Support act The Weeknd hollered “Wanderlust” – a caddish plea for a one-night stand – as though serenading a tiny dot far away in the upper stands of the O2 Arena. “You know tonight is the only time we’ll have each other,” he wailed; a tumultuous guitar solo made clear the momentousness of the invitation. Yet the R&B singer and his band were crammed on a tiny stage. One step towards the object of his desire and he was in danger of falling off.
The space got more expansive for Drake’s set. Curtains lifted to reveal a tilted circular structure. Musicians were semi-hidden within the “O” while the main attraction stood above them, drinking in the applause, of which there was a lot. Then the Toronto rapper launched into “Tuscan Leather”, from last year’s album Nothing Was the Same, its verses an unabashed celebration of how successful he is. “Started from the bottom, now we’re here,” he exulted.
Only three years ago Drake played his first solo show in London. Now he’s one of the biggest names in hip-hop: tonight’s gig was the first of three at the O2. He represents a new chapter in rap’s impressive history of egotism, channelling the music of the streets into a me-centred examination of the trials and triumphs of Aubrey Drake Graham.
The trials derive from his untraditional rap background: mixed-race, Canadian, middle-class; worst of all, an actor. But the resulting streak of insecurity merely fuels his self-absorption. “You know it’s real when you are who you think you are,” he rapped in “Pound Cake”. Almost 20,000 up-for-it fans brought into the solipsistic logic. They were rewarded with a focused and committed performance.
Songs were truncated and filleted for the best beats and hooks. Drake rapped with perfect timing, his nasal, wheedling style reminiscent of his mentor Lil’ Wayne. The self-indulgent monologues I recall from his 2011 show were cut while the sappy love songs that followed the harder material were delivered with slick charm.
But there was one glaring error in judgment. It came when he embarked on a marathon audience shout-out, an idea cribbed from Jay-Z, which went on at such tedious length – “I see you right there with the blonde hair on top of your head,” etc – that Drake, in a moment of mad individualism, seemed determined to identify every single person present. Of course it was his favourite part of the show.