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OVO FEST with DRAKE, SNOOP DOGG, NICKI MINAJ, RICK ROSS, 2 CHAINZ, MEEK MILL, FRENCH MONTANA, WAKA FLOCKA FLAME, A$AP ROCKY & THE WEEKND at the Molson Canadian Amphitheatre, Sunday, August 5. Rating: NNNN
Like a dancer at the Toronto strip club with which his Club Paradise tour shares its name, Drake entered the stage at this year's OVO Festival via hydraulic lift beneath the stage floor.
The 25-year-old MC's annual hip-hop festival (named after his entertainment company October's Very Own), has become a major concern in the hip-hop world thanks to the procession of unbilled superstars he's trotted out on the Molson Amphitheatre stage in past years: Jay-Z, Eminem, Lil Wayne, Nas and Stevie Wonder, to name a few.
Rappers Snoop Dogg, Nicki Minaj and Rick Ross all made cameos this year but for the first time in the Toronto love-in's three-year history it felt like Drake was the unquestionably biggest star at his own star-studded show.
Everything about this year's OVO Fest was much more polished and streamlined than last year, from hydraulics and fireworks to the stage and lighting design and Drake's singing voice. The awkward pauses, histrionic arrangements and over-reliance on backing tracks were gone, presumably thanks to months of touring in support of Take Care, his Polaris Prize-nominated sophomore album.
Dressed in head-to-toe white, he took the stage to the uplifting gospel sample of Lord Knows, a stand-out track off Take Care, and breezed through shortened versions of Underground Kings and last summer's ubiquitous hit I'm On One. Drake took an extended pause to bask in crowd adoration and flash his ‘416' tattoo, but the two-hour set moved at a brisk pace from there.
The energy in the sold-out crowd was electric and in turn seemed to power Drizzy, who leapt and bounded around the stage like a lunar explorer. His five-piece band - save for lead guitarist Adrian X - remained in the shadows on elevated platforms. They made their presence felt on bangers like Over and Headlines but largely dialed back the mood to match the hazy and emotional atmospherics of Drake's studio recordings.
Ahead of the show, rumours spread that Drake would debut a new single featuring Aaliyah, the R&B star who died in a plane crash a decade ago. This naturally led to speculation she would appear as a hologram - as Tupac did during Coachella - but that was not the case. Drake dropped the song, Enough Said, online and Aaliyah's only appearance was in the visuals accompanying We'll Be Fine.
Fortunately, the surprise guests that did show up were very much alive. Snoop Dogg, Nicki Minaj, Rick Ross, Waka Flocka Flame, Meek Mill, French Montana, 2 Chainz, A$AP Rocky and Toronto's The Weeknd all dropped by to perform solo and collaborative performances.
Press-shy R&B crooner The Weeknd joined Drake early on in the show to perform Crew Love and The Zone. Singer Abel Tesfaye has clearly warmed up to performing live since last year's OVO. During his opening set, he swiveled his hips Elvis-style, busted rock star moves with the mic stand and hyped up the crowd. His three-piece band played faster and higher key re-arrangements of the brooding, druggy ballads from his mixtape triptych, trading mood and nuance for a sound better suited to an arena-sized audience.
In town to perform a Caribana show under his reggae moniker Snoop Lion earlier this week, Snoop Dogg was this year's wild card. The west coast legend handily entertained the crowd with a mini-set that included his Neptunes-produced hits Beautiful and Drop It Like It's Hot.
Before bringing out Minaj to perform "Make Me Proud," Drake offered a few words to the haters that complain he makes too much music for women - an always-audible contingent at OVO Fest. "You're fucking right I make too much music for women," he said. "I don't make music for bitches. I don't make music for little girls. I make music for women."
Drake rounded out the show with HYFR and The Motto, two songs featuring Lil Wayne who was supposed to attend but couldn't make it (due to Canadian customs, according to the Twitterverse), and closed with a galvanizing rendition of Headlines.
Before descending into his hydraulic hole to bid farewell, Drake dedicated the set to Shyanne Charles and Joshua Yasay, the young victims of last month's mass shooting in Scarborough, and promised an even bigger show for next year's OVO Fest: "I'd like to formally retire this stage because next year we at the Sky Dome, baby."