Drake is the rap game Bruce Springsteen.
I can’t take credit for that observation—props to Arya Imig—but there’s certainly some truth to the comparison, at least in terms of live performance. Eschewing, in large part, the spectacle of some other major hip-hop tours, the man born Aubrey Drake Graham rolled up to the Moda Center last night and, much like the Boss did in the same venue a little over a year go, transformed the cavernous arena into some place much more intimate. Bruce imbued the former Rose Garden with the sweaty energy of a rock club. Drake, a onetime child actor, gave a performance more akin to a one-man stage play than a big-ass rap show. But both ooze with the sort of unimpeachable authenticity that makes even their grandest gestures seem sincere: When Drake, on his first-ever visit to Portland, says the city is so beautiful he might buy a house here, you halfway believe him.
It was the kind of show only he could get away with. The confessional honesty and emotional fragility of his music is a rarity in the mega-mainstream hip-hop world, and it makes him an easy target for ridicule (*cough*), but the fact is, there are no other rappers of his stature whose show you could walk away from feeling like you actually had some level of communion with the artist. Jay Z is too aloof, Macklemore is too earnest, Kanye is too Kanye. Aside from a few cameos, Drake performed mostly alone, his backing band shoved into a makeshift orchestra pit in the middle of his sleekly minimalist stage setup, and for two hours he led an unguarded heart-to-heart with a few thousand people. There was pyro and a Jumbotron and a massive suspended platform that allowed him to hover above the crowd, but for the most part, it was just Drake, his feelings and us. And it was captivating.
Here were the show’s four most endearing moments.
1. After opening with the setlist equivalent of a Turducken—“Headlines” and “Crew Love” shoved between verses from the six-minute Nothing Was the Same opener “Tuscan Leather”—Drake paused to tell us that he learned about our city’s chief exports (bikes, microbrews, single women) from an article in Shape magazine. Who would ever admit to reading Shape, let alone to a few thousand strangers? Only Drizzy. He also called the day he had in Portland one of the greatest of his life because he joined “the Jordan family,” which means he either visited Nike headquarters or married Michael Jordan. Either way, he seemed truly stoked to be in us.
2. Drake’s best songs float more than they bang. It’s telling that the hypest moments of the set belonged to songs that aren’t even totally his: his remix of Migos’ mixtape hit “Versace”; Future’s stupidly catchy “Same Damn Time,” during which he brought out his tour partner and sometime frienemy; the A$AP Rocky/2 Chainz/Kendrick Lamar-featuring posse cut “Fuckin’ Problems.” Honestly, Drake was at his best delivering the material that’s gotten him labeled “soft,” especially “From Time,” a piano-sprinkled duet with singer Jhene Aiko. Drake sat at the edge of the stage wondering, “Who the fuck wants to be 70 and alone?” and you couldn’t tell if it was a marriage proposal or a breakup song. It was a bit theatrical, yet, but oddly heartbreaking.
3. At the end of the heavenly synth-soul jam “Hold On We’re Going Home,” in which Drake changed into an all-white outfit and filled the stage with enough dry ice to fill an ’80s cologne commercial, he brought up a woman from the crowd, ostensibly to croon to, only to end up chit-chatting about her fragrance and outfit. The guy makes it too easy sometimes.
4. So about that suspended platform thing. Toward the end of the night, the large, circular appartus—which I’m guessing was in the truck that crashed on the I-5 Tuesday morning—descended from the ceiling. Drake climbed aboard, then proceeded to use it for the world’s most expensive game of I Spy. For the next 15 minutes, he turned to each section of the arena and making random people in the crowd the subject of an improvised sing song. He rejected a marriage proposal (while simultaneously proposing a backstage tryst), chided a luxury box full of dudes for sitting on their hands and gently ribbed a woman dressed like she thought she was going to a Garth Brooks show same diff. It reminded me of when Bruce Springsteen went into the audience when he played Portland last year. Yeah, Bruce walked straight in and crowd surfed back, while Drake hovered above them in a Nuva Ring spaceship, but same diff.