For its seventh year, Drake’s OVO Fest is in its largest venue yet but, on Sunday night, the show felt more streamlined and focused than ever. The Air Canada Centre holds thousands more than the Molson Canadian Amphitheatre, the site of the now multi-day music festival’s six previous iterations, and the crowd lived up to image of the diverse paradise that Drake and his fellow OVO artists have painted it as since his career began. (Thankfully, Drake spared the crowd his usual slow spotlight of random attendees. That said, I did see an exceptionally swole dude in a gold OVO basketball jersey get bleary-eyed while speaking to security, seemingly about to be thrown out before the show started, and I just want to say: Bro, I see you, and I’m sorry you missed it.)
In 2014, the last time I attended, Drake brought out Lauryn Hill, Trey Songz, J. Cole, DJ Khaled, PARTYNEXTDOOR, Tinashe, OB O’Brien, YG, Usher, 50 Cent, and G-Unit. In other words, it felt like the chapter of The Great Gatsby where Fitzgerald lists partygoers as a decadent stunt. This year, on the first of two nights of Drake performances, only three artists joined him onstage: OVO R&B act dvsn, “Summer Sixteen” tour co-headliner Future, and Rihanna. (Baka, Roy Wood$, and dvsn performed short sets before Drake took the stage.) We read the tea leaves of Drake’s every move for signs of progress or pettiness, of growing up or regressing to frat house-style antics, and last night pointed to a healthy, controlled confidence—that is, for a superstar with an album that just enjoyed its 12th week at No. 1.
Complex isn’t the only publication to rate VIEWS a less than classic victim of overblown expectations and album-cut bloat. If sales are votes of approval, then Drake should ignore his critics. But his incorporation of songs from VIEWS into the OVO Fest setlist suggested he understands the limits of the crowd’s patience with the 80-plus-minutes-long album. He doled out VIEWS in portions, like suites of songs. “Still Here” into “Started From the Bottom,” then “9,” “U With Me?” and “Feel No Ways.” Against a video display that read PLEASE FORGIVE ME, he joined the languid “Fire & Desire” with his verse from PARTYNEXTDOOR’s amazing “Come and See Me”; the words on the screen slowly became engulfed by flames as he sang.
— Complex Music (@ComplexMusic) August 1, 2016
The VIEWS highlight of the night was a run that included “With You,” “Childs Play,” and “Faithful,” including a performance of incredible vocal clarity and strength from dvsn. OVO Sound is an R&B label and Drake should hurry up and, to paraphrase something Complex alum Justin Charity once told me, make the Jodeci album that’s in his heart.
OVO Fest 2015 arrived during Drake’s beef with Meek Mill, and so he filled the video screen with user-created memes belittling the Philadelphia rapper in oftentimes crass, sexist fashion. This summer, Drake could’ve used his homecoming show as a platform to address Joe Budden’s diss tracks (“Making a Murderer Part 1,” “Wake,” “Afraid,” and “Just Because”) but he didn’t. He revised no pre-existing song lyrics to take shots, projected no memes, engaged in no crowd patter about the situation. True, he dissed Budden at the Dallas show of the “Summer Sixteen” tour but it would’ve had greater impact at OVO Fest—and he elected not to. (Of course, he could undo all of this during Monday night’s set, which he promised will be different.)
Instead, he left the crowd with the image of him trying to sidle up to Rihanna like something out of a middle-school dance. She let him wind in for what couldn’t have been more than seconds during “Work” and “Too Good” to deafening, knowing screams. Drake’s weaponized his awkwardness and Rihanna was generous enough to let him be the butt of his own jokes. Rihanna is too good to him, he admitted, though he didn’t claim that she’s too good for him. The dating rumors and fan fiction persists.
After turning his closing song “Legend” into a kind of Broadway-inflected number with a different instrumental and slower, more deliberate singing, making it sound like it should’ve been on Thank Me Later, Drake talked to the crowd one last time. He alluded obliquely to political violence and police brutality. The previous dates of the “Summer Sixteen” tour have been in America and he took a moment to say that he’s proud of Toronto, and Canada at large, for loving and looking after one another. Drake, who turns 30 in October, wants to see everyone back next year, and he didn’t mean that some might miss out because of Ticketmaster issues. Statements of explicitly political purpose aren’t Drake’s strong suit, but this moment suggested an avenue he can take to further grow up and get better, rather than plateau, a way to keep his views from calcifying.