I sat in a fake castle in the suburbs waiting for Drake.
The Château Le Jardin. Après Noir. A “supper club.” The venue, close to the highway, is situated next to a Starbucks and bar called Boar N Wing. It offers guests from the suburbs of Toronto, and around North America, “unbridled opulence.” Events here are meant to be an “elite urban experience,” which reinforces to me how words really mean nothing to a lot of people. (Prior sold out performances included Rob Thomas, Jennifer Hudson, Shaggy, and Bob Saget). The few hundred attendees at our sold-out show paid anywhere from $500 to nearly $3000 to nibble on beef Wellington and watch Drake’s exclusive private set—which hadn’t started yet because, well, he was late.
The rapper—performing his duties as the Toronto Raptors’ ambassador—was downtown, watching our beloved team battle the reigning NBA Finals champs, the Golden State Warriors. The basketball game went into overtime and still he remained in his courtside seat with his longtime friend and manager, Oliver El-Khatib. Musicians potentially being late to a gig is a given, but rarely do attendees actually know why. Yet here, I watched in real-time on Twitter and Instagram as a shirtless, sweaty Kevin Durant handed over his jersey to Drake after the Warriors lost.
After a four-course meal, a couple glasses of a red wine blend, and an all-too brief performance by the inimitable Jessie Reyez, he arrived. At 12:30AM, only two and a half hours late, Drake came out to “Started From The Bottom,” letting the backing track go for a little bit before breathing out a “yeah!,” soon transitioning into a medley of hits including “Over,” “Crew Love,” and choice Scorpion tracks like “In My Feelings,” and “Nonstop.” At one point he brought a kid on stage. Drake has the special sort of charisma that genuinely fills an entire stadium. It’s jubilant, abundant and truly a spectacle to see live. What I saw here was Drake going through the motions. To be fair, Drake just came off a five month tour for a record-breaking album, and in very recent moments screamed with joy and fury at professional basketball players. He had competing energies of work and relaxation. But the show goes on: he switched into business mode, and gave the people—and a bit more largely, too, the fans of this year—exactly what they wanted: exclusivity. Emotionally feigned exclusivity is still exclusivity.
Drake has managed to dominate this decade in one way or another, the majority of his success coming to a head in the last three or so. During this Après Noir event, Drake broke into a mini-monologue and wistfully spoke of performing at supper clubs when he was starting out—a sort of full circle closure of him performing now in front of a bunch of people thirsty to be in his view. It also showed his level of control now over how much he can make people care about him—to ensure they still care about him. Even long after he is gone from music, potentially. Recently, on LeBron James’ HBO show, The Shop, Drake spoke of how “one of his biggest fears is how to exit gracefully,” citing, vaguely, performers before him who “overstayed their welcome.” But Drake’s recent presence, in and out of music, is more of a race to keep the top spot on his way out than producing meaningful art and taking risks—which is to the very detriment of the legacy he wants to preserve. What complicates this may be how his public life and a ravenous, ruthless music-consuming audience overtakes the music and where his control cannot be.
In 2017, Drake dropped off the charts for the first time since, Jesus Christ, 2009. The earlier success of More Life had waned and it felt like Drake was going through a dip in his career. More Life cut and likely single “Passionfruit,” and then “Signs,” which was a sort of throwaway song meant for a fashion show, dropped quickly on the charts and then off altogether, seeming to signal the end of his dominance. Surely, a rest would be imminent. To Drake, that was a challenge.
2018 was Drake’s best year yet. Which is to say every year has been Drake’s best year yet—not just outdoing his peers but constantly battling against last year’s Drake to be better and bigger—beginning with the Scary Hours EP. It was our first glimpse of how powerful “God’s Plan” could be and how wonderful a Hot Topic shoutout on “Diplomatic Immunity” could feel. “God’s Plan” stayed at number one for 11 weeks on Billboard’s Hot 100, besting “One Dance” from Views. Each single from that point on felt like a direct response to criticisms of the past. The video for “God’s Plan,” a remarkable charitable event PR companies could only ever dream of pulling off, showed a different, genuine side of the rapper. Soon after, we got “Nice For What,” an unlikely pro-feminist track that continued his singles hot streak and addressed a blind spot in the rapper’s career—misogyny—with a music video featuring an all-star cast of Hollywood’s leading actresses directed by Karena Evans from Toronto. Drake also had a year of hopping on a ton of hot tracks, too, like Lil Baby’s “Yes Indeed,” Migos’ “Walk It Talk It,” BlocBoy JB’s “Look Alive,” and many more, leaning less on himself and into a new generation of rappers climbing the charts. Seeing it in hindsight, Drake’s overall success is a domino effect that only he was prepared for. Well, except for one thing.
Scorpion’s release was notable for Drake-adjacent drama, but not necessarily the music. Drake’s 25 track record was a hit and miss but had standouts like “Mob Ties,” “Nonstop,” “March 14,” even “Summer Games” (don’t argue with me) and “In My Feelings,” though the track is as well-worn out now as “Hotline Bling,” the first in a long line of Drake song-memes. The record is not bad. But Scorpion, on the power of six songs, and the insanity of how streaming metrics are calculated, also became his most successful record to date despite tepid critical response. But a lot of our reception of the record was informed by the revelation that Drake is now a father to a son named Adonis—information courtesy of Pusha T. What led to this revelation was instigated by Pusha T when, on the Daytona track “Infrared,” he reignited a beef with Drake, alleging his use of a ghost writer again. Drake pushed back on “Duppy Freestyle,” taking shots at Push’s drug dealing and his now wife Virginia Williams, working with Kanye West on The Life of Pablo, G.O.O.D Music’s credibility—even invoicing the label $100,000.
