I sometimes wonder how Ross Gellar from Friends might have turned out if he hadn't been kept in check by the other friends on the show. Can you imagine if Ross -- self-absorbed, whiny, insecure -- grew up to be a wealthy CEO of a pharmaceutical company? A tech billionaire in the Mission District? Or, most dangerous option of all, a million-selling rap superstar played constantly on urban radio, who parties with basketball players, creeps into porn stars' DMs and sells out shows around the world?
No longer need we wonder. In the first of his four sold-out shows in the Bay Area Tuesday night, Drake proved himself as the hip-hop version of Ross from Friends, overcompensating for his insecurities on a grand, uncomfortable scale and playing to tired stereotypes for attention for over two hours at Oakland's Oracle Arena.
Drake's set started promising enough. Without a doubt, he's impeccably skilled at working a crowd of 20,000, and for 15 minutes, it was thrill to see the man in action -- running to the edges of the stage, bouncing in time, and making the Bay Area feel special in repeated exhortations of his love for Oakland, the way he's done in past shows here. He has a canny ability to craft catchy hooks, and by now, he's skilled on the mic, rarely relying on backing vocals for support.
But the show quickly devolved into a king-of-the-mountain act, with Drake driving medleys of chopped-up portions of his songs into the crowd's skull, one after the other, as if they were not already firmly lodged there. Snippet after snippet, he threw sharp darts of material that deserved to be performed in full: “Headlines,” “All Me,” “The Motto,” “Over" and so many others.
The effect wasn't punishing, necessarily, but it was inarguably numbing. Coupled with Drake's nattering boasts and stage pyrotechnics so constant that they became predictable, one couldn't help but think after a while: Dude, we get it.
At this point, Drake should have nothing to prove. He has completely dominated popular music in 2016. His latest and weakest album Views has spent more weeks at No. 1 than any album since Frozen, he's broken chart records left and right, and has secured the coveted song of the summer with "One Dance" amidst his ubiquitous presence on the airwaves. It would be reasonable for him to relax a little.
But on Tuesday, Drake obsessed over proving his Bay Area credentials, playing the revered Mac Dre's "Thizzle Dance" and Too Short's "Blow the Whistle," pitting the "fake Bay" against the "real Bay," wearing a Golden State Warriors jersey and bringing to the stage recent Warriors signee Kevin Durant (preceded by a brag about his "friends in high places"). At every chance, he changed his lyrics to suit Oakland or the Bay Area. He also repeated the same strange lie he's told in other cities on this tour: that he'd be fined for staying on stage past a (nonexistent) curfew of 11pm, and that because this is his favorite place, he will happily pay it ("I don't care if they want $1,000 a minute, $2,000 a minute, $5,000 a minute, $10,000 a minute"). In case you forgot, Drake is here to remind you: he is wealthy.
All in all, the show completed Drake's transformation from the introvert of "Marvin's Room" from 2011's excellent Take Care, to the guy who lifts weights, flaunts his childish grudges, and drops names. "You know, I come to games here, I'm a fan," he insisted at the Warriors' home arena, "Steph is like my brother. Draymond is like my brother."
Co-headliner Future, from Atlanta, provided a half-hour's respite, but to see such an otherwise compelling and mystical talent in this setting felt off. After a short set including "Thought it Was a Drought," "Stick Talk" and "March Madness," Drake returned to the stage for collaborations "Big Rings," "Jumpman" and others, bringing home the reality that there is no regional talent he won't colonize. (Oakland's Kamaiyah performed before Drake with a short three-song set, and let's hope she doesn't become another Makkonen.)
A nod must be given to the set design, featuring a floating gondola that carried Drake over the crowd during "Hold On, We're Going Home" and glowing orbs and that bounced up and down in patterns that lent a much-needed air of fun. But it only helped for so long. After this year's hits "Controlla" and "One Dance," certain songs after the two-hour mark -- "Pop Style," "Know Yourself" -- were performed to a crowd that barely bothered to cheer until Drake directed them to.
While groups of people headed for the exits, I started thinking about Friends again, and all the women on the show who left Ross. With Drake, it might be time for us to do the same.