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Live review: Drake mines the plight of love, fame at Cali Christmas

December 18, 2011 |  9:31 pm

The brooding rapper’s cocky swagger mingles with his softer side at Power 106’s Christmas show at the Gibson.

Drake
At the end of his headlining set at the Gibson Amphitheatre for Power 106 FM’s Cali Christmas on Friday, Drake puffed out his chest and took on his skeptics. "Just because I sing don’t mean I’m a wuss," he said (albeit in more forthright language).

For a rapper who built his hugely successful career on the idea that threesomes with Rodarte models in Milan hotel rooms can really leave an existential hole in your heart, this was a weirdly defensive stance. Clearly, Drake is no softie -- Lil’ Wayne is his mentor, and he’s on every emcee’s speed dial when they need an ambling guest verse.

Given his sonically misty, emotionally bloodshot new record "Take Care," though, the tough-guy peacocking underlined the strange task he had in headlining Cali Christmas.

Drake has perhaps the most devoted, diverse fan base in rap right now and an enviable scorecard of hits. But he’s a moody, full-album artist at heart. He met his obligations to knock out drive-time bangers on Friday, yet the tracks from "Take Care" suggested that not even a magnum of Chateau Lafite and a couple of comely FIDM students could improve his mood given stardom’s depersonalization. Maybe that’s really what has his hackles up.

An uncharacteristically thin bill preceded him at the Gibson. Cali Christmas is known for its rapid-clip turnover of the year’s chart artists. Drake’s airwave dominance meant that he was going to rule the night with sheer volume of hits. But two artists who appeared before him lent context to just what an anomaly Drake is in pop right now.

Big Sean, the new enfant terrible of Kanye West’s G.O.O.D. music, named his debut album "Finally Famous," the title of which only begins to tap his well of yet-undeserved self-regard. His ubiquitous single "My Last" brims with unintentionally droll moments -- like when he celebrates a sales triumph by ordering wontons at Benihana, a Japanese chain restaurant that does not actually serve the Chinese dumpling. Live, he got a star-power boost from a Chris Brown cameo, and Big Sean does have a certain cackling charisma. But if he devoted half the time he spent pantomiming athletic intercourse with the stage monitors to his rap craft, he might not have to worry about each single being his last.

J. Cole, the North Carolina emcee and Jay-Z protégé, had a better go of it. He’s built a little in the Drake mold -- a capable rapper unafraid to open a vein for self-critical brooding. He had a No. 1 album this year in "Cole World: The Sideline Story," and a few songs from it asserted its potency Friday. "Lost Ones," a bold first-person, back-and-forth between a couple debating an abortion, evoked the male panic that the decision is out of his hands and also empathy for the woman’s fear that she’ll pay the price for a man’s unreliability. The hypnotic "Nobody’s Perfect" let him cross borders between straight rapping and a haunting melodicism.

That malleable point between rapping and singing is where Drake made his career. But in this format, he was almost too successful -- he had to acknowledge every familiar hit. Lord knows he has higher ambitions than to rehash his verse from the Young Money posse confection "BedRock" yet again, but any occasion to hear the simultaneously battering yet miserable "I’m on One" and "Show Me a Good Time" is worth it. An unbilled Lil Wayne stopped by to mug around in furry boots, but Drake found possibly the only audience where a Justin Bieber guest appearance met with silent scorn.

Weirdly, the "Take Care" single "Marvin’s Room" got the night’s best reception. The song is a minimalist cloud formation of synthesizers, where Drake drunk dials an ex and acts cocky ("I’m just sayin’ you could do better") while he’s clearly carpet-bombed with regret. It raised enticing prospects for a full, true tour later. Because Drake must know that the fog of the human heart is way more imposing than some dude who thinks you’re soft for singing about it.

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-- August Brown

Photo: Drake. Credit: Reuters

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