Early on in Drake’s headlining set for his seventh annual OVO Fest – a four-day celebration of the label he co-founded – he chants: “Started from the bottom, now we here” against a giant, Tron-like animation of the CN Tower.
We’re swept up its shimmering elevator shaft as if it were Jacob’s ladder, and here, in the home of Drake’s beloved Toronto Raptors, the crowd experiences Toronto rapture. The moment is simultaneously awe-inspiring, absurd and affirmative.
“You definitely know where I’m from because I say it every five seconds,” the city’s biggest booster declares. There are reports of fans from around the world making pilgrimages to the nondescript suburban roads he mythologizes in albums such as his latest, Views, which has been perched atop the US Billboard charts for 12 weeks. Some critics find the album insular and overlong, but something alchemical happens when fans join Drake to hurl out lyrics about the minutiae of relationships. It feels like the city is unburdening itself of its starchy reputation and learning to loosen up.
OVO Fests used to be aspirational affairs, as the upwardly mobile Aubrey Graham trotted out big-name mystery special guests from Jay Z to Lauryn Hill, from Eminem to Stevie Wonder. This year, apart from his tour mate, Future, and opening acts from his OVO Sound label, Rihanna alone graces the stage with him. Her emergence – from a trap door, wearing an orange trenchcoat and thigh-high boots –is greeted with delirious applause. But as much as she steals the show for a scant four numbers – solo on Needed Me and Bitch Better Have My Money, and dancing with Drizzy on Work and Too Good – there is no void to be filled when she leaves. Drake has grown by leaps as a performer in the 10 years since he emerged as a gawky, rapping ex-actor. At the ACC, it’s Future, whose blustery mini-set trades in nuance for gruff exhortations, who feels unpolished, whereas Drake doesn’t need to lean on his famous friends.
What’s more, he has hundreds of luminescent globes to keep him company. Roughly the size of the large balloons that Bill Clinton lobbed around during the DNC, they descend on wires above arena’s floor during Hotline Bling, bobbing up and down as Drake does his meme-friendly dad dancing. Later, they undulate like waves, form symbols (a 6 and a question mark), and glow like a canopy of stars. During Hold On, We’re Going Home, Drake steps on a platform that lifts him to soar among the globes and around the venue, so he can get closer to his fans – and shout out what they’re wearing.
The “Toronto sound” sculpted by producer and label co-owner Noah “40” Shebib and played semi-live by a trio of backing musicians often shrouded by fog enfolds his voice with luxurious precision, like a high-end Swiss watch. He knows how to pick his collaborators, and his battles too: when he first takes the stage, the word “REVENGE” appears in fiery letters behind him, and he tears into Summer Sixteen, ostensibly a diss track against Meek Mill and “boys in the new Toronto” – such as upstart rapper Tory Lanez – who “wanna be me a little”.
It’s not as if Drake’s throne is under threat. In 2016, Mill is a human punching bag, and Drake can swat away pretenders as if they were midges. But a two-and-a-half-hour victory lap would feel self-indulgent, even for Drake, whereas conflict sells. So by the end of the show, he amps himself and the crowd up by telling everyone how the people “upstairs” want him to leave the stage – there’s a curfew, although he did start about an hour late. “What they don’t understand is, I own the building!”
And once again, it’s “us” against “them”, and his city shows love. As unbeatable as Drake seems now, he can still be upstaged; Rihanna, prowling the stage like a lioness, is effortlessly magnetic, whereas Drizzy is all committed endeavour. But at worst he’s a good straight man, the conduit for Rihanna’s combustible energy; at best he can turn on megawatts of charm. And when he sings, at the end, “If I die, I’m a motherfucking legend” and his fans yell it too, it’s not just that Drake has hit the top of the 6. It’s that the 6 feels on top of the world.
This article was written by Mike Doherty, for theguardian.com on Monday 1st August 2016 17.10 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010