All photos courtesy of author
Drake is about a metre away from me. He’s holding court to reporters from every major news outlet in Toronto while standing inside a replica of the light-up cube from his “Hotline Bling” video. He doesn’t break a sweat, of course, fielding questions with his signature mix of bravado and dorkiness. When asked if he’d do a “Hotline” remix with Adele, he responds that he’d do “anything” for her. “I’ll go to her place right now,” he says, pausing for effect, “and do her laundry for her.” Everyone laughs, Drake flashes a grin, and vanishes. Like an earthquake, the whole thing takes less than five minutes.
It’s tough to get a grasp on Toronto’s complicated sense of pride if you’re not from here. While there is some truth to the city’s inflated reputation of itself, that hot air balloon of self-confidence deflates easily when it’s compared to the US metropolises that it sometimes aspires to be. We have one famous building. That’s it. This is why Drake’s gradual rebranding as Mr. 416 over the past two years is so important. For a Torontonian, the giddiness of being a Drake fan is multiplied tenfold as they recognize bits of cribbed West Indies slang and shoutouts to specific street corners and neighbourhoods. Drake’s success equals the validation of the Toronto youth identity, and his association with the Raptors is representative of that.
So, we come to the first Drake Night of the 2015-2016 season, featuring the mini “Hotline” set located in the Air Canada Centre lobby. The line to join in and have yourself potentially Vine’d sheepishly imitating Drake’s infamous dance moves isn’t extremely long, but everyone involved is playing into the Cult of Aubrey. Volunteers adorned with OVO jackets lead excited groups through, many decked out in Raptors gear and others in full Drake cosplay complete with sweater and Timbs. Only half the people in line are white and that’s accurate. Probably the best part about the “Hotline” video’s initial impact was the Twitter reaction from kids of immigrant families. Drake’s moves, somehow universal in their ungainliness, were compared to everything from a Punjabi uncle to a Serbian aunt to someone’s Dominican parents, all drunk at the same party.
A few folks in the area aren’t total converts, like the older couple from Barrie named Sylvia and Keith who are here simply because they love basketball and bought season passes. “I like Drake, too,” Sylvia says. She points up in the air to where “Hotline” is blaring out of speakers on a loop, adding, “this song is my favourite.” The broad appeal of “Hotline Bling” comes not only from its masterful pop melody, but also its willingness to be kitschy in both arrangement and Drake’s outdated “where did my baby go?” subject matter. He’s in on it, and you are, too. That’s why there’s a lineup at a basketball game to go make an ass of yourself in a box for ten seconds, sometimes more than once.
Given the electrical nature of the energy that’s gathered around the booth, it’s no surprise that the crowd gets bigger when the line closes and Drake’s arrival becomes more imminent. When he does make his entrance, even the first “uh” out of his mouth draws rapturous cheers. Most of his answers aren’t answers. We learn nothing new other than that the Raptors take precedent over Drake’s friendship with Lebron and the Adele goof above. Nonetheless, it’s weirdly exhilarating to see him seemingly reach a higher peak of his powers year after year, especially if he elevates the rest of Toronto with him.
Almost on cue, the majority of the Raptors fans begin to enter as soon as Drake leaves the press gallery. I ask a collection of young Drizzy-philes if they’re proud of being Torontonian. “This is the coolest city in the world to live in!” cries one kid. When I exit the arena, I’m greeted by the starry financial towers of Bay Street and the bustling chatter of the crowd. As people pour out of Union Station and into the waiting, OVO-branded stands of the ACC to cheer on their favourite home team, Toronto definitely seems for a minute like the coolest city in the world. If that seems arrogant then sorry, it’s just ‘cause we’re up right now.
Phil Witmer is a musician and writer living in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter.