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 modeled off Street Fighter.
Announced earlier this summer during the week of E3, Drake and 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 working today. And Capcom wasn't just sponsoring the tour and making Street Fighter-themed tsotchkes either. 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 sibling rivalry-turned-showdown between them. The two alternated between self-contained sets, in-between which cartoonish animations of the two of them as martial artists played to amp up the fictionalized vendetta. Switching between the sets always lead to pointed banter between the two.
Wayne made fun of Drake for being a naive wuss. Drake called Wayne an old coot. "He got hits," Wayne said. "But there's a difference between hits and classics." "I know his career is longer," Drake jabbed, "but my shit is stronger." It was silly, and also sort of adorable. The lights would blare out from the back of the stage at these moments, outlining both of their frames and turning the stage into what looked like a 2D-era stage from a fighting game for a brief moment. It was technically Street Fighter, but the charm was simply the campy melodrama of any fighting game. It could have just as easily been Mortal Kombat or Tekken. I'm guessing they chose Street Fighter either because it was cheaper to license, it fit better with the bizarre racial politics of their relationship, or both.
A themed app inspired by two celebrities and a video game franchise probably sounds like the perfect recipe for a cheap gimmick. But the Street Fighter mobile app added to the tour's spirit of friendly competition in a very real way. 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. This didn't work all that well in practice because reception was spotty in the stadium. But hey, I still saw a lot of people trying to make it work. The Drake Vs. Lil Wayne: Street Fighter app might not have overcome the hurdle of shitty mobile service, but it did succeed in only seeming kinda dorky, not overwhelmingly corny.
App aside, 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 a lot about dealing drugs and shooting people. Unlike his younger rival on stage, meanwhile, his occasional forays into singing haven't gone over quite so well. 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. Or several. He takes himself very seriously. Other rappers, even less machismo-posturing ones like Common, have mocked the fact that the closest Aubrey "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. Moreso, 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 let's not be fooled. Because while rap fans have a lot to celebrate here, 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. Because, as Ian Bogost so adroitly argued, gamification is bullshit. It "takes games—a mysterious, magical, powerful medium that has captured the attention of millions of people—and it makes them accessible in the context of contemporary business." Anything that gamification can do, video games should be able to do better.
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.
In the place of real rap video games, there are cheap attempts at branding. Big Boi and Snoop Dogg making cameo appearances in random video games like Tekken and Army of Two. Jay Z "executive producing" a basketball game, meaning that he "curated" its 24-song soundtrack and let the publisher host its launch party at 40/40, the club he owns in New York City. I was there—he even walked in at one point! Didn't end up staying long, though. Now Pharrell Williams is doing the same thing.
Ok, Pharrell could actually be cool, if the awesome Flying Lotus mix for Grand Theft Auto V was any indication of how a great producer can shape a game's soundtrack. But that's because Pharrell is primarily a producer, as much as he hates to admit. Guest-starring in Tekken and hosting an NBA2K launch party are beneath rappers of Snoop Dogg and Jay Z's calibre. Video games should honor these men's legacies; not treat them as expensive and highly visible props.
Say what you want about 50 Cent, but he really fucking went there in his video games. Blood on the Sand was a great shooter 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. Frank Ocean could come out as...something queer, and his colleague Tyler, the Creator—a man usually best known for his blistering bigotry—could insist that he didn't care.
There's been plenty of discomfort and backlash. But hell, even 50 Cent has recanted some of his homophobia and voiced support for gay musicians. Just this month, when T.I. performed on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon, 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. T.I.! The rapper who released an album called No Mercy while doing time in federal prison. Now, he was standing proudly next to a man who's consistently mocked for his many, many flamboyant eccentricities.
What caused this sea change? A lot of different things, obviously. But I'm guessing that it's at least partly thanks to people like Drake. 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.
Just two nights earlier, I was standing in another stadium watching Eminem perform. It was an interesting contrast, seeing these two men so close to one another but never in the same exact place. In many ways, Eminem was the first rapper at his level to talk so nakedly about his own emotional vulnerability and mental instability. He even tried singing once, in a famous ode to his daughter that came out years before Drake released his first mixtapes and started to win praise as the first rapper who could also sing his own hooks.
Eminem has always rapped like he had a lot to prove, though. He did, for a long time. But he also couched a lot of his most profoundly naked moments as an artist behind a kind of hatred and blind rage that's so intense it's hard to listen to albums like The Marshall Mathers L.P. and The Slim Shady L.P. at this point. There's just too much vitriol to stomach.
He never stopped being good at his craft, exactly. But that also meant that he stopped trying to do pretty much anything other than spin increasingly elaborate rhymes. When I saw him on Sunday, he rapped with the same manic energy he's always been known for—barely breaking a sweat during "Rap God," his most recent hit in which he punches out exceedingly complex verses at a superhuman speed for six minutes straight.
Seeing Drake and Lil Wayne so soon after this, it became obvious to me that the youngest of these three rappers will never have that level of sheer linguistic ability. The one point he seemed to struggle during the show was at the very end when he tried to rap his verse from the song "H.Y.F.R." He moved slowly compared to the way he sounds rapping that song on his album or the music video. And even then, Lil Wayne never left his side during Drake's portion of the song, waving his arms as if to offer encouragement and a helping hand to his younger sibling.
That was an amazing moment to witness. It showed me a lot about Drake's success, and his gradual acceptance by rap purists over the years. Sure, he's not the most agile and proficient wordsmith out there. But does he really have to be—especially when Lil Wayne is right there to help him?
Rap music is more than the sum of its parts, much in the same way that video games are more than frame-rates and pixel-counts. If it weren't, then I don't think Eminem would be stuck in a position I saw him in Sunday night: touring with a pop star he's made a handful of songs with, only given the time to perform the first verse of many of his greatest songs in the middle of a show that wasn't truly his own.
Video games haven't managed to keep up with the ways that rap music has evolved. 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. But much like Eminem's work, this started to get old.
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 "Worst Behavior" 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 realize 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 someone like her husband would be open to someone making a Kanye-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. Funny, though. Because isn't that just what I said artists like Drake and Eminem have already done for rap—showed legions of stereotypical male fans that they didn't have to cling quite so dearly to the trappings of their masculinity?
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.