A Blur to Remember at OVO Arena

Elation and excess at homegrown superstar’s triumphant return

Who: Drake, Lil Baby, Sexyy Red & Central Cee
Where: Scotiabank Arena October’s Very Own Arena, Toronto
When: Fri., Oct. 6
Vibe: Local hero’s singalong FOMO-fest
Highlights: Foundation-shaking singalongs and Drake promising to pay the tuition for seven fans
Rating: NNNN (out of 5)

DRAKE IS COMING HOME on this early-October Friday night in Toronto to close out his It’s All a Blur tour, temporarily renaming Scotiabank Arena “October’s Very Own Arena” for the weekend — a venue first. Drake’s new album, For All the Dogs, is released at 6 a.m. this morning, the exact same time as the line for the GA floor opened. I’ve got a reserved seat, so I arrive 30 minutes after doors open, hoping to have waited out any early rush, only to find that the sound check is still going on and the venue isn’t open yet.

The hassle just heightens the anticipation down the entrance lines as strangers speculate with each other on what dream last-minute guest appearances might be necessitating the delay. With no annual guest-filled OVO-Fest in the city this past summer, the expectation of many is that these will be similar can’t-miss affairs that will justify the resale “get-inside” prices for nosebleed seats that have hovered over $500 for months and have only risen higher today, with GA floor tickets selling for over $1,500 each.

Once inside, I walk a lap of the arena concourse, around a staffer covering a Mercedes G-Wagon SUV in wrapping paper (Drake has been gifting fans expensive items like designer handbags from the stage this tour, but this is taking it to another level) and past the lengthy merch lines of fans unswayed by the $60 tees and $150 hoodies, and dip my toe into the waters of excess with a $25 show-specific passionfruit cocktail (natch) in a souvenir OVO Arena-branded tour cup. As I’m finishing my drink at the bar, the thumping of bass starts to reverberate through the arena, announcing live festivities have begun, teenage fans in OVO tees break into full-out sprints through the crowd to their seats.

Opener U.K.-drill rapper Central Cee expertly spits rhymes through his thick London accent while pacing the perimeter of the diamond-shaped central stage in an off-white puffer jacket and toque. He declares how he’s “glad to be back in the Commonwealth; we talk the same,” before breaking into his LA Leakers Freestyle comparing British and American slang, followed by a pair of his bigger singalong hits “for the ladies,” Let Go and Commitment Issues.

After a brief Zach Bia DJ set of recent hits that keep the singalong party going, St. Louis rapper Sexyy Red, who has a memorable guest spot on For All the Dogs’s Rich Baby Daddy, sticks to her own hits like SkeeYee, while pausing occasionally for “gymnastic” dance breaks, including an impressive twerking-into-the-splits move that draws some of the biggest cheers of her set.

Just before 10 p.m., the arena lights dim and a spot-on a teenage-Drake lookalike (played by actor Brooklyn Cox) appears centre stage on a leather couch and proceeds to take a hit from an illuminated bong. The smoke rises, and we enter young Drake’s dream state, where we are introduced to present-day Drake at the height of his fame, entering under a spotlight through the sold-out crowd in his pseudo-namesake arena. Flanked by his security team, which, on this night, prominently includes former Toronto Maple Leaf enforcer Tie Domi, Drake makes his way through his delirious fans angling for selfies to join his younger self on the couch to perform Look What You’ve Done while reading the lyrics from his childhood notebook.

He follows up the song by reading a poem he wrote this morning, a love letter to Toronto, pining about how the city needs “more community centres, better leadership, less guns,” acknowledging that “I could be anybody from anywhere, but thank God I was not born anywhere else,” then concluding “you’ve let me know how much you love me for too long, so tonight let me show you,” to appreciative applause.

As the couch retracts into the stage, Drake is now alone under the lights, as he will be for most of the next two hours. Performing solo with only some incredible video effects, a backing track and impressive larger-than-life aerial props such as a drone-powered sperm, a giant Peter Pan and a firework-laden UFO, Drake commands his hometown arena with a set that spans almost his entire catalogue but saves the brand newest songs for his next time through.

Promising to cater the show to his “day ones,” Drake sets the singalong tone early,  before 2011’s Marvin’s Room, by pleading with the crowd to show him they know the old ones. the fired-up crowd around me is happy to oblige, even if the camera panning across a platinum section struggled to find someone singing along, suggesting that the biggest fans either couldn’t justify or couldn’t afford the most expensive seats in the house.

Later, during Know Yourself, the class lines are blurred and the ground shakes with every section coming together and cathartically yelling along with the now-classic local adage: “Runnin’ through the 6 with my woes!”

On Headlines, Drake shows his sense of humour, performing surrounded by video-tickers of tabloid headlines such as “Drake Has Immense Fear of Bees” and “Fans Can No Longer Relate to Drake’s Music Because He’s Too Rich”. Later, he shows his generosity with some practical gifts to some lucky fans, including one with a sign indicating that they used their OSAP student loan to pay for tickets, who is one of seven fans whose tuition he promises to pay.

We learn that tour-long guest 21 Savage, despite getting his green card recently and having merch for sale, doesn’t make it across the border for the show.  He is replaced by Atlanta-based rapper Lil Baby, who receives a warm welcome, but not quite warm enough for Drake who pleads for the crowd to show more hospitality to “someone who flew up here at 5 p.m. today to be with you tonight!” (Drake more subtle than Lil Baby’s DJ/hypeman who repeatedly asks “If you’re fuckin’ with Lil Baby, make some noise”). This portion of the set’s highlight is the duo combining on their 2018 Yes Indeed collab live for the first time.

Despite 21 Savage not making it, and despite us being well past the venue’s 11 p.m. curfew, Drake insists that the 21 Savage set is included so that his “hometown gets the full show”. Drake proceeds to sing his own parts while telling the crowd, “You’re all 21 tonight!” and to sing the missing parts.  While the value-added extra songs are most welcome, the energy flags as the crowd struggles to deliver the lesser-known lyrics. He plows through as the clock approaches midnight and, while the producer in his monitor warns him that the lateness fines are approaching $500,000, he continues with his planned encore at the foot of a massive statue of his late friend and fashion collaborator Virgil Abloh, whom he credits with breaking down traditional walls in the world of high-fashion and beyond.

As Drake performs the encore’s “secret songs” 9 for the first time since 2017 and Furthest Thing for the first time since 2015, it is clear that, as all of the emotion of the day turns into tomorrow, the energy level is starting to fade with the lyrics mostly left to the backing track to carry.

Things get back on course with show-closing Legend, including shoutouts to his mom and his son in attendance (“it’s a family affair”), thanking the “beautiful crowd that didn’t sit down for one second during the whole show” and pleading for us to take care of each other as we leave and “every day as we walk around this great city.” He goes on to promise to make up for the fact that he didn’t play any new songs from For All the Dogs tonight by returning to play multiple album shows “just for the city” at his east-end venue History next year.

Exiting OVO Arena into the early October night, I’m satisfied to have seen one of the most successful artists this city has ever produced perform at the top of his game and leave it all on the stage for his fans in an epic career-spanning set. In spite of the expense of the night, and inspired by the excess, love and loss expressed throughout the performance, I can’t help but think to myself, “You can’t take it with you,” as I slide my souvenir cocktail cup into my jacket pocket.