This article originally appeared on Noisey UK.
Going to London's O2 Arena is always an event. The luminous white dome (one of the largest in the world) was once an optimistic beacon for Tony Blair's new millennium, housing a set of ephemeral exhibitions rivalling the National Science and Natural History museums. Towards the end of its original, educational tenure, it became the scene of one of the most ambitious heists in Britain, with thieves attempting (and ultimately failing) to carry the entire De Beers diamond exhibition away on a singular digger. Since then, it's become home to a rain-proof high street of chain restaurants and palm trees, boujee bars and bowling alleys, estate agents and their girlfriends – and tonight, it's home to Drake, who plays the first of eight consecutive nights at the landmark building's 20,000 capacity music venue.
The inaugural London night of Drake's Boy Meets World tour is significant, and not just because it's been three years since he last headlined a solo show in the city. As leagues of teenagers and young adults with salon-quality haircuts pose in front of the arena's entrance, thousands are gathering across town for a protest against President Trump and his recent travel ban preventing citizens from seven predominantly Muslim countries entering the United States for 90 days. There, they will hold signs that read "Trump Is A Bludclart" and "No Fascism Please, We're British". Here, people are dressed in shirts reading "Summer '16" and "1-800-Hotline-Bling". It's a noticeably different atmosphere outside the Greenwich venue, but one that is also defined by a large group of people coming together for a singular cause.
In this case, the cause is their dedication to Drake. From the If You're Reading This, It's Too Late hats, to the Timbaland and puffa jacket combos most are wearing, to the duck-faced selfies around the venue, their world is modelled on the Grammy Award-winning artist as much as his has been perfectly modelled on theirs. For those marching and protesting – not only outside 10 Downing Street, but in Leeds, Manchester, Sheffield, Oxford, et al – tonight is about defending the principles of humanity and standing up to a bully. For those in the O2, it's about returning to a world based primarily within oneself, of which Drake is a master. The "Hotline Bling" star has infamously remained silent on many political issues (breaking his silence once last year, to speak about #BlackLivesMatter) and has instead retained an inward focus on himself, rarely (if ever) releasing songs where he isn't at the centre of the listener's attention or told through his own perspective. He's almost rap's version of Taylor Swift, an anomaly in a genre awash with politics.
Still, it's difficult not to wonder if Drake will speak out when he takes to the stage tonight. And, more pertinently if he doesn't, where the future of his career is headed – at least in the eyes of critics.
When he bursts into The O2 to a reception befitting of a Justin Bieber concert, he's silent on the outside world, yet characteristically centred on his own. The glow of iPhones fill the venue, not like fireflies or studded jewels but raised heartbeats, their illuminations signalling the presence of each ticket-holder. "My name is Drake and I was born in Toronto, Canada – but right here at The O2 … the boy is home, baby", he says. "I flew all this way to give you the best performance, the best party, because London, England is the best place in the world."
From here the energy dips and swells, peaking as each new song begins and then slowly falling again as everyone ruminates on how to carry the energy on through the room once the second verse is over. In a way, it's like passing the aux cord around a party, with every new track bringing in a renewed vitality from the crowd just as they grow bored of the last song. At a party, this process goes from Cam'Ron's "Hey Ma", to OutKast's "Roses", to Rae Sremmurd's "Black Beatles". Here, it's "Started From The Bottom", to "HYFR", to "Jumpman". There's little difference between the two functions except for the glaringly obvious fact that tonight is Drake's party, he is the sole master of the aux, and 20,000 people are responding to, then getting bored of, then revving up to his song choices.
How would Drake's mentor Lil Wayne carry the room? Or what about Nicki Minaj, Wayne's other apprentice? Drake may have come through by virtue of being the most conventionally beautiful man, of having the biggest radio hits (here in the UK), of being the most safe choice of the three, but it's hard not to imagine Minaj presenting something more creative in such a large venue than the proverbial passing of the aux and the odd firework – which, for future reference, never sound great in arena spaces, unless your interpretation of a "fun noise" is a loud popping sound not too dissimilar to a speaker blowing out its innards mid-performance. That said, there are some cool lights which drift down from the ceiling from time to time like an Ikea display on steroids. These little balls of electricity change colour too, and admittedly do look striking through the lens of an iPhone camera, which is perhaps their purpose.
Unlike Lil Wayne (whose main demographic is rap fans) or Nicki Minaj (who, despite her talent and for too many reasons to list here, hasn't quite managed to bridge the pop-rap-crossover in the way Drake has), it's easy to see here, in the flesh and at The O2, how well the adage "Drake is everything, to all people" can be applied. When he introduces his song "Feel No Ways" as a song for "the women", I'm reminded of Meaghan Garvey's essay on last year's Views; of how it expertly detailed Drake's persona as one of a whining, bachelor-like man, whose own problem is himself and not the woman he's chasing after – which is true. Yet here, as trios of young women passionately sing along to the line "there's more to life than sleeping in and getting high with you", pumping their arms like they're singing along to a heart-rendering karaoke classic, I can't help thinking about how, often, the perspective of Drake's songs can be genderless – which is why I can hear screams of "Feel No Ways" in my ears in varying shifts and tones.
Towards the end of the show, I stop and stare at a young man and his friend for a while. They hold their phones in the air, hollering the "fuck it, I'm on one" line from Drake's collaboration with DJ Khaled with admirable devotion to the cause. Similarly, a bunch of girls a few rows above are doing the same. Toward the end of the set, Drake plays a track from further back in his catalogue called "Successful". "I want the cars, the money, the clothes, the hoes… I just wanna be successful", he sings. Minus the obvious exception of "the hoes", the reason everyone is here is because, in this moment, Drake can make people feel as though they can achieve all of the above. Or at least that's how it seems to work, because that's how listening to the best of Drake often makes me feel.
If listening to Drake can empower people to transition from that feeling of success being within reach to stretching and grabbing it, then he is everything – and tonight's guests Section Boyz proved that's possible to do, on a macro scale, after getting the coveted Drake co-sign a year ago. But as the world outside of Drake's own changes and shifts (and as he refuses to engage with it), is there a chance he's teetering toward irrelevancy? Certainly, Drake's music will continue to appease the fans who mirror his inward-looking mindset. Even those more engaged with wider humanity will frequently return too, since there's always some need for escapism in troubled times. But as Drake continues to refuse to look outward, to engage with a world beyond his immediate circle, and as that approach becomes increasingly boring – as it did on Views – the danger of him slipping toward nothing, to becoming no one, has never been more apparent.
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