Photographs by Janine Van Oostrom.
The second year of Drake’s OVO Festival ended by grandly lining up the Toronto-native alongside mentor Lil’ Wayne and Rick Ross for a fierce rendition of “I’m On One”, a DJ Khaled-spun hit that went on to become one of the biggest songs of 2011. It was a singular moment that placed Drake amongst genre titans and extended his narrative as he prepped for the release of Take Care, without actually releasing his own song.
During a segment of the Summer Sixteen tour (which blurred into this year’s OVO Fest) called “All of the Hits”, that memory of festival past found its place as a faint footnote tucked away along with other references like “Blessings”, “Miss Me”, “Worst Behaviour”, “Pop That” and more, shuffled through quickly so that Drake could focus on the 6God era of things, his most commercially successful period to date. Between 2015’s If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late, the Future-collaborative project What A Time To Be Alive and now, the number one album for the last three months and his fourth studio effort, Views, it’s not only been a season of heavy, chart-topping content, but also one of significant change across Drake’s handling of his entire profile.
Though he once claimed that OVO Fest would move to the Rogers Center early on in the festival’s life, it took six outdoor extravaganzas before the shift was actually made to the Air Canada Center for two nights this year. The show, once built more on anticipation than structure, in the thick, humid atmosphere of the Molson Amphitheatre was gone; in its place was a fine-tuned stadium setup with an agenda applied throughout the Summer Sixteen tour to highlight Views beautifully. At shows outside of the 6, songs like “9”, “U With Me?” and “Feel No Ways” are Drake’s way of providing a window into the city; but when shared at home, they feel like they belong to each and every individual who calls Toronto at home. It’s hard to imagine that such a communal experience can be replicated anywhere else, a sentiment he spoke to throughout the night.
When it came to Future’s set, the Atlanta rapper overhauled the cooler vibes set out by the album with a highly energetic and packed segment filled with “Bugatti”, “Move That Dope”, “Low Life” and “Wicked”. Bringing back-up dancers for a few numbers, Future drove the night so hard that it got to the point of needing an assistant who could deliver fresh face towels. The upsell of his inevitable dominance continued when Drake returned so that the pair could share “Big Rings” and “Jumpman” from What A Time To Be Alive, which played out as you expected it to: with a lot of really big teams rejuvenated for the rest of the show.
While Future is a very needed addition to the tour, his presence, as well as OVO Sound smooth-crooners DVSN (who are about to become very popular) and Roy Woods, were a guarantee on the billing and thus didn’t necessarily up the surprise factor expected of OVO Fest. In fact, by dubbing both nights as a part of the festival, Drake raised that bar higher, because that’s what the OVO Fest branding has come to represent. Like that triumphant moment alongside Rick Ross and Weezy, and several others over the years – Stevie Wonder, Nicki Minaj, TLC, Nas, Big Sean, Kanye West, Lauryn Hill, G-Unit – the tingly specialness of OVO Fest, one of very, very few hip-hop centric festivals and an established flagship event in Drake’s hometown, does in large part rely on both the appearance and the steady roll-out of a certain quantity of guests over the course of one night under the stars.
Therein lies the difference between Night 1 and Night 2 of this year’s OVO Fest. Asking the audience if they wanted the short show or the long show, Drake indicated surprises that were yet to come on both evenings, but one delivered more than the other. Shortly after Future left the stage during the first night, a rising stage platform unveiled a groovy-swagged out Rihanna, fresh off of a flight from Paris to share “Needed Me”, “BBHMM” and “Work” at her very first OVO Festival appearance. As one of the most successful female artists in the world, one of few to ever appear at the festival, with a rich collaborative history and friendship with Drake, there was a certain fanfiction realization along the way. When the pair broke out into laughter during the live debut of “Too Good”, Drake commented “That’s how you know it’s real,” through a smile.
Undoubtedly; the Barbados singer spoke of missing Carnival back home to come to the festival, and extended her run over to the second night as well. But she was the only guest for that first night, which warrants a consideration: what differentiates the Summer Sixteen tour, a collection of dates that has already brought out Kanye West in Chicago for a standard show, and OVO Festival?
Night 2 became more telling of that when Jamaican singer Popcaan was slotted in right after DVSN, followed by appearances from French Montana, Rihanna and, at the peak of the evening, a Pablo-merch ensconced Kanye West who joined in on the edge of “Pop Style”, followed by “Father Stretch My Hands Part 1”, “Famous” and “Runaway”. Expressing mutual admiration only to emotionally overload screaming guests by a tease for a collaborative album, Ye’s appearance, combined with Rihanna’s and the steady reveal of guests, was akin to the reception of other memorable appearances in the festival’s history. This should have been consistent across both nights to truly live up to the OVO Festival brand, but perhaps there will be alterations to that formula as well.
If the hybrid of the Summer Sixteen tour and the OVO Fest moniker indicated anything, it’s that Drake is reaffirming his own self-identity in the heart of his city. It’s not just about spitting bars across the wide catalogue or showing where his love lies ; it’s also about proving a consciousness of how he balances the scales between popular culture, mainstream music and hip-hop. The markings were spread across the entire show; take “Back-to-Back”, a Grammy-nominated dis track that caused the crowd to erupt; a shifting light fixture worthy of Boomerangs and grainy Snapchat videos with customized filters as Drake danced to his very own meme, “Hotline Bling”; and the dancehall rhythms odes to his city, “One Dance” and “Controlla”, complete with booming pyrotechnics and backup dancers that would conclude any other pop star’s event.
But there’s a reputation to uphold here. Stretching from opening number “Summer Sixteen” with firey font spelling “Revenge” across the screen to the concluding segment of “Hype”, “Know Yourself”, “Energy” and “Legend”, Drake needs you to know that at this point, he alone is more than enough . He absolutely is, and for a Drake-centric tour, Summer Sixteen is a commanding entry into his live experiences that meets expectations. He just needs to be slightly better at managing them on occasions like this one.