Friday night at the Staples Center marked the third time I’ve seen Drake and Future share a stage. A lot has changed in three short years. The first time I saw them was back in 2013 — when most people forget this — Drake brought Future along to open for him on the extremely-Drake-titled Would You Like A Tour?. Actually, if you remember correctly, after Future voiced some fairly spot on criticisms of Drake’s new album he was allegedly dropped from the tour for a quick second before being reinstated. On that tour, Future’s razor sharp energy still outshone Drake’s ballad-heavy catalogue a bit — even if the stadium was only half full when he went on. Honest hadn’t been released yet; Future and Ciara had literally just gotten engaged.
The second was at Governor’s Ball in 2015, where I lamented what seemed then to be Future’s slow slide from the path of ascension. He played a midday set while Drake was slated as a festival headliner — the distance between them seemed wider than ever. But, only a couple months later the mixtape momentum he’d been building would reach a peak in DS2, a major label rap album that was shouted from the rooftops for the remainder of that year, and one that I found myself listening to repeatedly too, even if I struggled with it. Future’s behavior and musical output post-Ciara-breakup had left me — and others — cold. More time makes it seem like that is also the case for the man himself. Still, the follow-up collaborative album between Drake and Future What a Time to Be Alive proved easier to stomach and pointed toward Drake’s decision to bill Future as a co-headliner on the 30+ dates of the Summer Sixteen Tour.
I say Drake’s “decision” because Future was a headliner at this show in name alone. I also use that word because I believe all of Drake’s moves are as carefully plotted as Taylor Swift’s — and they’ve each experienced a similar wave of success due to that intensity. In fact, after seeing Drake twice before, what I was struck by the most on Friday night is how much his confidence onstage has skyrocketed. When Drake was onstage everything was beautiful and nothing hurt. Seriously, I can’t remember the last time an artist was able to channel their charisma like a firehose in this way — and he didn’t used to be like that.
He was always good, but the ongoing commercial success of Views seems to have done for Drake’s confidence what critical approval could not. In fact, most critics hated Views (I loved it), but for some perspective on how popular it is consider this: During the initial week Frank Ocean’s highly-anticipated and critically adored new album Blonde was streaming for the first time, Views still topped it by several million streams. Blonde ultimately earned that No. 1 spot with sales added in, but understand that Drake’s three-month-old album is still streaming on par with Ocean’s project.
So unsurprisingly, the initial section of his set during the second night of a three-show run in LA was stacked with Views tracks, including what ultimately ended up being a loosie, “Summer Sixteen,” and all the way through cuts like “9,” “Keep the Family Close,” and one of the album standouts, “Feel No Ways.” What was more surprising to me was that Drake kicked off the show himself. An earlier report I’d read stated Future had led off previous shows, an arrangement that seemed like it would’ve been infinitely more logical.
But Drake aims to please and he always does, incorporating plenty of older hits into his 40+ track setlist too, everything from “Hotline Bling” and “Worst Behavior” to “HYFR” and “Hold on We’re Going Home” all made the cut, plus a medley of his biggest hits and memorable features like his “My Way” made appearances. It is hard to imagine any Drake fan going home from this tour without hearing the song they came there to hear. It is also hard to describe how intimate and electric an arena of almost 20,000 people feels like when Drake is in the venue, and the sudden vacuum when he disappears midway through.
When Future appears, his only real mistake is that he isn’t Drake. It becomes clear just how toned and brawny Drizzy has become, how oblique the Art Deco elements of his staging function. Future, tall and lean in a hoodie with garish visuals immediately flashing on the massive screens behind him, would’ve been ideal as an opener, but the contrast after an hour of Drake is jarring instead of intriguing. The Atlanta rapper has already released three new projects this year, but none of them have hit with quite the same impact since DS2. Some argue that his hot streak is completely over. But that line of thinking may be just as short sighted as the effusive praise heaped on him last year. Either way, the Summer Sixteen tour didn’t really offer Future the opportunity to air out any of this new material, instead sticking to a tightly coiled medley of his best-known hooks — many of them as a featured artist in other people’s songs — without ever hitting his own rhythm.
Pockets of cheers would sweep like a ripple across the crowd at the crest of tracks like “Bugatti” or “Same Damn Time” only to die out just as quickly after the brief snippet of each song met an untimely end. And both those songs are years old. The rapper looked stiffly uncomfortable on the enormous stage, parlaying scripted banter with DJ Esco that, again, wouldn’t have been so unfulfilling if it wasn’t juxtaposed in the audience’s mind with the international superstar who had come before him. Any rapper sandwiched in the middle of two Drake sets would probably not fare well — perhaps only a Kanye (or Lil Wayne) could survive that — and the setup felt almost like an insult to both of them. Which doesn’t mean his more substantial inclusions from 2015 like “March Madness” of “F*ck up Some Commas” didn’t have resonance, but even these didn’t ever come close to matching Drake’s energy.
That night, Future didn’t have the presence to carry an entire arena with him, but I’d also argue that he never has. I’d contend that it isn’t even his purpose. Particularly, he’ll never be able to do so if he is continually forced to play a truncated, masturbatory set of hooks that never really let him stretch out long and lean into the darkly sphinx-like rapping that spurred his 2015 resurgence. Just when it seems like he’s getting over the terrible fallout from his broken engagement and custody battle with Ciara, he’ll do something like drop a new diss track. There is a sameness to Future’s output that may not translate to stadium level, but that resonates somewhere else, somewhere that maybe more important then the Staples Center.
So perhaps there is a method to this madness after all. When Drake reappeared, the audience’s relief was similar to when your significant other returns after you’ve attempted to carry on a conversation with someone from their circle in their absence. Drake is perma-host, yes, but he is also benefiting from the inclusion of Future on his tour. After performing a few tracks from their joint album, Future eventually disappears and Drake launches into a second set that’s heavy with songs off If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late, the aggressive, rap-heavy mixtape he dropped at the beginning of last year. Not only did this record infamously spark his ghostwriter scandal/feud with Meek Mill, but it’s also the one that people have most heavily critiqued as not reflective his lived experiences. After the Future interlude though, these songs felt right at home, and even made sense sidled up next to his his Caribbean infused Views mega-hits “Controlla” and “One Dance.” Drake continues to shapeshift into the world’s biggest pop star, self-crowning himself as a legend and pulling whatever he needs into his orbit, while Future remains stuck in time, one of Atlanta’s most enigmatic forces still looking for a jewel. For now, they need each other more than ever, but only time will tell which one of them actually becomes the legend.