Hip hop superstar Drake closed out Saturday night at Austin City Limits Music Festival with a headlining set on the Samsung Galaxy stage that was part hit parade, part claim to the rap throne and all gushing about Texas. In honor of the rapper’s favorite number, music writers Deborah Sengupta Stith and Eric Webb try to answer the six questions running through their minds after a set filled with Future, fireworks and just plain fire.
Is Drake the new Kanye?
DSS: Explosive pyrotechnics. Mad energy. The “6 God” backdrop and the whole field on his team. Drake hit the stage like he owned the world. When the backdrop flashed “If You’re Reading This We Made It” I felt it in my body the way I do when I see ‘Ye live. I seriously thought, “Wow, Drake has done it.” Kanye is tabloid fodder and bad fashion and Drake is totally running the game. Drake’s the new Kanye. And in that moment I really wanted it for him. That feeling stuck for a good portion of the set. Weirdly, the thing that undid it was when he brought out Future. We knew it was going to happen next week but tonight was a surprise. With the new collab album out it was an obvious choice and the crowd went wild and I actually liked the tracks they did. But Yeezy would never have done that and, more importantly, he’d never have to. He’d keep his 90 minutes all to himself and be completely riveting the whole time.
EW: Nah, man. You kidding me? I’ll try to restrain my fiery Kanye fandom, but part of the reason Kanye was and is so exciting is that he is singular. Drake’s first obvious strike is that he owes his entire career to “808s and Heartbreak.” On the Yeezy side, you have deeply weird braggadocio, soul-sample wizardry, shutter shades, popularizing industrial sounds in rap, putting Bon Iver on a hip hop album, ad infinitum. On the Drizzy side, you have suburban boasts, some flaming stage effects, a too-soon career retrospective vibe and a whole lot of riffing off of other rappers’ styles. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed the set greatly. But popularity does not equal cultural significance. I’m proud of Drizzy, but he feels a little like a placeholder.
Who exactly is Drake’s audience?
EW: I’m not going to fall back on the ol’ “Drake is soft” chestnut, because Canada aside, he has just as much cred as any rapper at this point. I assumed that liking Drake was an equal opportunity past-time going in, but after an hour and a half of white college girls rapping the N-word, I’m not so sure. It started to feel like the man’s entire catalog — rapping about being “25 sittin’ on $25 mill” on “The Motto,” bemoaning his multitude of enemies on “Energy” and yes, his repeated denunciation of fake friends over the far superior real friends — is one elaborate catchphrase factory for bros and people only comfortable with the safest possible expressions of struggle imaginable.
Then there’s the Many Faces of Drizzy phenomenon, where “Started From the Bottom” luxury Drake, “Hotline Bling” horny Drake and “Back To Back” rap beef Drake all show up for the party. That’s not even mentioning crooner Drake; more on him later. There was a sense that this ACL appearance was meant to reinforce that Drake is A Serious And Hard Rapper, hence the guest stop from Future (who I guess is technically a two-weekend ACL artist now). All that’s to say: I didn’t leave feeling that Drake was versatile. I left not knowing who he really was.
DSS: Drake’s a radio pop star now which means his audience skews to the lowest common denominator. I was pretty weirded out by all the white folk N-wording too, although in some parts of the field where I was at least some of the kids were skipping the N-words (bless you, those kids). I will say that Drake actually plays quite well with a harder rap audience. He killed on the “battle” tour with Lil Wayne last year.
My big criticism of Drake has always been, he’s completely self-absorbed. Drake rhymes are exclusively about the experience of being Drake. Back when he actually was an underdog, a Jewish Canadian rapper with a different spin who didn’t try to hide his background, that experience was more interesting. Now that he’s rapping about how much money he has, his cars, his houses, the throwaway ladies throwing themselves at him, he’s become much less relatable to me, even as his audience has grown and arguably grown more obnoxious. When he played “YOLO” and the blonde girl next to me said to her boyfriend, “This is the song that made him,” it was a low point for me.
Is Drake the singer dead?
EW: Like I said, Drake went to such great lengths to distance himself from his “singin’ *expletive*” hits that I honestly found it awkward — “Got me up here singing like I was Trey Songz.” We all know you sang “Just Hold On, We’re Going Home,” dude. Don’t try to act like a mixtape with an Atlanta rapper alters the fabric of time. (We all still remember “Degrassi,” too, for the record. People had Jimmy Brooks flags at the fest.)
The aforementioned “Just Hold On” highlighted Drake’s weird obsession with the idea of “good girls,” but he had a little fun with the underrated “Find Your Love,” at turns giving it a lounge lizard and then a reggae spin. (Was he … was he making fun of himself?) The brief crooning portion was quarantined between the DJ spinning some early material and the man himself saying “That’s enough singing and romantic *expletive*,” enough “lighting the candles” and “making a little pasta.”
If we all remember back to the golden oldie days of 2010’s “Thank Me Later,” Drake’s big selling point was that he sang and rapped. Now he’s pulling a reverse Nicki Minaj, it seems, and throwing away a perfectly good talent for obscure reasons.
DSS: I sure hope Drake the singer’s not dead, because the easy flow between singing and rapping is what makes him stand out as an artist. His vocab and his aspirational messaging sure isn’t doing it. It was very jarring when he capped off a fine performance of “Just Hold On” by saying, “I’m done with all that cute, romantic (expletive).” But dude, we love that (expletive). Fifty drunk couples making out around me can’t be wrong, right?
What was the high point?
DSS: “0 to 100” is a personal fave, but watching the whole crowd chanting along to every line of the Meek Mill dis track “Back to Back” blew my mind. I was a believer in the conspiracy theory that the whole feud was staged and Meek Mill and Drake were going to patch it up with some massive reconciliation performance of “R.I.C.O.” at some awards show. But watching him lead the crowd in that shout down reminded me why I like battle rap. Drake throwing blows is one of the more interesting sides of Drake.
EW: My actual favorite moment didn’t even occur on the stage. It was the guy next to me who, after Drake pitted the two sides of the crowd against each other on a “Started From the Bottom” battle, asked “Wait, are we Meek or are they Meek?” But my favorite proper Drizzy moment was the radio roulette at the beginning: “Trophies,” “Headlines,” “Over,” etc.
What was the lowpoint?
EW: I’m probably in the minority, but I thought Future’s co-starring role really threw a wrench in the night’s flow. Their styles are so, so different, and Drake took a backseat for most of their songs. The Billboard chart, and thus probably everyone else in Zilker Park, likely disagrees with me.
DSS: “Truffle Butter” just made me miss Nicki. Also, I was too far back to really see, but there were multiple points in the night where it seemed like he was leaning on a backing track for the hooks more than I liked.
[Spoiler alert] How about that ending?
DSS: It was such a beautiful study in contrasts. The melancholy sing-song rhymes of “Energy” is kind of a weird vibe to go out on, but a bunch of young girls around me were rapping along to every word. It resonated with them in a way that was striking. Building that into actual explosions was mad triumphant. It also made me wonder why there haven’t been more end of ACL fireworks shows, because fireworks will always win.
EW: I bet Deadmau5 didn’t bring fireworks. Seriously though, I did not see it coming. Drake flexed his star muscles in a big way, and unless The Weeknd or *uncontrollable snort* The Strokes bring out a marching band or a squadron of stunt pilots, those explosions in the night sky kind of sealed this year’s fest as “the one with Drake.”