The biggest rap star in the world brought his panache, Beatles-tying batch of Billboard hits, and cunning ear to the Samsung stage Saturday night at Austin City Limits. Drake wrestled with his demons and filtered his pop sensibilities through a polished sheen of fireworks, flames, lasers, guest stars, and zestful pandering. He tied up the excess by bookending his performance with the bridge from "Legend," and this his album’s opening statement of purpose rang true–dude is one.
"Oh my God, if I die I’m a legend," goes Drake’s crooning realization. It’s true.
Since becoming a blog fixture with 2007’s mixtape "Comeback Season," and then breaking through as an emerging rookie on the coattails of the gorgeously arranged "So Far Gone" tape in 2009, Drake has chiseled the genre in his image by breeding a content farm of new rap. If there is an emerging hip-hop hit making a splash, Drake turns mercenary, releases a remix, and establishes a symbiotic relationship by endorsing artists like Fetty Wap and Migos; in turn, he nets credibility and establishes regional fan outposts. Adore him or dislike his lack of outward posturing, Drake is in the water now and you can only hope to contain him.
At ACL, this meant a parade of titanic rap singles, mostly brandished in less-than-two-minute chunks with the occasional keyboard or drum solo from the minimalist house band: "Blessings," "My Way," "All Me," "Truffle Butter" and even DJ Screw’s classic "June 27th."
"You’re treating me like I was born here," Drake observed. Indeed the perennially polite entertainer committed to pandering: "You know what my biggest regret of today is? Not putting some money on the Longhorns."
About that mass appeal: As we noted last week Drake does ride a lowest-common denominator fanbase and nowhere was this more cancerous than having a sizable block of enthused white people of student age perpetually using the N-word to sing along. It was the case last week as well, particularly on penultimate song "Energy" which features a particularly biting big line that rhymes with "duck them triggers for life."
It was inexcusable, rampant immaturity.
Whereas last week the Canadian hero toasted the skyline by bringing out Atlanta rapper Future (the pair scored a late No. 1 Billboard album with their collaborative "What a Time to Be Alive" project), weekend two of ACL meant a guest, out-of-nowhere set from J. Cole. ("This is my brother for real," he said.)
It was a fitting juxtaposition: Both Drake and Cole have been post-hype generational peers who enjoyed widespread success this decade. Cole is a dry everyman, though, and well-known singles like "Planes"–with its "put it in your mouth" verse-accenting line–definitely killed vibes. Still it’s an impressive Rolodex favor to call upon, and shows how committed Drake was to finishing this touring cycle on a high note. (He told us this was it for 2015.)
Coming out to throwaway banger "Trophies" amid flames–and in the same dark pants, black OVO short-sleeve shirt as last week–Drake’s set was at its core a celebration of two veritable masterpiece solo projects: 2011’s "Take Care" and February’s "If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late." The guy may have strewn 14 songs on the Billboard charts at one time this year, but at his best he’s a pensive, combative kid sorting out his vices and venting. His best albums drill into that alienation and write about the self with the most universal tones in pop. Cuts like "Headlines," "HYFR," "Crew Love," "6 Man," "Energy" and easy song of the year "Know Yourself" transcended the easy excess of the Samsung stage.