The escalation of the beef led to “The Story of Adidion,” though rumours about a one-night stand that had led to a baby had been circulating much earlier than that verse. Whatever Drake did or produced after that, he still hid a child, some would say. He was reduced further to a tabloid figure, instead of an artist. His well-crafted legacy, again, potentially upended by someone else. And yet, Drake’s run never let up. He’d continue a streak of hit singles (and grime freestyles) dissing Kanye West, a massive tour, and so on. When Drake did finally speak openly about his son, he did it with pseudo-father LeBron James.
Going to James for his public parsing of being a father seemed more natural than not. It’s not exactly that natural though, to have a pre-taped interview where you bring up your first child publicly with the best basketball player in the world. But here he could speak for himself to someone who would receive his words warmly without real criticism. Conversations about Adonis were meant to end there. Drake’s able to speak authentically without his words being misconstrued by the few people on set—a courtesy never extended by the Internet. Reporting leads to potential interpretation and Drake’s been able to circumvent that by plainly laying out his thoughts and moods, more or less, directly to his audience in increments. Drake cares about what we think of him, what we say or write. It is his fuel. In an era where criticism is a synonym for offense, Drake manages to uphold this new established norm of bypassing press altogether to weave a narrative of his choosing.
Literal minutes before Drake appeared onstage at Après Noir, he posted his Meek Mill collaboration on Instagram. 2015 seems so long ago now. Drake, ever the diplomat, has made peace with a number of his past rivalries. During his tour with Migos—the Atlanta rap group once wasn’t on the easiest of terms with our rapper—Drake brought out Meek as a gesture of moving on from the past. Exiting gracefully from turmoil. Making amends and gestures where we can. Of course he appeared on Nicki Minaj’s “Only” with Chris Brown, alongside Lil Wayne back in 2014, but it’s another thing entirely for Drake to bring Brown onstage. Our petty king isn’t exactly petty right now.
Drake is at an important intersection in his career. He is the biggest rapper in the world, and inching closer, if not already, to a global pop takeover. He could keep on his manufactured track, churning out work yearly, hopping on features with the brightest in the new generation of rap, nurturing the culture where he can (or stealing, depending on your perception of the rapper), giving his expansive audience exactly what they want (which isn’t too creatively risky at the moment), and continue his extreme visibility in the pop landscape. Or Drake could stop for a minute and recalculate. We’re nearing the end of a big, culture shifting decade. Drake knows this. Drake cares about legacy, perhaps more explicitly than most. (He has noted many times how he will retire). But this is a huge burden when the casual music fan hops on an artist and expects a continuous conveyor belt of hits—and by some miracle he has for nearly a decade.
But that is one of our biggest critiques of him—he’s everywhere at all times, and that’s too much. Visibility bolsters his career, but it’s also his biggest dampener. That tension is on us, because we ask for him to provide more, and he feeds into it, whether or not we actually care about the work he produces at the end of it. Drake doesn’t want to stop. Even saying that he’ll “retire at 35,” I don’t believe it. His fans won’t let him go. But they also want him to give us something different, something energized while he's running on fumes. Drake is to be both accessible but hidden from our view, like a worn out toy hidden in a chest.
At Aprés Noir, Drake looked tired. That was apparent for a moment while he looked down at the stage floor. A blink-and-you’ll-miss-it sliver of the human being under the performer. A few of us bet on him only performing four radio-friendly songs and then dipping but he sustained for us well past 1AM. on a Thursday. He looked like The Rock meme from the waste up: a gold chain around his black turtleneck sweater. A meme in a meme, like Matryoshka dolls. He played “God’s Plan” last, leaving after 30 minutes behind a billowy black curtain without saying a word.
Weeks later, Kanye West took to Twitter to lambast Drake. What started out as a public drag by West to Drake for trying to get sample clearance for “Say What’s Real,” likely for the release of the 10th anniversary of So Far Gone next year, turned into a stream of consciousness rant about friendship ethics, threats, and a repeated demand for an apology. Drifting from, battling with, losing interest among the people who were once your people, your team, or your mentors is a natural part of growth as a person. In Drake’s case, he’s looking directly at the man who helped him find his sound but also showing him what he’s long hoped to not be: someone who won't step away from the limelight.
It is remarkable how Drake has existed in public view as Drake for only ten years, and that ten can feel at least double that. The distance between Drake’s past and present are hundreds of thousands of kilometers. His future includes “more chunes,” filmmaking for sure—likely from a producing standpoint, putting his gilded name next to a visual piece instead of aural art. His inches toward an exit may become more pronounced, but it will be a move of his choosing.And perhaps, like once before, he will learn from recent mistakes by his former mentor, an idol, in Ye and take a leave more mindfully. Returning if he is inspired once again. And hopefully we will let him.
Sarah is on Twitter.