Live: Drake at USC’s Galen Center

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Early Monday evening at a sold-out Galen Center on the campus of USC, the Toronto rapper Drake, who moments before had been pacing the stage and checking out the crowd, stopped suddenly in the center of the stage, became as still as a statue, gazed a thousand yards in the distance, and let the loud roar of the thousands wash over him.

Touring in support of his sophomore full length, “Take Care,” after a long reign as a self-described mixtape legend and underground king “looking for the right way to do the wrong thing,” Drake had a load of rhymes queued in his brain, and standing there silently he seemed to manifest them all. Over two hours of nearly nonstop verbiage, he delivered couplet after couplet, verse after verse, a virtual emo epic poem that featured, as he described in his curtain-raiser, “Lord Knows,” “all the little accents that make me a king.”


These myriad and often conflicting accents and emotions poured out of him, and they are one reason why he’s one of the most acclaimed rappers working in 2012: Dressed in black and backed by a six-piece band, he strutted stage left to offer language lessons during “Over,” his bumping, bass-heavy hit with Young Money Entertainment labelmate Lil Wayne, by rhyming “in bed alone” with “Rosetta Stone” in an ode-to-joy track about success.

He promised to make the ladies’ legs wobble “like a bridge in an earthquake” during “I’m Goin’ In,” his rough-and-tumble sex jam. On “We’ll Be Fine,” the “always presidential” rapper complained (in a rather unpresidential manner) that “these days the women give it to me like they owe me/but they crave attention, they always saying ‘Show me some.’ ”

Drake dubbed this the Club Paradise tour, and in his version of paradise, he gets what he wants when he wants it -- the feelings of others be damned. He brags about this good fortune even as he expresses profound humility, whispers as often as bellows, and at his best, conveys the sense of wonder with gymnastic phrasing, masterful flow and wildly imaginative wordplay.

On “HYFR,” from ‘Take Care,’ Drake recalled an exchange with a girl from back in the day, who asked him “what have I learned since getting richer?” His response, seemingly memorized by the entire crowd: “I learned working with the negatives can make for better pictures/I learned Hennessy and enemies is one hell of a mixture.”

Despite his emotional honesty, Drake on Monday offered the narrative of a man’s man seemingly unconcerned with the dark side of his lusty objectification. The rapper bragged of his ability to “beat up” a certain part of the female anatomy, pushing the braggadocio into an occasionally nebulous world where sex and violence collide, creating verbal images that floated through the Galen Center uncontested and were chanted back in unison.

This occasional reliance on tired rap conventions is Drake’s great weakness. Despite his ability to tell stories that examine his experiences from many points of view, and to do so with wit, smarts and confidence, some of the messages he conveys are pretty messy. Either he’s chosen to ignore the fact, for example, that the ugly side of his sex talk is making its way into young ears eager to absorb the words, or he’s oblivious that what he says about interpersonal relations with his lovers is cold and often aggressively uncaring.


The evidence that he knows what’s up is what makes Drake so compelling -- and frustrating. As he confesses in his best song, “Marvin’s Room,” a quiet burner that all sang along with Monday: “I don’t think I’m conscious of making monsters outta the women that I sponsor ‘til it all goes bad.”

Maybe he should start paying more attention.

Compton rapper Kendrick Lamar, whose 2011 album “Section.80,” was one of the most acclaimed hip-hop records of the year, opened the show, and he quickly confirmed why: With a supreme confidence and unerring, fluid delivery, he controlled the stage with power and grace.


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-- Randall Roberts