Drake show at Constitution Hall a chance to see a major act at a midsize venue

HE CAN SEE YOU: Playing a midsize venue such as Constitution Hall will offer a more intimate experience for fans of rapper Drake.
HE CAN SEE YOU: Playing a midsize venue such as Constitution Hall will offer a more intimate experience for fans of rapper Drake. (Kyle Gustafson For The Washington Post)
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 12, 2010

Drake has made the most magnetic rap music of the year, but nearly three months after his debut album, "Thank Me Later," topped the charts, the breakout pop star of 2010 is still getting sour glances from hip-hop's old guard.

It's not because the 23-year-old actor-turned-rapper did time on the cheese-ball Canadian teen drama "Degrassi: The Next Generation." It's because Drake puts a premium on something largely alien to the brash braggadocios of the greater rapscape: intimacy.

When it comes to sweet nothings, he gives his all. His rhymes come in a creamy baritone resonant enough to make club speakers hum yet sweet enough to make headphones purr. He didn't come to rock the mike. He came to whisper in our collective ear.

Fittingly, he'll perform a two-night stand at DAR Constitution Hall on Oct. 2 and 3 -- a venue just shy of 4,000 seats. For a freshly minted superstar, this qualifies as very, very cozy. He'll appear larger than a pixelated smudge in everyone's iPhone snapshots, and no one has to worry about that sweet-talk evaporating before it reaches the nosebleeds.

But shouldn't a white-hot artist with a Billboard-topping debut -- one that will have gone platinum by the time these keystrokes reach your retinas -- be able to pack the bloodiest of nosebleeds? In a healthier economy, one would expect Drake to fill Verizon Center, a room five times the size of Constitution Hall, with relative ease.

Not anymore. And that's why these two nights in October may signal a greater shift: the death of the blockbuster and the birth of the middle-buster, a concert where a hyper-cautious music industry asks its larger-than-life pop stars to perform in modest, mid-size venues.

And it's yet another example of music-biz turmoil translating into a huge win for fans.

For those who still buy albums, price points are dropping. Arcade Fire, the melodramatic Canadian rock troupe, hit No. 1 in August by shrewdly peddling the digital version of its new album, "The Suburbs," for a mere $3.99 on Amazon.com. Meanwhile, Live Nation and other promoters are trying to survive the economic downturn by experimenting with lower ticket prices. Last month, fans could score seats for Rihanna at Jiffy Lube Live for 10 measly bucks. With the fall concert season taking shape, more bargains are expected to emerge.

And that includes middle-busters. Drake isn't the first 2010 chart-topper to perform one in Washington. Vampire Weekend's sophomore disc, "Contra," debuted at No. 1 in January, and the indie-rock foursome played an understated, sold-out gig at Constitution Hall in April. Since then, Vampire Weekend's star has continued to skyrocket. The band headlined Merriweather Post Pavilion on Saturday.

In that sense, the middle-buster can be a steppingstone for artists making the patient climb to rarefied heights. A promoter at CD Enterprises, the company bringing Drake to Constitution Hall, said artists on the up-and-up are the most vulnerable in a shaky economy and are opting to build their profile slowly in each market rather than risk "falling on their face" in a colossal room such as Verizon Center.

But the middle-buster can also be an option for stars on the way down from uber-fame. In the past year, Constitution Hall has hosted both Mariah Carey and R. Kelly, two of the greatest R&B singers of our time. Both artists' previous tours came through Verizon Center.

Can you guess which shows were better?

At Kelly's Constitution Hall gig in November, fans pushed toward the stage to paw at the singer's denim-clad legs, some getting close enough to catch a whiff of his cologne. Carey's January concert at Constitution Hall had an army of security at the front of the stage, but fans rushed the aisles anyway -- because getting within 20 feet of the woman who sang your prom theme while she sings your prom theme surely trumps squinting at her from Section 418 of some cavernous hockey arena.

For those lucky enough to see Drake at Constitution Hall in October, bragging rights may be worth the price of admission. This isn't the chance to see a superstar before he's big. This is a chance to see a superstar while he's big in a room he might have played before he was big. And that's pretty big.

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