But not Thursday night. For 90-plus minutes, Drake was a superstar itching to unload his heart, delivering moody hip-hop anthems with restless energy and coltish physicality. He was big on eye contact, too, staring down listeners one by one, as if to say, “You getting all this?”
But when Drake’s three-man backing band launched into a new tune, his eyes would clamp shut, his jaw would clench and his fists would joyfully punch at the air, as if his favorite song had just come on the radio.
That’s a familiar sensation for just about anyone, considering that this guy has enjoyed an almost suffocating presence on urban radio for the past three years. If you’re a top-tier hip-hop artist, a guest appearance from Drake can instantly turn your single into a hit. According to the lyrics of his recent chart-climber “Started From the Bottom,” his dominance is rooted in his ubiquity: “There ain’t really much out here that’s poppin’ off without us.”
Drake closed the show with that one, after jogging through a medley of cameo tracks where he’s always been the main attraction. There was the riotous chatter of French Montana’s “Pop That,” the squeak and purr of DJ Khaled’s “I’m on One” and the eerie boom of 2 Chainz’s “No Lie.” Somewhere in the middle of the hit barrage, Drake boasted, “I got, like, a hundred of these.” No lie, no lie.
He owes his omnipresence to the fact that he might be the most adaptable rapper working today. He proved his flexibility with “Versace,” an exercise in rap hypnosis originally by the Atlanta trio Migos. The song featured a harsh, sputtering vocal cadence, during which Drake fluttered his fingertips, perhaps typing out the lyrics on some phantom laptop.
Of course, a Drake performance also doubles as an R&B show, considering how much melody the rapper breathes into his rhymes. His strongest vocal showing was his recent single, “Hold On, We’re Going Home,” which seemed like a drowsier, dreamier version of DeBarge’s 1985 hit, “Rhythm of the Night.”
There were other voices up there, too. Drake was joined by Atlanta’s Future, whose scorched syllables disintegrated before they left his mouth, and R&B singer Jhene Aiko, whose cool refrains provided a fine counterpoint to the headliner’s warmth.
And during a quick intermission, Drake shored up his D.C. cred for life by inviting members of the legendary go-go troupe Backyard Band to the stage.
Then, more hits, more eye contact. Toward the end of the set, Drake spent more than 10 minutes gazing off into the audience, pointing out individual fans. It’s become his ritual and his gimmick, but it paralleled the intimacy of his music in a way that felt sincere.
Plus, the Halloween costumes worn by some fans triggered a few great shout-outs: “I see you in the stripes . . . I see you in the red dress . . . I see you dressed up as a banana . . . A lot of girls chose to be cats tonight. Next year, you should choose a more original costume.”
Sound advice from a superstar still being himself.