Drake aims to transcend the hype

Last Updated: May 22, 2010, 13:28 PM IST

New York: On a clammy Saturday afternoon in May, thousands of nose-ringed suburban teens were crammed into the Meadowlands Sports Complex in East Rutherford, N.J., to catch their favourite emo, dance, punk and emo-dance-punk acts at the two-day Bamboozle Festival. While middle-aged chaperones waited patiently in the "parents" tent, barely clothed diehards bounced from stage to stage, panting at the sight of Ke$ha, Matt & Kim, MGMT, OK Go and headliners Weezer and Paramore, among others.

But one of the night`s unexpectedly large turnouts was for 23-year-old hip-hop sensation Drake, whose highly anticipated debut album, "Thank Me Later," will be released June 15 on Aspire/Young Money/Cash Money with distribution through Universal Motown.

Backed by a five-piece band and DJ, and dressed in all black, Drake took the stage a little before 9 p.m. -- 20 minutes late due to a bad case of allergies -- and commanded the attention of even those tailgating in the parking lot.

It was Drake`s mentor and label head, Lil Wayne, who encouraged him to perform at diverse and ambitious events like Bamboozle. "When I do House of Blues in Chicago or L.A., they scream," Drake says. "But when you do these festivals, they`ll stand there and stare at you and judge you. But there`s a part of them that`s listening."

From small screen to stadiums

Born Aubrey Drake Graham in Toronto, Drake got his showbiz start playing Jimmy Brooks, the wheelchair-bound former basketball player on the Canadian teen drama "Degrassi: The Next Generation." Just a few mixtapes and an EP later, Drizzy, as he`s known, has emerged as the most revered new MC in years. As hip-hop drifts further away from rap`s basic elements and seeks to re-energize and expand its fan base with a new, hybrid sound that blends rap, R&B, dance, even alt-rock -- witness the success of B.o.B, Kid Cudi and progenitors Kanye West and OutKast -- this half-singing, half-rapping, half-Jewish, half-black former actor and current heartthrob is helping change the face of the genre firsthand.

Indeed, Drake did his thing that muggy night. After shouting out Weezy, dropping a few F-bombs to the New York Police Department and telling fans his doctor advised him not to perform, he ran through songs like "Forever," "Every Girl," "Bedrock," "Successful," "Over" and "Best I Ever Had."

That last song, off his star-minting 2009 mixtape, "So Far Gone," reached No. 1 on Billboard`s Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart and peaked at No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100, selling 1.8 million downloads, according to Nielsen SoundScan. "So Far Gone," which was released as an official album with limited tracks last year, has moved 458,000 copies.

During his performance, Drake dedicated his singing -- which he thought was a "mistake" when he originally released "So Far Gone" -- to the ladies, who he says encouraged him to hire a vocal coach this past year. And taking cues from sexified R&B performers like Usher and Trey Songz, he did an air-humping dance that had the girls googly-eyed. He danced with a young woman in cut-off shorts and a bikini top to Alicia Keys` "Un-Thinkable (I`m Ready)," which he co-wrote, and kissed her on both cheeks and forehead before she dropped to the ground in shock.

At the end of his set, Drake asked that the stage lights shine on the crowd. "I see you with the Giorgio Armani shirt, like it`s 2002," he called out to one fan. "I see you with the bikini, like we`re in Acapulco. I see you over there with the headband, just like my publicist wears," he said as fans screamed in excitement.

"I want the type of show that doesn`t feel like I`m out of place. And really, that night didn`t feel like I was an outcast," Drake says. "It was really important for me because, like Wayne said, I felt like they were listening, and they were screaming and they were excited. But most important were the faces that I could tell had never even heard of me or seen my face before, yet they were still listening. It was a great feeling."

Reaching out

It`s part of Drake`s master plan not only to engage his hardcore hip-hop fan base with his natural rap skills, but also to pull in new fans who, thanks to shows like Bamboozle, are paying attention.

"Thank Me Later" will feature production from West, No I.D., Boi-1da, Noah "40" Shebib, Timbaland, Swizz Beatz and Francis & the Lights frontman Francis Farewell Starlite -- whose band opened up for Drake on his Campus Consciousness/Away From Home college tour alongside Canadian rapper K-OS. Collaborators on the set include West, Wayne, Alicia Keys, Nicki Minaj, Jay-Z, the-Dream and T.I.

First single "Over" peaked at No. 3 on Billboard`s Rap chart, No. 4 on Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs and No. 14 on the Hot 100. Second single "Find Your Love" was recently released.

While Drake`s getting co-signs from the likes of Jay-Z, sharing verses with Eminem and being romantically linked to Rihanna, it`s his wholesome, unassuming and almost average depiction of life through music that already has him touted as the next big thing; even before releasing an official album, he`d garnered two Grammy Award nominations and two Juno Awards.

The accolades flatter Drake, but he still feels he isn`t quite there -- yet. "That`s the most flattering thing in the world, but at the same time, real, legendary status can`t be dictated by the people who are still here witnessing it," he says. "Legendary status is when the next generation comes up. The kids that are 15 right now and will be going to college in five or six years -- if they say, `Yo, I remember when Drake came to this school. That`s one of the most legendary shows ever,` that`s when you`re a legend. I`m young. I`m 23. This is too soon. I really want to grow and be that guy."

Drake understands that his swift ascension from underground mixtape rapper to the next Biggie/Lil Wayne/insert-legend-here means that listeners are expecting not just quality, but greatness in his first studio album.

"I know I have a lot of growing up to do, but I guess, unfortunately, people won`t judge me as if this is my first album or my first year in the game," he says. "This is a crucial moment for me. It actually feels like my last album, not my first. I`ll be working hard to make sure you remember it. I`ll be in your city, performing all the songs, and hopefully looking at you in your eyes and letting you know it`s real out here, man. I`m ready."

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