Sunday, May 27, 2018
Music News, Concert Reviews

Drake, bound for Tampa Saturday, tries to please the masses

Your friendly Canadian rap god is a people person. He aims to please, and largely does. He works well with others, mostly, aside from the odd beef here and there. His songs are the 2016 definition of music for the masses — insanely popular, largely free of controversy, a fit on any playlist. He's like that old ad: Strong enough for a man, but made for a woman. Everyone goes home happy.

He might be the biggest pop star in North America, though he doesn't act the part the way Bieber and Timberlake do. He is confident but projects an air of isolation, wrapped in a tundra-heavy turtleneck, moaning about how hard Canadian rap gods have it nowadays. He has the bestselling album of 2016 by a country kilometer, but few five-star reviews to show for it. He knows you make fun of him on the Internet, busting on his dadlike moves. And still he asks you to dance, just one dance, Hennessy in hand, one more time before he goes.

But where, exactly, is he going?

From the permafrost far below, your friendly Canadian rap god appears to be idling atop his Olympus, pleasing all kinds of people but going nowhere in the process. After performing Saturday at Tampa's Amalie Arena — a concert that sold out almost instantly — where will Aubrey Graham go next?

What now, Drake? What do you want from us now? What do you want for yourself?

• • •

The themes across Drake's blockbuster new album Views are clear: Distrust. Disillusionment. Dissatisfaction. Distance.

"I'm so indecisive," he sighs on Fire and Desire. And on the title track: "Lately I just feel so out of character / the paranoia can start to turn into arrogance."

Drake, you see, has the Feels. Always has, from Best I Ever Had to Hold On, We're Going Home to Hotline Bling, and Views does little to flesh those Feels out. He creates mood music, and the mood is usually consistent — no euphoric highs, no abrasive lows, just a lot of chilly middles. Some songs might excite you, but they won't provoke or jolt you. His flow might lag, but not so much it'll kill the night's vibe. It's music you can set and forget in the car, in the pool, at a party, in your bedroom. It works anywhere, anytime, on any device. It's easy-listening hip-hop.

Let's consider the effect this has on Drake's popularity — and, in the long run, his legacy.

The good: Mood music is eminently streamable, and Drake is the undisputed king of streaming. Billboard factors data from services like Spotify and Pandora into its weekly album sales chart, and as a result, Views has spent most of this summer at No. 1, despite actual purchases dropping off sharply since April. His music is for right now, right this instant. It is a reflection of the musical medium of our time, of how we consume our rock stars.

The bad: Look closer, and you can see a bubble.

Drake is not chart-proof: He has but one No. 1 single as a lead artist (One Dance), compared to 11 for frequent collaborator Rihanna.

He is not industry-proof: He has feuded with rappers like Meek Mill, who called Drake out for his allegedly ghostwritten lyrics, and Common, who once tagged him "Canada Dry."

He is not critic-proof: He has one lonely Grammy amid 27 nominations, and his 2015 headlining set at Coachella was roundly savaged. Every Drake album and mixtape has a Metacritic user rating between 6.8 and 7.9 out of 10, a range classified as "generally favorable." Truer words about Drake were never uttered.

You can rise to great heights making consistent, streamable, mainstream mood music; it has worked for peers like Adele (whose sales, Drake has admitted, he covets). It's an asset to write music so blank, broad and surface-sensitive it works in any setting.

But an artist of Drake's stature can only cling to the middle for so long. It's possible he knows it.

• • •

Sometime on Saturday, after the first act has left the stage, one of the most popular rappers in the game will step to the mic and bellow out a line from Jumpman or Grammys, and the Amalie Arena crowd will lose its mind.

Drake? No, no, no. I'm talking about Atlanta rapper Future, Drake's partner on 2015's What a Time to Be Alive mixtape and co-headliner on this tour.

Lately, their concerts have worked like this: Drake comes out for a set, then Future, then Drake again. Drake is somehow simultaneously the night's biggest star and Future's opening act. That kind of makes sense. It is Future who recently appeared on the cover of Rolling Stone, a place Drake's face has never been. Drake may be the crossover pop star, but with his booming trap bass, narcotized voice and ear for simple, knockout hooks (Low Life, March Madness, Same Damn Time), Future holds the allegiance of the streets.

The point is not that Drake needs to be harder, more gangsta, to succeed; that'll never be his lane. And it's not that Future's prodigious catalog is better or more innovative than Drake's. But it is decidedly more emphatic. Drake's an ellipsis, Future's a period. That is the difference between them. And when you're waiting for an artist to make a statement, that period makes all the difference.

• • •

Your friendly Canadian rap god has a blank check. It's time to cash it in.

He could pull a Kendrick Lamar or Beyoncé and drop a fierce, game-changing album that actually says something substantive about the world we live in. He could pull a J. Cole and go back to basics with an album that's autobiographical and feature-free, something that lays out his personal world view a little more clearly than Views. He could lean into the world of alt-R&B he helped popularize, turning to Frank Ocean or the Weeknd for inspiration.

Or he could ditch music altogether. He could star in a movie. He's a charismatic actor (Degrassi, anyone?) with leading-man looks who has twice hosted Saturday Night Live. Or he could shift to mogul mode like Puffy or Fiddy or Dre, and focus on his OVO music and clothing empire, or his roles as a tastemaker and brand ambassador for Apple and the Toronto Raptors.

At the moment, who knows where Drake is leaning. He reportedly has mixtapes coming with Kanye West and Gucci Mane. There will certainly be more collaborations with Future and Rihanna. How any of this helps us better understand who Drake really is — beyond a guy with all of hip-hop on speed dial — isn't exactly clear.

But all of it is happening, and all of it will probably go platinum, and all of it will certainly keep Drake on the Billboard Hot 100 for as long as he wishes to stay there. Your friendly Canadian rap god seems fine with that — he's a people person, with millions of people to please.

And they're waiting.

Contact Jay Cridlin at [email protected] or (727) 893-8336. Follow @JayCridlin.

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