Drake hit New York’s Nikon at Jones Beach Theater Saturday night the way he prefers to travel: with friends and family in tow. Boasting a packed bill of today’s brightest young rap stars, the penultimate stop on his Club Paradise tour felt celebratory, but tense. Earlier that day, rumors swirled that the rapper might be apprehended by the NYPD at the concert following an alleged nightclub brawl with Chris Brown that left bodyguards and bystanders in stitches. But no bottles flew in the club this evening, and Drake seemed rattled but relieved: “When I woke up this morning, I had the choice to think about a lot of things,” he said at the top of his set. Later, he hinted further at the stress of the previous few hours: “I wanted tonight to happen so bad,” he said. “I’m so fucking glad this happened tonight.”
A steady stream of blistering trap music opened the show, with Meek Mill and Waka Flocka Flame plunging straight into their current hits to rile up the early audience. “Turn up!” may be this generation’s “rock on!” and Flocka embodied the phrase, leading a visceral set filled with little rapping and lots of gunshot sounds. “Sorry to all you ‘real hip-hop’ n***as,” Flocka mocked after swarming through the crowd to club anthems like “No Hands” and his latest gem, “Fist Pump.” Later, J. Cole mellowed the venue with a grand sing-a-long to “Nobody’s Perfect,” a slow burner featuring Missy Elliott that drips with all the songwriting promise the Grammy-nominated MC showed early in his career. Performing with a full band, the once scrappy college-rapper has matured under Jay-Z’s Roc Nation imprint, and the boss’s shadow loomed as Cole led the crowd in a Roc-A-Fella diamond salute, and interpolated “Big Pimpin'” into the tropical “Can’t Get Enough” as tanned Long Islanders belted along to every word.
Club Paradise is noteworthy for its openers as well as the headliner – Meek, Waka, and Cole all drape the windows into contemporary urban culture in 2012, and each seem to have gotten there almost by accident. This, of course, is what makes Drake so exhilarating, and polarizing: the Jewish Canadian child-actor with a sheepish grin was never supposed to be a part of hip-hop, let alone at the center of it. Yet here Drake was, shining bright and pulling in countless peers to orbit around him.
After racing through some early hits at the top of his set, Drake promised to deliver “every motherfucker you want to see right here,” before introducing the Weeknd for their haunting collaboration “Crew Love.” The mysterious young singer came off a bit flat early on, and seemed nervous despite a string of well-received solo gigs. But the enthusiastic crowd was forgiving, and if there’s one thing Drake does well, it’s share the spotlight. From rising profiles ASAP Rocky and French Montana to veterans the Diplomats and Busta Rhymes, Drake paid ample homage to New York City hip-hop, typically a locals-only fundamentalist sect that regionless artists like Drake have since knocked off the pedestal of hip-hop’s birthplace and sole proprietor. Still, when Cam’ron’s New York anthem “I Really Mean It” blared from the amphitheater, Drake was a fan first: “The songs these dudes made have influenced all of our music,” he said. “I’m just a kid from Toronto, but no matter where you’re from, make some noise for the legendary Diplomats!” Most of the crowd, unfamiliar with their deeper cuts, took his word for it.
After playing the doe-eyed lover-boy for much of his career, Drake has spent the past few months adding a snug layer of darkness to his persona. From the subtle warnings about catching bodies on “Headlines” to the tougher talk on his now-infamous “Stay Schemin'” verse (the self-professed “real n***a” anthem), Drake’s “you never know” attitude has somewhat validated the Toronto-native in some corners. A brush with the NYPD seemed almost inevitable considering his recent chest-puffing and associated acts, but the Drake onstage at Jones Beach didn’t portray any rebel streak. Instead, the gummy charm fans fell in love with was on full display as he took an extended interlude to individually address members in the crowd from the front row to the nosebleeds. Spirits were high, and he barely acknowledged the controversy surrounding the previous 48 hours. “The past few days of my life might’ve been some whatever shit,” he confessed before launching into “Take Care,” his moving duet with Rihanna. If the lyrics were suggestive before, they felt almost literal on this evening: “We’ve both had our nights, so don’t be so ashamed,” he sang sans the pop princess, despite many speculating that she’d join him on stage. “You’ve seen all my mistakes, so look me in my eyes.” Chants of “fuck Chris Brown!” rose in pockets of the audience as the song faded, affirming the weight of the moment.
Rihanna wasn’t the only notable absence. For a show that was as much about his collaborators as it was his own career, Drake’s major Young Money/Cash Money cohorts were nowhere to be found, making Club Paradise not quite the Summer Jam consolation many NY ticketholders had hoped for. Despite Lil Wayne and Nicki Minaj being no-shows, Drake alluded to bigger plans: “I had a call today with a short dude with some dreads who goes by the name of Lil Wayne, and I’m gonna try to bring him with me next time,” he quipped as the night closed. “Same goes for the beautiful Ms. Nicki Minaj, so bare with me while I work out that Young Money World Tour.”
Despite looming controversy and some missing teammates, there wasn’t much trouble in Drake’s paradise, and he was emphatically clear that the fans on the floor were the real VIPs: “You can open your eyes to what they write about me, and open your ears to what they say about me, but I don’t give a fuck about anyone besides the people in this room,” he said with a slight smile as the show closed. “New York City: Take Care.”