Drake’s Assassination Vacation tour isn’t so much a concert as his own personal playground. For the first of his seven nights at the O2 Arena in London, the Canadian hip-hop artist spends the evening parading visual feats around the arena – from a stage floor that transforms into a swimming pool to a “flying” Ferrari (on wires) – and bringing out a number of surprise guests.
He makes clear from the off that he feels more at home here than most places. The O2 has already been renamed the “O3”, in reference to his track “God’s Plan”, and Drake looks thrilled to be back. “London, as long as you’ll have me back I’ll stand in the middle of this building and give you everything I’ve f***ing got,” he announces.
Drake began honing his craft as an entertainer on the set of the Noughties teen drama series Degrassi: The Next Generation. Since then, he has established himself as the undisputed king of the streaming era, breaking records left right and centre (in October last year he surpassed a record held by The Beatles for half a century, for the most Billboard Hot 100 top 10 songs in a single year) with few artists to challenge him – operating within an entirely different sphere.
He adopts different personas depending on the mood of the song he’s performing: on slow jams he’s the good boyfriend, or the hopeful boy next door; for tracks with more of a rap focus over cold beats, he’s the guy you don’t want to mess with. He seems to revel in those contradictions. On “Hotline Bling” over the muted, shuffling beat, he criticises a girl he used to know – in disarmingly low, mellifluous tones – for getting a bad reputation. On the warm and sensual “Passionfruit”, he sounds positively euphoric as he sings of a relationship that’s fallen apart.
Despite the promise of giving “everything”, the first London show gets off to a relatively slow start. Drake performs a circuit of the stage from behind a curtain during two Scorpion cuts: “8 Out of 10” and “Mob Ties”. He rarely gets through a full song, preferring to chop and change in between lengthy declarations of love for his London audience, and two separate tributes to the late rapper Nipsey Hussle.
You do wonder how many fans walk away from a Drake show wondering if they got their money’s worth (two fans on the train home tell me they paid £240 for two standing tickets). Only about half the show is Drake actually performing; the rest is talk, or him bringing out special guests such as British rapper Giggs, with whom he collaborated for “KMT” and “No Long Talk” on his 2017 mixtape More Life. When US rapper Future appears – to rapturous screams – for a rendition of “Mask Off”, Drake lingers at the side of the stage as though he’s just another fan. Midway through the set, he disappears and the stage transforms into a basketball court where a seemingly random man tries and fails to win £20,000 with a half-court shot.
Drake’s approach to live shows mirrors his latest work, which was more mixtape than album. Scorpion was erratic at best – proof of the artist’s desire to appeal to everyone via an exhausting mix of dancehall, UK-influenced rap, hip hop and pop. It’s no surprise to watch him struggling to see through an entire song – that doesn’t mean it’s not still frustrating. Occasionally you want to hear the whole thing. Drake may have a lot of enemies, as he says on “Energy”, but when it comes to his live shows, his worst one is often himself.
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