OVO FEST with DRAKE, THE WEEKND, 2 CHAINZ, A$AP ROCKY and more at the Molson Amphitheatre (909 Lake Shore West), Sunday (August 5). 6:30 pm. $34.75-$99.75. LN, TM. See listing.
When you picture how Drake is spending his summer, you're probably thinking of partying in VIP rooms with famous friends and sipping champagne on a tour bus. Turns out the truth is a lot less glamorous.
"I'm actually spending my summer graduating high school," admits the rapper on a too-rare visit back home. "That's my main focus after OVO Fest. I only have one credit left, and I'm really excited about that."
It's a particularly Canadian answer from a performer who's somehow managed to turn all the nice and boring bits of our identity into a wildly successful hip-hop brand. Rival rappers can't even successfully diss him for being soft, because he's never bothered pretending to be hard. And as exciting as this city can be, we still tend to fear that we seem provincial compared to places like New York or London.
"As close as we are to New York, it still feels far removed. We feel far removed from that American celebrity lifestyle, and from that kind of success."
But Drake isn't so removed from that culture any more, although you get the sense sometimes he wishes he were. His people have made it very clear that we are not to ask any questions about Chris Brown and the club brawl in which he may or may not have been involved. Up until the very last minute it seemed pretty likely that the interview wouldn't even happen.
On the phone, though, Drake's high-wattage charm melts away all resentment of the seemingly endless hoops you have to jump through to get access to the superstar. How can you stay mad at someone who was late because of his great-aunt's funeral?
He exudes the polished professionalism of a major-league superstar, a point in his career he's arrived at with an image and sound that are irrevocably tied to his hometown. That shouldn't be so notable, but Toronto has long had an unfortunate tendency to do really good impressions of music from other places.
"When I think of myself, I think of Toronto. My music would never sound the way it does if it weren't for Toronto," he says. "You talk about certain artists, and they sound like where they're from. Myself and the Weeknd, we both just sound like Toronto."
Our town has never really been known for that particular kind of hip-hop civic pride. Drake started OVO Fest in part to help shift how we see ourselves as a city.
"I just wanted to create a special night for the city. When I grew up, I always used to hear how we never get anything good coming through Toronto.
"We actually do get some great things in Toronto compared to many other places, but it's true that sometimes you might not see your favourite hip-hop artist for a full year, or even two. Sometimes we do get skipped over here."
Instead of putting together a huge bill of big names, though, his strategy over the last three years for his hometown mega-concert has been to advertise a relatively small lineup and then blow people away with a stream of superstar surprise guests. Many (including us) were unprepared the first year when people like Jay-Z and Eminem jumped onstage, but by now it's an established, integral part of the event.
"I don't want people to just come for the surprise guests, but at the same time I do put in a lot of effort and take a lot of pride in the friends that I can call up to travel to our city. I don't really call on too many people for favours, but for this one night I do."
Today, Drake doesn't need the gimmick of secret guests to fill the Molson Amphitheatre. But after setting the bar even higher last year with a surprise visit by Stevie Wonder (which Drake describes as "one of the most incredible things ever"), he can't drop that aspect of the experience. Don't expect many specific hints from him, though - after all, he's still not even sure who's going to show up this year.
"I like for it to be a surprise, and a lot of the time we're working up until the last minute on it. Trying to get Jay-Z up there the first year,? I didn't even know if he would make it onstage. Trying to get Lil Wayne to land in Canada successfully last year, especially right after he got out of jail?
"A lot of the time it's very last-minute. Sometimes I'll only find out 10 minutes before that so-and-so is about to walk onstage. It's exciting when it works out, but it's an anxiety attack for the entire time that you're still unsure about it."
As much as Drake is all about repping his hometown, early in his career Toronto seemed a bit wary of the former Degrassi star. As has long been the case for Canadian musicians, he had to make it big elsewhere before we embraced him wholeheartedly here.
"Toronto had never really had someone that they thought would take it all the way," he says. "I can't fault Toronto for waiting until I broke, through - without getting that approval from America, I wouldn't have been the guy who took it all the way."
He almost seems star-struck about himself when speaking of his own success. There's a palpable sense of disbelief that he turned out to be the guy who finally smashed through that barrier and got Toronto hip-hop on the map globally. Sure, we've had local success stories in the past, but nothing on this level in terms of commercial success and influence.
It's no surprise that he's booking reclusive local R&B sensation the Weeknd (see sidebar) to play OVO Fest for the second year running. Drake helped initially expose the singer to the world by posting an early recording on his own blog, and has since developed a close relationship with the emerging artist.
Beyond the two artists' obvious professional ties, many critics have drawn links between Drake's confessional, introspective rewiring of rap's traditionally extroverted bravado and the moody, experimental approach to R&B that's made singers like the Weeknd and Frank Ocean the current critical darlings.
That sound has been sometimes dismissively labelled "PBR&B" for being hipster-friendly, but there's something happening to urban music that marks a bigger shift than simply the addition of some indie rock influences into the mix.
"Surface R&B doesn't work any more," says Drake. "The whole heartthrob thing, songs about unrealistic love and tearing your shirt off every show - that's not really where it's at any more. It's becoming harder for those guys to sell records, and harder for them to succeed.
"The more you can tap into people's minds - ‘I think that stuff and I've just never been able to say it, and this guy just said it for me' - that's the brand of music that's winning right now, and that's a great thing. It just makes for better music to listen to."
It seems that both listeners and critics agree with him. Not only does Drake sell shitloads of records, but he also gets favourable reviews from Pitchfork and stands out like a sore thumb on the indie-dominated Polaris Music Prize shortlist. He's definitely aware of how unusual a position that is for a top 40 artist.
"At the end of the day I'm an extremely mainstream rapper as far as my popularity goes, so if I can still make music with enough integrity to also please some of the toughest critics, it's flattering. But I also know the flip side, which is that some people will never give me that moment because I'm part of Young Money, and I'm with Lil Wayne, and I'm not the new rapper who just put out a mixtape that no one knows about yet."
He seems fairly accepting of the hate that comes at those who are in a position to buy mansions. Of course, having a mansion to come home to probably helps.
It's not until I ask him why he doesn't challenge more often the widely repeated myth about his rich upbringing in Forest Hill that I hear frustration in his voice.
"People like to build their own story about my life. I don't know if it makes them feel better, or if it makes it okay for them to not like me, but the last thing I grew up as was rich.
"I had rich friends, but they weren't giving me their money. I'm just not the type of guy to go ‘No, no, no, I'm not rich.' People can say whatever they want about me, though. If they really want to learn them, the facts are out there. But I guess it's easier on their hearts if I didn't have to struggle, and makes it easier to not like me. It is what it is."
When I remark that I also grew up poor in a rich neighbourhood, he tells me he likes that line and might steal it for a song.
I'm pretty sure he's just buttering me up, but I'm oddly okay with that.