October 25, 2013 8:05 am
Updated: October 25, 2013 8:07 am

Drake celebrates birthday in front of hometown crowd

Drake performs at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto on Oct. 24, 2013.

Chris Young / The Canadian Press

TORONTO – Drake celebrated his 27th birthday by enjoying the comforts of home on Thursday — in front of a sold-out Air Canada Centre crowd as feverishly determined as the intensely invigorated rapper to ensure it was indeed a special occasion.

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After opener Miguel led the packed arena in a performance of “Happy Birthday” that he insisted Drake could hear in the back, the audience greeted the local star with a veritable hero’s welcome. As the lurching thunder of “Tuscan Leather” crackled above, the crowd shrieked as he doffed his loose black jacket to reveal a silvery grey tank top and loose matching pants. When he finally stepped to the mike to address the crowd, they drowned him out each time he tried to speak.

“My name is Aubrey Drake Graham and I was born on October 24, 1986. And I was born and raised in the greatest city in the … world: Toronto, Canada,” he finally said, punctuating the statement with emphatic profanity before launching into a medley of downcast bangers from his recent “Nothing Was the Same,” including “Furthest Thing” and the grimy “Wu-Tang Forever.”

He brimmed with energy throughout the 100-minute performance, perhaps feeding on the feverish crowd. Jumping from side to side and madly swinging his arms as if composing the plush beats booming behind him, he was more than happy to let the booming audience — who sat down infrequently — sing some of his most iconic lines for him, and even when he didn’t, the theatre was filled with a resounding echo.

“Tonight happens to be a special night for me,” he said with an infectious grin. “It happens to be my birthday. So if you try to have a little … party with me, turn it up and make some noise.”

Indeed, Drake’s arena homecoming obviously carried some special meaning to him. His civic pride is well-documented — “All I care about is money and the city that I’m from,” he rapped memorably on the hook to DJ Khaled’s hit “I’m On One” — and he takes such pains to advertise his immense enthusiasm for Toronto, he’s basically a platinum-certified tourism campaign. (Even his birthday cake, which he photographed and posted online, was a sugary pillar of famous Toronto monuments.)

Where other artists sometimes strategically adjust their lyrics to pander to the hometown crowd, Drake doesn’t need to — after all, “Nothing Was the Same” already features references to local upscale restaurants Il Mulino and Sotto Sotto, his Degrassi past and even an extra-esoteric nod to one of his preferred driving routes, when he raps on “Connect”: “I take Eglinton to 401 East/ And exit at Markham Road in the east end/ Where all the pretty girls are sleeping.”

Of course, lines such as these elicited exactly the euphoric reaction one might suppose from the crowd.

Next, he actually verbally mapped out various routes through the city, dropping names of sometimes-obscure streets, neighbourhoods and suburbs to resounding shrieks each time.

Even though much of “Nothing Was the Same” might seem too candle-lit intimate to translate to cavernous hockey venues, in fact Drake’s elegant fusion of hip-hop and R&B sounded gorgeous pouring forth from arena speakers.

On “From Time,” Jhené Aiko’s sumptuous voice drizzled over plinking piano keys like honey, while the lurching, seasick “Worst Behaviour” — which Drake submitted as the “official Toronto anthem” — summoned one of the evening’s most enthusiastic singalongs.

Meanwhile, smoke billowed the stage from while he sang that billowing tuft of cotton candy “Hold On, We’re Going Home,” a piece of pure pop with ’80s roots and the best-ever showcase for Drake’s tender, pliant falsetto.

That tune represents Drake’s seventh Top 10 hit in the U.S., and on the occasion of his 27th birthday, it’s worth marvelling at how much he’s achieved since reaching the mainstream only a few years ago.

He’s topped the U.S. rap chart seven times and conquered the American R&B chart on four occasions, beginning with his swooning mission-statement of a breakthrough single “Best I Ever Had” (which reached No. 1 on both charts).

He’s achieved such radio ubiquity south of the border that when he cracked slyly on “5 a.m. in Toronto” that “every song sounds like Drake featuring Drake,” he wasn’t being all that hyperbolic. As a featured artist, he’s presided over 10 platinum singles, with some of those cameo appearances being briefly represented at various points Thursday including DJ Khaled’s “No New Friends,” Migos’s “Versace” and A$AP Rocky’s infectious crew cut with an unprintable name.

All three of his solo records have topped the Billboard chart in both Canada and the U.S., with 2011’s double-platinum Take Care still standing as his greatest commercial achievement.

On Thursday, he seemed elated to be performing at home.

At one point, he announced: “I’m going to try to make everybody in this (place) feel special tonight.” Then — in a bit that amounted to the evening’s centrepiece based on sheer length alone — he walked out onto the catwalk, which had been lowered to stage level, and slowly stalked its circumference.

He shouted out his mom, who he said was in the audience, and the tutor who helped him graduate high school, whom he called “the greatest lady in the world.”

He finally returned to the stage and closed the set with “Started From the Bottom,” his impossibly insistent rags-to-raps-to-riches origin tale, while fireworks popped into the air.

Afterwards, he stood at the back of the stage and soaked up the response.

“Toronto, I want to thank you for giving me the best birthday I’ve ever had in my … life, I swear,” he said. “I want to let you know, every day I’m not pounding this pavement, I’m only looking to get bigger and only looking to get better for the sake of my city. So if you’re proud of me from this city, make some noise.

“I just for the first time in my life, I’m at a loss for words, man. I love you all so much, I swear to God.”

© 2013 The Canadian Press

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