Drake was the subject of a major label bidding war after a self-released… (Genaro Molina / Los Angeles…)
The crowd at downtown Los Angeles' Club Nokia arrived primed and pumped up. Not just to be entertained, but, more palpably, to witness a make-or-break moment.
When the Canadian rapper-cum-R&B crooner Drake bounded onstage last month, he was greeted with a hail of applause as well as an eerie cathodic blue glow that quickly settled over the 2,300 capacity auditorium — the side effect of hundreds of camera phones aimed and at the ready for Drake's high-energy opening number, "Forever."
The audience shouted along, fists aloft, with every word to the first couplet: "Last name: 'Ever.' First name: 'Greatest'/ Like a sprained ankle, boy — I ain't nuttin' to play with."
About a third of the way through the set, though, Drake impressed the exuberant cross-section of sneakerheads and hoochie mamas, bloggers and music industry honchos by sending a heartfelt shout-out to L.A. "This is the most important show on this tour for me," Drake said between songs. "The most important show I'ma do."
Which is a curious thing for any MC with a substantial coast-to-coast fan base to say, let alone one whose "Away From Home" world tour will take him to such hip-hop hotbeds as New York City, New Orleans and London. But later, amid the quirky opulence of his white-on-white penthouse suite at the SLS Hotel, Drake made his point clear.
"I knew word would get back from here to everybody I've worked with, probably everybody I have ever idolized," he said, snuggling beneath a fur blanket, clearly fatigued. "People were coming out like, 'All right, here's your shot here in Hollywood. What are you made of? They say you're the guy to watch and we're going to come and judge.' I wanted to prove a lot."
The artist also known as "Drizzy" had grown somewhat accustomed to the relentless pace of life on the road. But will he be able to cope with every vagary of nascent rap stardom?
After a relatively meteoric rise from hip-hop anonymity, scoring two Top 10 hits off self-released mix-tape "So Far Gone," snagging two Grammy nominations last year and triggering a major label bidding war (which resulted in a lucrative deal with Aspire/Young Money/Cash Money Records that's distributed through Universal Motown), Drake, 23, has been unofficially anointed hip-hop's new Young Lion. To be sure, he's the foremost rhymesayer under 30 — save, perhaps, for Drake's mentor and Young Money label doyen Lil Wayne, who's serving a one-year prison sentence. Drizzy Drake is the genre's go-to guy for a quick hit and has already collaborated with the platinum-plus likes of Eminem, Jamie Foxx, Alicia Keys and Young Jeezy.
Still, the arrival of Drake's debut album "Thank Me Later," which reaches retail on Tuesday as one of 2010's most anticipated CDs, marks a new stage in his career; call it his grand unveiling after nearly a year and a half of relentless hype. And Drake owned up to feeling a certain obligation to deliver.
"A lot of people are treating this not like it's my first album — but like it's my last album," he said. "It could be my last if it's not that great. That's where the pressure comes from: people thinking I won't have another chance."
In an era when album sales are hitting lows not registered since the early '70s and the urban music world in particular remains more fixated on racking up ring-tone sales than nurturing an artist's longevity, the accepted wisdom remains that it is easier to build an audience for a new performer than to create loyalty among listeners.
In the view of XXL magazine senior editor Benjamin Meadows-Ingram, Drake is "the No. 1 draft pick, a legitimate career player" in hip-hop right now. But at this cultural tipping point — when the idea of an artist shifting more than a million copies in first week sales seems to belong to a bygone era — Meadows-Ingram feels the metric of success for "Thank Me Later" will be something other than the raw numbers.
"He's able to enter the market at a time when people have a diminished expectations," said Meadows-Ingram. "There is no benchmark for what success is. And if you can't judge it on sales alone, you have to ask, 'Did the album artistically perform the way you wanted it to?' "
Considered within that context, Drake's career so far has been a triumph of profile management and controlled bursts of envelope pushing. The half-Jewish, Toronto-born performer (né: Aubrey Drake Graham) effectively transcended his earlier, not inconsiderable renown as a TV star — he portrayed Jimmy, a wheelchair-bound high school lothario from 2001 to '08 on the popular Canadian teen drama "DeGrassi: The Next Generation" (which also airs in the U.S.) —- to construct an alternate persona as a hip-hop star.
"I'm just grateful [that] I'm not just the kid off 'DeGrassi' anymore," he said. "Everybody on 'DeGrassi,' the producers, made us feel 'DeGrassi' was the biggest thing we would ever do in our lives, like that was the end of the road for all of us."