The crowd at downtown L.A.'s Club Nokia arrived primed and pumped up. Not just to be entertained, but 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 - 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, bloggers and industry honchos by sending a heartfelt shout-out to L.A. "This is the most important show on this tour for me," he said. "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, New Orleans and London. (Drake's free show last Tuesday at South Street Seaport was canceled after nearly double the 10,000 expected fans showed up and some became unruly.)
After his L.A. show, 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."
Lion's roaring success
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 his self-released mixtape, "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 Lil Wayne, who's serving a one-year prison sentence.
Still, the arrival of his debut album, "Thank Me Later," which came out last week, marks a new stage in his grand unveiling. And he 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."
In an era when album sales are sagging and the urban music world remains more fixated on racking up ringtone sales than nurturing artists, 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 time 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 diminished expectations," Meadows-Ingram said. "You have to ask, 'Did the album artistically perform the way you wanted it to?'"
Schooled on 'DeGrassi'
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 (born Aubrey Drake Graham) transcended his earlier renown as a TV star - he portrayed Jimmy, a wheelchair-bound high school Lothario from 2001 to '08 on the popular teen drama "DeGrassi: The Next Generation" - to construct an alternate persona as a hip-hop star.
"I'm just grateful 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."
From there, musical success followed in short order: rap rainmaker Lil Wayne took him under his wing in 2008, giving the new jack's street credibility and currency an immeasurable boost. Then, Drake self-distributed the epochal mixtape EP "So Far Gone," which sold hundreds of thousands of iTunes downloads and yielded the single "Best I Ever Had." It topped the R&B/hip-hop chart for seven weeks, helping spark a major label bidding war and paving the way for a nationwide tour.
On many of his most memorable songs ("Successful," "Over"), Drake articulates a mixture of lyrical braggadocio and material disillusionment that seems somehow poignant at a time of global recession - when hip-hop seems to be going through a pronounced soul-searching phase. Meanwhile, he stands out from the rest of the current freshman pack (B.o.B., Kid Cudi, Wale, et al) by blending no-nonsense rapping (that owes a conscious debt to Kanye West) with an alt-R&B singing style (bearing a heavy helping of the pitchcorrecting computer program Auto-Tune).
Viewed another way, Drake fits into a continuum of rap debutantes that includes West and Queens hard-core MC 50 Cent, both of whom similarly generated a deafening hive of buzz before either of their debut albums came out. "Hip-hop is all about moments," Drake said. "You look at people who were hot three or four years ago who are sitting around reminiscing. It's fickle. I'm the moment right now."
Recording for "Thank Me Later" began in October. Of the album's 14 cuts, half include collaborations with hit makers: Jay-Z ("Light Up") and Alicia Keys ("Fireworks") as well as producer-singer The-Dream, Southern rappers T.I., Young Jeezy and Drake's label mates Lil Wayne and Nicki Minaj. West produced two songs, including what Drake terms his first out-and-out mainstream effort, "Find Your Love."
"I didn't go the safe route," Drake said. "I could have put somebody on every song. I don't want people to be able to say, 'He got so much assistance on this album and didn't work hard enough.' "
Already musing about calling his second album "Moments," he directly contradicted the opening verse of "Forever" to address his current position within hip-hop and look toward the future.
"I don't feel like I'm a great rapper right now," Drake said, rubbing his forehead and stifling a yawn. "I feel I'm good at what I do. But I want to be - if not the best - I want to reach my personal best. I just want to be better, man. That's all."