2019 finds Drake in a peculiar position. Perhaps it comes naturally with the territory when you’re such a mega-star, but he’s never been more loved or unloved. For the first part, it’s hard to overstate the Toronto rapper’s achievements by this point. He’s had seven US number one albums, taken shots from actual Grammy awards he’s won and has pretty much torn up and rewritten the record books. When he releases an album now, it’s such a massive global event that streaming services are redesigned in his image. And when he comes to the UK, they literally rename venues for him (yes, he did it, Drake actually “turned the O2 into the O3”). It’s honestly quite difficult to see what’s left for Drake to accomplish.
But it’s not all been plain sailing the past year. Billed as his masterpiece magnum-opus, for all its outwardly signs of stature and grandeur, the bloated and regurgitative 25-track, 90-minute ‘Scorpion’ ultimately lacked its sting. It’s not just been the critics either – Drake’s public image has taken a hit too. His recent clash with Pusha T (which involved accusations that he was hiding a child and unearthed a decade-old photo of the star in blackface) saw the rapper become the butt of a joke that, for once, he wasn’t in on, while a string of unsavory headlines has muddied Drake’s self-styled public image as the “good guy” further.
There may be good reason, then, why his current live stint is called the Assassination Vacation Tour, but any signs of Drake slipping aren’t on display during the first of seven huge dates at London’s O2 Arena. While not quite a sell-out show, like the Louis Vutton bulletproof vest he’s donned for the night’s performance, it’s clear that Drake has emerged unscathed from his recent public furores. “I look around and see all these beautiful faces,” he remarks at one point near the close of the show, casting his eyes over the idolising masses and adding, “I see people from all races, places and religions.” It’s a fair indicator of Drake’s status as a unifying kind of artist, loved by both pop fans and rap stans, and someone who even your dad (and Bradley Walsh) knows. As Drizzy himself puts it during the night’s opening track ‘8 Out Of 10’, “We both know end of the day, your sister is pressin’ play, your trainer is pressin’ play, your wifey, your wifey…”
While his last few records have been critiqued for their apparent cynical tailoring to streaming trends, Drake’s canny gauge of the zeitgeist works to his strengths here. His 30-plus song set showcases the full kaleidoscope of his versatility, with Drake a master of rewinds and forwards to the point of fine art, wilfully skipping through hit after hit, evoking the feeling of a fan with the aux at a party. He manages to piece together what would be an otherwise diverse and disparate discography with a series of inter-set mini-mixes, delivering his verses on other peoples’ hits (Migos’ ‘Walk It Talk It’ and Lil Baby’s ‘Yes Indeed’ included), taking fans on a chronologically journey through some of the underappreciated gems from his back-catalogue and, at one point, slowing things down to perform all his “sexy songs” (in his own words, of course). Just as one song reaches its peak, he pulls the track back and moves on to the next, frustrating and delighting in equal measure. Drizzy knows the modern mind very well and he’s taken our flittering attention spans and worked them to his advantage.
Drake also knows that a live show is as much about the spectacle and occasion as it is the music and delivers on that too, with an unrivalled, jaw-dropping production of fireworks, floating lights and a stage that serves as a full-sized screen for those in the nose-bleeds. During ‘Hotline Bling’, the stage-screen turns into a swimming pool, while for ‘In My Feelings’ it becomes an iPhone display showing all the viral videos from last year’s Kiki Challenge. Just like that very dance craze, Drake has made his live shows very much an event meant to go viral, a breathtaking visual display that’s just asking to be documented online. At times things take a surreal turn too, with Drake dedicating a fair portion of the show to a basketball contest where a fan can win £20,000 (on this particular night, the challenger fails miserably, making for excruciating but perhaps even more enjoyable viewing). Meanwhile, you’ve probably never thought that you really wanted to experience a bright yellow sports car flying over a stage, but it’s undoubtedly a sight that you are instantly moved to capture and send to all of your friends.
There are moments when Drake’s crowd-pleasing instincts grate a little though. His constant prophesying that he knows the night’s crowd will prove to be the very best of the tour comes off as trite, while his pitting of one side of the audience against the other in order to see who can make the most noise veers very close to kitsch. Where Drake does connect with the crowd is when he speaks of his love for London. Drake’s never been shy of repping the UK, introducing ‘Jumpman’ by telling the audience that he “feels like he’s home”, and showcases some of Britain’s freshest talents over the course of the two-hour show. Previous guests on his tour have included Dave and Fredo, while Tiffany Calver (tasked by Drake during a mid-set interlude to “turn this arena into the best nightclub”) serves as the tour’s DJ. Opening night of his London residency sees a cameo from Giggs as well as surprise appearances from drill MCs DigDat and Unknown T (hailing from Lewisham and Homerton respectively), the latter of whom take to centre stage to a raucous response that’s as much shock and awe as it is hometown pride.
The recent death of Californian rapper Nipsey Hussle, who was shot dead in Los Angeles just 24 hours earlier and with who Drake collaborated in 2013, casts a profound shadow over the evening though. At numerous moments, Drake pauses his set to pay tribute to his late friend. “I just want everybody to look around and be grateful and happy that we’re all here together, alive and well, because life can end at any moment,” Drake tells the crowd whilst projecting Hussle’s image. “I just want to say I love you, I’m thankful to be with you tonight,” he adds. “I want you to make some noise for the people who love you unconditionally because you never know how short life is.”
Drake’s clearly in a reflective mood and, before the encore, displays a montage of home videos that spans his entire life and career, from his younger self dancing at his Bar Mitzvah to behind-the-scenes footage of him cosying up to Rihanna. It’s saccharine and clearly aimed to tug at the heartstrings, but works. Drake goes on to tell the crowd: “It’s been too long since the last time I was here and I don’t like staying away from London that long. When this tour is over, I’m going to go right back home and start a new album so I can come right back to the O2 next year.” The gig itself certainly has a feeling of the closing of a chapter, every bit the crowning event to cement Drake’s place at the top of the game that ‘Scorpion’ was intended to be. Now, album number six just needs to replicate this kind of energy.