It's not supposed to go like this. Rappers are supposed to rise from the inner city and spin tales of thugs and drugs. They're not supposed to stay clean and debut at No. 1, especially when they come from Canada and the Nickelodeon channel. That's practically Justin Bieber's biography.
But it's also sort of Will Smith's biography. So after starring as a basketball player in 138 episodes of TV's "Degrassi: The Next Generation," Aubrey Drake Graham returned last year to his real love: making music. After numerous acclaimed cameos (with the likes of Kanye West, Eminem, Jay-Z and Lil Wayne, signing with the latter), and after dropping his first and last names, Drake emerged as the new fresh prince of hip-hop and R&B. His first album this June, "Thank Me Later," debuted at No. 1, and now he's trotting the country on a small theater tour just to show us he's got the goods. He does.
8 p.m. Thursday
Chicago Theatre, 175 N. State
Drake's concert Wednesday night at the Chicago Theatre, his first of two sold-out shows, found the young rapper and singer working out his live presentation of his new hits, including "Forever," "Successful" and "Best I Ever Had." His lengthy experience as an actor brings him to the concert stage better prepared than most hip-hop newbies. He knows what to do with himself, knows how to carry himself. He grits his teeth and grabs the microphone with pause and presence, ready for every iPhone closeup. During "Resistance," he wore mournful looks and his best audition face under the pink lights, as he offered more details from his crime-free bio, like, "I avoided the cocaine and went with the Sprite instead."
Drake's manager Shawn Gee told Billboard earlier the reason for the smaller-scale tour (he's had plenty of offers to play arenas already) was to "allow him to grow and learn how to perform." The learning curve will be easy for him, but growth might be welcome. Drake throws a nice party, but even live his rhymes sound pretty shallow ("Money to Burn," "Show Me a Good Time"), coddled reflections on achieving fame and fortune without a thug past to worry about.
Throughout the fast-paced, almost medley-like show, the focus is almost solely on Drake -- no flashy dancers, no posse, no video screens, just a tasteful, subdued light and laser rig and a single backup singer. During "Fireworks" ("October song but it's lookin' like July 4"), we got a complete display of the real thing. But this show is mostly the man at the mike, which Drake manages to sustain largely because of committed energy. He leaps, he mugs, he bounces and dances no fancier than the rest of the fans. He played all the left-right crowd tricks, and he dutifully mentioned the tour's telecom company sponsor. Hey, he comes from TV; there have to be commercials.
Even hotter than Drake was his six-piece band, itself a delightful rarity at a hip-hop concert. The music on "Thank Me Later" is smooth, allowing all the focus to be on Drake's singing or rapping. In concert, the players rev it up considerably, namely stringy-haired, slashing guitarist Adrian Eccleston.