Drake is the Bon Jovi of modern hip-hop. Which is to suggest that he marries rap to pop in a mainstream-pleasing manner, much like Bon Jovi makes watered-down pop-metal for folks who don’t necessarily want to deal with the real, “warts-and-all” thing.
Sunday, the Toronto-born former actor offered an exuberant performance on an ornate, posh, futuristic stage set, before what appeared to be a full house in First Niagara Center.
Clearly, Drake has tapped into something few other hip-hop artists have been able to – both the middle-of-the-road, average pop fan, and the hard-core rap lover seem to find him irresistible.
What appeared to be a predominantly female (and largely Caucasian) fan base followed Drake’s every move Sunday, aided in no small part by what looked like the world’s biggest IMAX screen, which wrapped around the rear of the stage in a semicircle, broadcasting the singer/rapper’s every move with big brother-like accuracy.
The stage set was high-tech, and so too was the music, a wrinkle-free blend of pop, R&B and hip-hop short on melodies, long on braggadocio and centered on Drake’s sing-speak style. Not a particularly great singer, and far from a virtuoso rapper, Drake took the middle road, favoring a marriage of staccato spoken-word with occasional flights of falsetto fancy. A mix between ballads and “bangers” is the man’s stock in trade, and over the course of a roughly 90-minute concert – which kicked off at 9:45 p.m. – Drake worked the crowd with a seamless set list favoring his most recent release, “Nothing Was the Same,” while also tossing in hits from the rest of his catalog.
Opening with “Tuscan Leather,” Drake strutted around the tilted circular ramp that surrounded a pit housing a drummer and a pair of DJs, looking more like a well-manicured NBA star in casual dress than a pop icon. He stalked the boards, spitting rhymes, gesticulating and presenting a personality that suggests he’s used to getting his way. “Headlines” and “Crew Love” followed, by which point the crowd came unglued, the entirety of First Niagara Center on its feet, dancing and rapping along with Drake.
Drake appeared to be genuinely moved by the frenzied response of the crowd before him, and his stage banter often reminded the assembled that Buffalo was little more than an hour from his native Toronto – this was, in a sense, a hometown show for Drake. When he asked how many folks had made the journey south from Canada for the gig, the amplitude of the shrieks offered in response suggested a healthy portion had done just that.
“Wu Tang Forever” was a useful primer in everything that Drake does well, moving from silky, romantic R&B to stiff, urgent rhymes, atop a relentless groove. Future, who opened the show along with R&B singer Miguel, joined Drake for “Same Damn Time,” and the excitement level moved up a notch or two. The rest of the show found Drake sharing the spotlight with no one, his backing players remaining in the shadows, and the conventional hip-hop appendages of entourage and backing dancers completely forsaken. It was a one-man show, and Future’s appearance lent variety to the proceedings.
Though it often was musically mediocre, Drake’s performance was visually stunning and immaculately paced. Serious Drake fans got a lot of bang for their buck, and their man took time to turn the spotlight their way, when a circular stage and ramp descended from the ceiling during the latter half of the show, and Drake pointed out audience members and offered free-form improvisation based on what they were wearing, how they were acting, signs they were holding, and so forth. It was a warm, intimate gesture in what at times felt like a slightly impersonal, grandiose arena show.
As strong as Drake’s performance was on Sunday, on a purely musical level, he was upstaged by opener Miguel, whose set was mesmerizing. Fronting a five-piece band – a guitarist, bassist, drummer and DJ flanked him on a multitiered bandstand crammed in front of Drake’s elaborate setup – the singer celebrated his obvious love for R&B icons Prince and Michael Jackson with a 50-minute romp marrying deep funk grooves to R&B balladry.
Miguel’s voice was agile and powerful as it moved from its silky lower registers to clear and perfectly intonated high notes. His bandmates’ virtuosity lent an organic, vital feel to the music, one that was largely missing from the headliner’s set.