10/25/2013 09:45 EDT | Updated 01/23/2014 06:58 EST

On His Birthday, Drake Gave Fans Epic Intimacy

Unlike other stops on Drake's absurdly named Would You Like A Tour? tour, hip-hop's unhappy prince had held court here in Toronto just two months earlier with his own OVO Fest, one of the most spectacularly star-studded spectacles the city has ever seen.

It was a high bar of his own raising, but one that nonetheless needed to at least be met when he returned for a hometown arena show on his birthday. Somehow, he did so without a benefit of celebrity special guests or even most of his hits.

It helped that the sold-out Air Canada Centre crowd was about as firmly in his corner as a crowd could possibly be -- even before he began an endless series of city pride statements with "My name is Aubrey Drake Graham. I was born on October, 1986 and I was born and raised in the greatest city in the fucking world." (That, however, paled next to his name-checking of highway 401 exits like Hurontario or shoutouts to suburbs like Pickering and Brampton.)

Mostly it was because after just three albums and a mixtape, the former Degrassi star has become a veritable hip-hop icon.

In fact, my favourite part of the concert came during the final song -- Drake awesomely eschewed an encore to pace his set to its logical conclusion without a pointless applause-begging break -- when he performed "Started From the Bottom," with a stage-spanning screen showing clips from his past.

Those clips included his now-infamous Bar Mitzvah dance moves familiar from the HYFR video as well as a scene of Drake's Degrassi character Jimmy (pre-wheelchair) rapping with Spinner (Shane Kippel). It was awesome because it's such a Toronto show, but also because a half-Jewish Canadian child star is the bottom as far as hip-hop goes.

The most impressive part of show was that rather than relying on his retinue of hits, Drake relegated most of those to a mid-performance DJ set and instead performed pretty much the entire new record Nothing was the Same.

Yes, there were a few relative oldies -- Drake can't play Toronto and not play Take Care's "Crew Love," though the absence of The Weeknd was palpable, and I believe he's contractually obligated to play "The Motto" so everyone can yell YOLO! -- but for the most part he had enough confidence in both his new album and his audience not to rely on older material.

And the crowd came through, rapping back nearly every world rather than the usual relative silence that greets new, non-single songs. Though, as one might expect, the album's two insta-classic hits, "Started" and "Hold On, We're Going Home" got the most resounding responses.

Ultimately, Drake makes melancholy headphone music with often painfully personal lyrics, so it's kind of weird to hear that sound blown up to arena size -- especially when he's rapping about his fraught relationship with his father or his mother's worry about being alone when she's 70 -- but it's that dichotomy of mainstream intimacy that makes him such a fascinating figure.

That dichotomy was best embodied by Drake's giant, and expensive-looking, circular catwalk which allowed him to grind the concert to a halt so he could personally make eye contact with specific people in the crowd. For about 20 minutes, though it felt longer, Drake called out audiences members, mentioning their clothing or actions and saying "I see you" as he made eye contact.

It was both corny and sincere, and though the cynic in me thought it was like a royal acknowledging his lowly subjects, I also realized that it made the people he called out incredibly happy -- that must have included a high-school teacher he spotted and whom he declared one of the "greatest in the world." It was such a personal little moment writ large because it was shared with so many thousands of fans.

"It's my birthday," he said near the end, "but I wanna show y'all some love because y'all deserve it." It's about him, it's always about him, but it's about us, too, and that's precisely how Drake ascended from the bottom to be here.

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