By Anupa Mistry
By 4PM on Sunday, July 31, the day of Drake’s second annual October’s Very Own (OVO) Festival at the Molson Amphitheatre in his hometown of Toronto, Twitter was a flutter with the rumour that Stevie Wonder was currently soundchecking at the venue. At last year’s inaugural event, Drake proved his growing clout and procured two of rap’s biggest stars, Jay-Z and Eminem. Building momentum for the release of his second album, ‘Take Care,’ and making the festival an international draw means that, of course, he would try to one up himself this year.
But at 8PM, when local golden boy Abel Tesfaye — otherwise known as the R&B-loving act the Weeknd — took the stage, Wonder was still a secret tucked away for when things possibly couldn’t get any more incredible.
Just one week ago, a bunch of lucky Torontonians got a first glimpse of the mysterious, press-avoiding singer at his very first show — a warm-up for Sunday night’s 15,000-strong crowd. In the short time between the gigs, Tesfaye’s onstage confidence has grown, though he still managed to partly obscure his face under a low-pulled hat. Singing along to songs from Tesfaye’s much-hyped ‘House of Balloons’ mixtape (tracks like ‘Glass Table Girls,’ and ‘The Morning,’ as well as new one ‘The Birds, Pt. 1’), a large portion of the crowd was visibly excited by this still officially unsigned, local, opening act.
Miami czar Rick Ross stalked the stage for the next 30 minutes like, well, a boss. Earlier this year, Ross filmed a short video, set in Toronto, for his verse on Kanye West’s ‘Devil in a New Dress,’ and he cemented his love for the Canadian city during his too brief set. Rousing, anthemic hits referencing Ross’ “self-made” mantra brought the audience to their feet, especially for ‘Hustlin’,’ ‘I’m a Boss,’ ‘MC Hammer,’ a remix of Waka Flocka Flame’s ‘O Let’s Do It’ and ‘Aston Martin Music.’
Piercing, frantic screams overwhelmed the Amphitheatre when strains of Jai Paul’s dreamy, ethereal ‘BTSTU’ flitted through the speakers, a sign that Drake, who samples the cut for his new song ‘Dreams Money Can Buy,’ was ready to take over.
In a black OVOXO-stamped tank top (the portmanteau of OVO and the Weeknd’s “XO” tag indicates big things for Tesfaye) and baggy army green pants, Drake began to play host to the evening’s rap spectacle. There is likely nothing better than a massive hometown crowd, rapping and singing along to tracks like ‘Up All Night,’ ‘Forever,’ ‘Right Above It,’ and ‘Bedrock.’ A backing band helped bring SBTRKT’s slouching, dubstep-informed ‘Wildfire’ to life, as Drake performed his own remix of the song. Moving across the stage, spinning and dancing, Drake revealed glimpses, when his shirt raised, of his new back tattoo: the OVO owl.
As the set began to dip, Drake brought out one of Roc Nation’s crown princes, rising rapper J. Cole, for their song ‘In the Morning.’ Then, out of nowhere, Nas skipped onto the stage for ‘Made You Look’ and ‘If I Ruled the World.’ Drake praised Cole, saying neither would be around if it weren’t for the other, and then the three rappers posed, arms around shoulders, for a soon-to-be legendary photo.
“If you love me like I love you, then make some noise,” was Drake’s constant refrain throughout the night. The high from an already overwhelming lineup fed into this with, it seemed, every single person in attendance roaring in appreciation.
After performing his verses from Rihanna’s ‘What’s My Name’ and Nicki Minaj’s ‘Moment 4 Life’ — in a way, invoking, these artists from afar — a violin solo introduced ‘Take Care”s moody, scathing ‘Marvin’s Room.’ Mega-hit ‘Fancy’ segued into a 10-minute break where he spoke to the women (“Stop buying cheap airplane tickets to NBA All-Star Weekend to try and get with an athlete”), his haters (“I read comments with people saying my music is too emotional and my eyebrows are too thick,”) and the fans in attendance (“You showing me your breasts, you look like you came for the Weeknd!”).
And then Stevie Wonder, who helped create six songs during the recording sessions for ‘Take Care,’ took the stage, delivering a perfect six-song set with ‘I Wish,’ ‘My Cherie Amour,’ ‘Sir Duke,’ ‘Ribbon in the Sky,’ ‘Signed, Sealed, Delivered’ and ‘Superstition.’ For an audience comprised of teens and 20-somethings, it was a big risk bringing out someone who so solidly represents a different time and era in music, but the timelessness of the songs translated. And this was Drake flexing his muscles in a way no homegrown rapper ever has.
For the show’s final act, the Weeknd returned to perform ‘Trust Issues’ — another pre-‘Take Care’ release — marking the first time Drake and Tesfaye, who sported an OVO x Roots varsity jacket, appeared on stage together. “This is one of the greatest voices I’ve heard in my life — and he’s from my city,” shouted Drake, as Tesfaye finished his wide-eyed performance.
And then Drake played his trump card: Lil Wayne.
In Jeremy Scott x Adidas panda-bear hi-tops and baggy white pants with swirling, multi-coloured rosettes, Wayne hypnotically swayed across stage for ‘Miss Me’ and his own, recent single ‘6 Foot 7 Foot.’ The cameo set up for, arguably, one of the summer’s biggest rap songs: DJ Khaled’s ‘I’m on One,’ which features the threesome of Drake, Ross and Wayne. It was a show-closing, shut-s——down collaboration, and a mighty coup for Drake.