Arlington Drake lifted a red plastic cup, and stepped to the foot of the stage.
"I heard this is the first [expletive] concert in this building," he said. "It's a night to remember."
And with that, the man born Aubrey Graham saluted, took a quick swig, and got back to the business of making 7,000 University of Texas at Arlington students, faculty and staff scream at the top of their lungs. (This sold-out show was not open to the general public.) Friday night saw the inaugural concert transpire at UTA's shiny new College Park Center, with Drake's sold-out, 17-city "Club Paradise" tour making the last of its two Texas stops (Austin being the other).
For close to 80 minutes, Drake, touring in support of last year's sophomore effort Take Care, illustrated why he's one of the rap game's rising stars. The 25-year-old Toronto native turned from acting (he's best known for a role on Degrassi: The Next Generation) to rapping, quickly earning the approval of giants like Jay-Z, Kanye West and Lil Wayne, who signed Drake to his Cash Money label in 2009.
Drake personifies casual bravado, which elicited steady shrieks from the crowd. His charisma is evident in every grin, his enthusiasm for what he does apparent in how he bounces around the stage like an anxious prizefighter, itching to get in the ring. (Or perhaps he was just trying to will himself through the performance: he alluded to having "the worst stomach flu ever" 10 minutes before hitting the stage, but told the audience it was "giving him energy." He canceled a scheduled post-show appearance at Dallas' Club Zouk.)
He also arrives bearing a full clip of very popular hits, including Forever, Shot for Me and She Will. Drake has just two LPs to his credit thus far, but they, along with his mixtapes, have proven to be extremely deep (his 2010 debut Thank Me Later spawned no fewer than four hit singles). The student-heavy crowd roared from the moment he stepped onstage until the lights came up.
It was a raucous, giddy atmosphere, with whole swaths of the room shouting Drake's lyrics back at him. Aided by a six-piece live band, which provided a welcome sense of urgency, Drake scarcely let the momentum falter. He easily moved from his declamatory style of rapping to an almost lovely singing voice, sometimes within the same song.
Much of his appeal stems from a vulnerability, a lover who always gets burned by a woman who should know better. On record, this can feel oppressive, but in concert, Drake has everyone feeling his pain without seeming down about it. There was an exuberance, a lightness to Drake's material that casts his albums in an intriguing new light. Is the dour Romeo act just that -- a role to play? Is Drake really a fun-loving, malleable rap/R&B star for the 21st century? Getting an exact read is tough, but Drake allows for a lot of fun while you try to figure it out.
The front part of the evening was given over to three fellow stars on the rise: Chase N. Cashe, A$AP Rocky and Kendrick Lamar. It's the latter two making the most noise at this point, yet none of them overstayed their welcome. Each rapper took about 20 minutes to rile up the crowd (Cashe facing the biggest uphill battle as the first act of the night), with Rocky and Lamar, in particular, unleashing their cult hits (Purple Swag and ADHD, respectively) to a positively explosive response. The hip-hop class of 2012 was in summa cum laude form.
And for UTA's College Park Center, it will indeed be, as Drake put it, "a night to remember." By all outward appearances, things went very smoothly on this first of what will hopefully be many more concerts. Security was omnipresent but not oppressive; the venue's staff was helpful, cheerful and responsive. Despite the rowdy atmosphere, it didn't appear that there were any problems.
The sight-lines within the room itself are terrific, with nothing blocking a clear view of the stage. And perhaps most impressively, the CPC's sound system was not overwhelmed by the bass- and sample-heavy sounds, with no trace of distortion and, incredibly, a nuanced presentation of vocals and backing tracks. What could've been a sonic beating instead allowed the audience to fully enjoy the show.
Warning: These clips contain strong language.