brand).
Merch probably cost some kids lunch money for next week, although tickets topped out at near $150 face value, which is sadly fair for these modern times.
He’s been blasted by critics for sampling gun sounds in songs (and even mimicking them onstage) despite boasting an affable air which suggests Drake hasn’t emptied a clip in his life. The examinations even dip into Champagne Papi’s penchant for borrowing images, too many sounds, flows, and even using ghostwriters in his rise to the top of mainstream hip-hop. He’s kind of like a rap game Vampire Weekend, openly copying obvious influences, yet somehow managing to make them unique enough to his own brand to get a pass (and heaps of praise to boot).
In May, Drake’s new album, Views, topped the Billboard 200 as one of its singles, “One Dance,” hit no. 1 on the Hot 100, giving him a record 20 songs simultaneously appearing on the chart at the same time. All the success only creates more enemies for Drake, who can’t seem to shake accusations of inauthenticity and general corniness.
For the first 45 minutes of last night’s show — despite firebrand performances of “Started From the Bottom,” “Headlines,” or “HYFR” — those critics (including the one writing this review) would have plenty of stones to throw. The set felt a little phoned-in and definitely undercooked. Fans were lapping it up and truly having a great time, but there should have been more coming from the guy dominating so much of modern rap music in such a big way right now.
Then came outfit number three and a little pink orb trickling down from the production’s lowered ceiling (which unfortunately made it easy to forget how packed even the upper bowl of the area was). That ball of light ushered in the beginnings of the now infamous Drake bachata and brought not just what was arguably the song of last summer but also the start of the powerhouse second half of the show.
“Hotline Bling” samples Timmy Thomas’s soulful 1973 hit “Why Can’t We Live Together” (Thomas, 70, is readying a new album for Miami’s Overtown Records, so we hope Drake pays tribute to the hometown boy at a pair of American Airlines shows later next week). Its performance brought the rest of the ceiling orbs down in various cresting waves and lines all aglow in a translucent, hyper color display that was at once trippy and worthy of an arena show so hyped up since its announcement. The song — with its tropical vibe and subtly genius cadences and odd-yet-addicting rhythmic tempos — instantly upped the already prevalent vibe of “just get loose and party” within the arena. It was followed by a smooth, chest-shaking take on “Hold On we’re Going Home” and a life-affirming performance of “The Motto.”
Drake would not relinquish control of the party until welcoming Atlanta, Georgia emcee Future for a 30-minute solo set that was both delightfully brash and also almost responsible for losing the crowd despite their enthusiasm for some cuts from last year’s DS2. Give credit to Future’s own honest appreciation for the attention of a big room (except for anyone sitting down who got a playful “f*** you” from the rapper) and his own black Bolts jersey, but give thanks to Drake who returned to work through versions of “Big Rings” and “Jumpman” from his and Future’s 2015 mixtape What A Time To Be Alive. An homage to Drizzy’s supposed on-again flame Rihanna followed (will they be arm in arm tonight at MTV’s Video Music Awards??) and bled into stinging, pointed performances of Meek Mill diss track “Back To Back” and “Energy” from his 2015 surprise mixtape If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late.
Sonically, Drake seems to be all over the place. Mostly everything he does is instantly likable and is definitely ready for the club in almost all instances. So many elements of the show itself were exaggerated, better executed versions of things any young adult has experienced in a nightclub.
That was the odd charm about all of it.
Drake does not seem concerned with pleasing critics. He clearly makes the music he wants for the people that matter to him most — his fans. They were the ones dressed to impress on Saturday (in stark contrast to the faded band-T’s and old khakis you might find at more indie-leaning shows). Drake fans sing along loudly to every callback whether or not the music is on or not. They know nearly every lyrics to all of his songs, and there have been a lot since Drake got written off Degrassi: The Next Generation in 2009, which allowed him to release an EP (So Far Gone). And they get a lot of love from Drake, too.
For all the cheesy pleas for noise from the crowd or inauthentic anecdotes about Tampa being the best of all the tour dates, Drake is unapologetically open — and believable — when he talks to individual fans from the gigantic stage that he hawked from end to end all night. He thanks select ones individually, even identifying them by their shirts, handmade signs, facial features or behavior during the show.
After a set-closing performance of “Legend,” Drake reminded the mostly young, almost perfectly-mixed demographic in the room what just took place.
“There might be a lot of messed up things happening in America right now,” he said to close the night.
“What we did tonight was get together and play music. We might have been drinking, even smoking, but it was unity — we have to protect that concept and take it with us into the world when we leave here tonight.”
There’s not a lot to criticize in that summation of the current state of things, and if the young, just-coming-into-their-own crowd of teens and Gen-Z’ers can receive and believe that message from a young Canadian rapper with a penchant for penning near-perfect pop for the kids of today, then why not let them and try to believe a little bit of it ourselves, too.