Drake and Lil Wayne came to Queens this week as part of a tour the rappers are co-headlining. It was the third such act to pass through the Tri-State area recently, the first two being Beyonce and Jay Z's "On The Run" and Eminem and Rhianna's "Monster" tour. But this one was special. It was modelled off Street Fighter.
Announced earlier this year during the week of E3, Drake Lil Wayne's new tour wasn't supposed to be any old rap concert. It was Drake versus Lil Wayne, an epic battle between two of the greatest and most idiosyncratic rappers to ever pick up the mic. Capcom wasn't just sponsoring the tour and making Street Fighter-themed tsotchkes in turn. A mobile game was also released to let eager fans get in on the action as well.
I love rap music almost as much as I love video games, so I was sold from the minute I first saw the tour's Street Fighter-esque logo show up on Drake's blog. I downloaded the tour's app onto my Android phone soon after it went live, and eagerly awaited whatever Drake and Lil Wayne had in store for me. Unfortunately, they didn't have much — gaming-wise, at least.
Don't get me wrong: The concert itself was amazing. Drake and Lil Wayne didn't just use Street Fighter as a clever form of window dressing for their act. Rather, it framed the entire performance as a showdown between Drake and Lil Wayne. The two alternated between self-contained sets, in-between which cartoonish animations played to amp up the (somewhat) fictionalized vendetta.
The Street Fighter mobile app added to the tour's spirit of friendly competition. People who downloaded it could send one rapper or the other "power-ups" by tapping on their phone's screen to fill up a little energy meter. All these taps were supposedly tallied and used to determine how the actual concert played out. Before the show started, the power-ups were used to vote on which rapper would open the show (Lil Wayne, in this case). Periodically during the concert, the lights would go out and stage and the two rappers would shout to their respective fans to send them more power ups. At the very end, the results of all this tapping were used to determine who "won" that night's rap battle.
Street Fighter gave the tour a dramatic conceit that fit perfectly with the two musicians' real-world relationship. Lil Wayne is a legendary rapper — considered by many to be one of the best...if not the best. He raps about dealing drugs and shooting people. As one Noisey critic put it when reflecting on this week's show, he's a rapper "whose tattoos are incredible and is best at not wearing a shirt, a man who pummels you with his mic full of excitement, swag, and hilarity."
Drake, meanwhile, is his young protege. Despite the man's incredible popularity, he's always had a weird place in mainstream rap music. He's Jewish, Canadian, and very much in touch with his feminine side. He croons like an R&B singer as much as he rhymes. Unlike Lil Wayne, he always wears a shirt. Other rappers, even less machismo-posturing ones like Common, have mocked the fact that the closestAubrey "Drake" Graham has ever come to being shot was in an episode of Degrassi, the teen drama he starred in in his pre-rap life. None of these characteristics have stopped him from rising to the top contemporary hip hop. But he still seems like more of a pop star oftentimes than someone who fits into the traditional notion of what a rap star is supposed to be.
Drake stands out precisely because he was brought into the rap scene by a grizzled veteran like Lil Wayne. The tables have turned since then, however. Drake's now just as famous as his mentor, as he boasted on the first track off his latest album, Nothing Was The Same. More so, actually, if Tuesday night's performance was any indication. Wayne might've teased Drake for his "sweet swinging," but it still managed to bring the entire sold-out venue to a fever pitch. And at the end of the night, after all the power-ups were tallied, Drake was proclaimed the winner.
The Street Fighter tour has been hailed by music critics as a resounding success. I'm going to guess that after it winds to an end in late September, there will be some number-crunching to be done for the mobile app. Places like Kotaku may even receive press releases celebrating such an innovative use of augmented reality to make a great series of concerts even better. But don't be fooled. Because while rap fans have a lot to celebrate, gamers don't.
Despite the Street Fighter connection, there was little on display Tuesday night in Queens that felt like a legitimate video game. At best, it was a particularly clever form of gamification. That's fine on one level, because Drake and Lil Wayne gamified their performances so artfully. But it also represents a missed opportunity.
