“Future The Prince, I wanna try a new ting, blad,” Drake addresses his DJ in a Dick Van Dyke-meets-Kidulthood accent. It seems that where the Torontonian rapper recently advised Nicki Minaj to spit a verse on Young Thug’s club banger ‘Danny Glover’, the influence she had in return wasn’t so helpful.
As Drake completely disregards local dialects, he tries to gauge the energy levels in the Manchester Phones 4u Arena with his faux London rudeboy slang. Although it’s the first date of his UK tour, he intends to decipher which city has the liveliest crowd by the end. This particular venue is an important one in Drake’s relationship with the UK. It is in fact the first UK venue he ever performed at, supporting Jay Z’s Blueprint 3 tour back in 2010. He jokes that Jay hardly gave him any space to work with.
An hour earlier, crammed onto the front of the stage, The Weeknd and his live band are warming up the sold-out crowd. Picking out a few highlights from last year’s ‘Kiss Land’ (review) and his cult mixtape trilogy, Abel Tesfaye appears more like a band frontman than a solo artist as the four-man team allow the music to do the talking as they front a giant curtain that conceals whatever elaborate setting Drake has in store.
When the curtain drops, we are exposed to what looks like a giant Polo mint sloped on its side. Aubrey ‘Drake’ Graham climbs to the top in an exaggerated stepping movement straight from a ’90s hip-hop video, rapping the brilliant ‘Nothing Was The Same’ (review) album opener, ‘Tuscan Leather’.
As imagery of the Toronto skyline spreads across the wide, curved backdrop, we see the iconic CN Tower and are plunged into some of the bleakest tracks from the new album, including ‘Furthest Thing’, ‘Wu-Tang Forever’ and ‘Own It’. The audience is sucked into the Toronto winter, from the icy waters that awaken the performance to the nightlife that follows. The spirit of Drake’s native city is enforced when fellow T.Dot local, The Weeknd, reemerges to assist with the pair’s collaborative ‘Crew Love’, creating an incredible atmosphere throughout the arena.
After drawing the audience into his own environment, Drake opens up to the wider mainstream hip-hop context, performing some of the notable features that have extended his reach beyond ‘NWTS’.
This includes DJ Khaled’s ‘No New Friends’ and ‘I’m On One’, French Montana’s ‘Pop That’ and Migo’s ‘Versace’ – the latter a record that broke with the addition of his verse and informed a lot of the flows on ‘NWTS’ and beyond. This is countered by a down-tempo section owing much to British collaborator Sampha. Drake delivers tracks like ‘The Motion’ and ‘Too Much’ brilliantly, before extending into some improvisational singing that attempts to incorporate elements of Rihanna and Mikky Ekko’s duet ‘Stay’, but never quite commits.
Disappearing for a minimal costume change – black capped-sleeved hooded T-shirt for black vest – DJ Future The Prince plays a medley of tracks from Drake’s breakthrough mixtape ‘So Far Gone’. When he returns to the stage rising from a billowing cloud of smoke he jumps straight into his catchy 1980s-influenced hit ‘Hold On, We’re Going Home’, which demonstrates the huge improvement in his singing since his earlier shows, where he’d rely on the audience to sing back to him.
A pre-selected female audience member is delivered to the stage by one of his crew, who he then proceeds to serenade. This leads to some cringingly awkward flirtation that could be partly to do with Drake being conscious that his reported on-off girlfriend Rihanna is in attendance tonight, watching from the VIP area.
Always aiming to deliver balance, Drake follows up with two rap songs ‘The Language’ (which heavily utilises the “Versace-flow”) and ‘305 To My City’. For the latter he takes to a circular walkway, lowered from the ceiling, allowing him to get closer to his fans as he runs around above them performing the track. His attempt to connect with his fans as much as possible is, as always, commendable.
However, the reality is that in a 23,000-capacity venue it’s really not possible to truly connect via shout-outs. The ‘305 To My City’ instrumental proceeds to play out for a tiring 20 minutes following the end of the song, as Drake tries to speak to as many fans as possible from his walkway in a rhythmically Muhammad Ali speaking style: “I wanna shout-out the girl in the aisle, making a young n*gga smile.”
When he finally makes it back to the stage, the 99% of the audience who didn’t get a mention are looking visibly bored. Luckily, Drake has kept a couple of tracks aside to ensure a strong finish. Despite only being an album bonus track, his 2 Chainz and Big Sean featuring ‘All Me’ has become a fan favourite with its aspirational themes, this goes down brilliantly, Drake even rapping through Sean’s verse as the crowd spit every word back at him and the lights go out.
The opening keys of ‘Started From The Bottom’ fill the arena before the lights go back up, and as expected ‘Nothing Was The Same’’s anthemic lead single provides the perfect finish, the stage erupting with fireworks and pyrotechnics and the eventual silence being filled with a deafening football stadium roar of approval.
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Words: Grant Brydon