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."
From there, musical success followed in short order: rap rainmaker Lil Wayne took Drake under his wing in 2008, giving the new jack's street credibility and currency an immeasurable boost. Then Drake self-distributed the epochal mix tape 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 to spark a major label bidding war and paving the way for a nationwide tour.
Musically, 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 pitch-correcting computer program Auto-Tune).
Viewed another way, Drake fits into a continuum of rap debutantes that includes Kanye West and Queens hardcore MC 50 Cent, both of whom similarly generated a deafening hive of buzz before either of their debut albums came out. The jury, however, is still out on Drake's ability to grab hip-hop's brass ring like those MCs.
"Hip-hop is all about moments," said Drake. "You look at people who were hot three or four years ago who are sitting around reminiscing. It's fickle. It's a game of moments. I'm the moment right now."
Recording for "Thank Me Later" began in October after the rapper tore ligaments in his knee during a performance. He laid down tracks in Jamaica's Geejam Studio New York, Houston, Atlanta and at West Hollywood's venerable NightBird Recording Studios. Of the album's 14 cuts, half include high-profile collaborations with a murderer's row of hit makers: Jay-Z ("Light Up") and Alicia Keys ("Fireworks") as well as producer-singer The-Dream, Southern trap rappers T.I., Young Jeezy and Drake's Young Money label mates Lil Wayne and Nicki Minaj. West produced two songs on the record, 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.' "
In fact, to hear it from the rapper — who, in conversation, demonstrates flashes of boyishness, the outsize ego of a rap-R&B big shot and the courtliness of a Southern gent, but who overwhelmingly comes off as a reasonable dude — the central operating principal was to push creative boundaries. For example, deploying slow jams, R&B hooks, a certain borderline melancholy and melody choices that fall decidedly outside what has passed for mainstream until now. Hence, the album title "Thank Me Later." As in: "I think it's going to take people a while to get it," Drake said. "Every song, you want to take a deep breath afterward."
While a critical mass of MCs these days — including LL Cool J, Common and Will Smith — have parlayed their rap world Q-rating into careers in the movies or TV, Drake is for now content to remain in the musical realm and keep acting on the back burner; he's even stopped referring to himself as "the new version of the Fresh Prince."
Already musing about calling his second album "Moments," Drake directly contradicted the opening verse of "Forever" (see this story's third paragraph) 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," he 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."