Video games and rap music have a rich shared history. Excellent titles like EA's Def Jam-themed wrestling games have paid amazing tribute to hip hop. But while rap hasn't gone anywhere, rap video games have all but vanished. EA hasn't made a new Def Jam title since 2007. The last full-fledged hip hop game I remember playing was 50 Cent: Blood on the Sand, a Gears of War-style third person shooter that had you play as the eponymous rapper as he ran around the middle east with some of the other members of G-Unit shooting at bad guys in full Call of Duty form.
Blood on the Sand was a great game in the same way 50 Cent was a great rapper at his peak: it was ridiculously, unabashedly over-the-top in its celebration of rap's violent and ultra-masculine proclivities. If it had one major failing, it was that the game never fully decided whether it wanted to be a parody of 50 Cent's militaristic drug kingpin mythos or a straight-faced invocation of that same persona. Mowing down bad guys with an AK-47 as 50 Cent while Lloyd Banks provided cover fire felt pretty comical. But, again like the man's own rap career, it was never clear enough whether or not 50 Cent meant for it to.
Blood on the Sand came out in 2009. Rap has changed a lot in the five years since then. People's tastes have changed, too. 50 Cent isn't as big a celebrity anymore by any measure. He's been replaced by other, younger emcees. Rappers who might not fit into hip hop's combative frameworks quite as neatly, but don't have to either. People like ASAP Rocky, who flaunts his own effete qualities whenever he calls himself a "pretty motherfucker." Openly queer rappers like Le1F and Mykki Blanco. And while there's plenty of discomfort, these kinds of musicians are winning the praise of critics and other, older rappers. Hell, even 50 Cent has recanted some of his homophobia and voiced support for gay musicians. Just this month, T.I. performed on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon. And for one of his songs, he brought out the 22-year old half-rapper, half-singer Young Thug, who showed up rocking skin-tight red pants and a Princess Leia-style hairdo.
What caused this sea change? A lot of different things, obviously. I'm guessing that it's at least partly thanks to people like Drake, though. Lil Wayne made plenty of jokes about his protege on Tuesday night. But he still ended the concert by thanking him profusely, even admitting that he doesn't think he'd still be touring and performing in sold-out stadiums were it not for his melodic colleague's meteoric rise.
Video games haven't managed to keep up with this shift. Titles like Blood on the Sand and Def Jam Vendetta were great because they played into the combative, hyperviolent mythology that used to dominate hip hop. The Def Jam games were particularly successful because they played on the man-versus-man spirit of battle-rapping by taking it to a hyperbolic extreme.
On Tuesday night, Drake showed once again that he can hold his own in that antagonistic framework. But perhaps more importantly, he also showed that he doesn't always have to. His best-rapped verses on tracks like "H.Y.F.R" and "The Motto" brought down the house. But so did gentler songs like "Hold On, We're Going Home." The Street Fighter frame worked for a concert because it highlighted the fact that Drake has won over legions of rap fans without letting go of his emotional vulnerability. But an Street Fighter-style video game starring Drake and Lil Wayne wouldn't make nearly as much sense.
Later in Noisey's writeup of the Street Fighter show, after all, another critic recalled one moment when "the Jumbotron caught a guy in the front row singing along to 'Hold on We're Going Home.'"
"He saw himself and got embarrassed and stopped," he concluded, "which is pretty much the atmosphere Drake cultivates: making you embrace the sides of yourself that you might not admit to." The Street Fighter app didn't embrace that — the man singing along to Drake had to do so entirely on his own.
Could there be a rap video game for all the Drake fans out there who now realise they really can embrace some new side of themselves? Of course. But gamers would have to be able to admit they like actually enjoy this newfound vulnerability alongside gory shooters and fighting games. Given how lucrative Kim Kardashian's new mobile game is, I'm sure that her husband would be open to someone making a Kanye West-branded video game at some point. But I doubt he'd want it to look anything like Kim Kardashian: Hollywood — especially considering how that gamers haven't exactly embraced that game with open arms.
There needs to be a new kind of rap video game, one that shows fans and gamers that they can start to let go of their aggression the same way they do when they see a man like Drake perform. I don't know what this game looks like yet, exactly. But I'm excited to find out.