OVO is the kind of festival where Lauryn Hill will not only appear unannounced, but will walk onstage without so much as an introduction.
It took the sold-out Toronto crowd a couple songs to realize they had a legend on the mic, though they sussed it out in time to start singing along to The Fugees' classic "Ready or Not" and Hill's solo smash "Doo Wop (That Thing)."
But then Drake walked out onto the Molson Amphitheatre stage and while he made a "we're-not-worthy" bow to the woman who perhaps inspired his signature mix of R&B and rap, the explosion of excitement made it clear who the real legend here was.
This was the 5th annual OVO Fest, an event that was initially created to cement Drake's rising stardom and now exists to expand his empire. But the problem this year was that the shows didn't expand it enough.
Drake did manage to make OVO a two-day affair this time after last year's attempt with Frank Ocean fell through when the singer's vocal chords blew. But there was no connective tissue between Outkast's headlining set on Sunday night (following the reunited duo's weekend appearances at Lollapalooza in Chicago and Osheaga in Montreal) and Drake's on Monday.
Which is not to say that Outkast was bad -- though Andre 3000 did get seemingly bored enough to pontificate on the origins of panties -- just that it was an Outkast concert not OVO Fest. At no point did Drake come onstage to welcome the crowd to his festival, introduce Outkast or even perform with opener YG on their "Who Do You Love" collab.
That latter did happen the next night, of course, which made that opening night even more disconnected. Really, the only thing that made it part of the festival was the $170 OVO hoodies on sale in the merch booths.
OVO is sold as Drake and special guests, and the bar for those surprise appearances was raised sky-high in year one when an up-and-coming Drizzy brought out Eminem and Jay Z. In subsequent years, everyone from Lil Wayne to Stevie Wonder has made an appearance, though he really hit a high water mark last year with reunions of TLC, Puffy and Mase, as well as a mesmerizing Kanye set.
It was a peak that, as many expected, Drake could not meet. Instead, L-Boogie was joined by Usher in mid-tempo mode (what, it would have killed you to do "Yeah" or one of your other club jams?) and 50 Cent, who is somehow an even worse rapper now than he was a decade ago.
The mushmouth MC couldn't even deliver on "In Da Club," a song so popular I could probably have gotten the crowd equally hyped. Other guests included vastly underrated MC J Cole and vastly overrated DJ Khaled, but neither were buzzworthy appearances.
This left all the heavy lifting to Drake himself, and he did a yeoman's job at it, digging deep into his back catalogue for some early mixtape jams and paying respect to Trey Songz, his first U.S. collaborator, who came out to croon the hook on Drake's breakthrough "Successful," as well as his own Lauryn Hill-copping current hit, "Na Na."
Drake then tore the metaphorical roof off the amphitheatre with a string of rap-along hits like "We Made It," "Trophies," "The Motto," "Over," and our new national anthem, "Started From The Bottom." At one point he even sailed over the crowd on a tiny platform for the drunk-dial epic "Marvin's Room," and adorkably acknowledged "There's not many rappers who would do this shit, just me and One Direction."
He performed "Hold On, We're Going Home" with collaborators, and OVO Records signees, Majid Jordan. His Weeknd-ish signing Partynextdoor was there, too, though the Weeknd was not, reducing their epic "Crew Love" to riding a pre-recorded hook. Wayne wasn't there, either, for "HYFR," and both absences were felt.
As was Kendrick Lamar, who got a shout-out and a beef-quashing as Drake professed his admiration for the breakout rap star, and former tourmate, who took shots at Drake on his infamous "Control" verse (Though to be fair, he took shots at everyone.) "There's lots of kings in this shit," Drake said, but at past OVOs he actually brought out onstage artists like The Weeknd or Kanye that he was reportedly beefing with.
To maintain OVO's mystique, Drake needed an Kanye-level icon like Dr Dre or Missy Elliott to close, and maybe a current chart-topper like Iggy Azalea, controversial but also already in town for VELD Fest, or Lil Jon, whose "Turn Down For What" would have given the place a much-needed energy boost from Drake's downtempo detours. And he really could have used a Nicki Minaj appearance to debut her viral "Anaconda" single.
But maybe what OVO needs even more is to get off the special guest train.
The guesswork of who will show up is part of the fun, sure, but Drake's rolodex is running low if Fiddy is his premiere guest. Or to be more accurate, and quote no less than Kanye, Drake is now the biggest star in hip-hop, so who can he book that will wow more than himself?
Thing is, that defeats the current raison d'etre of OVO, so maybe now it's time to focus on the Fest part of the title.
At one point Drake boasted this had become one of the biggest festivals in the world, but it's not. Just this past weekend VELD brought in 85,000 over the previous two-days while hundreds of thousands attended Osheaga and Lollapalooza. Drake only cleared about 16,000 each night but that's because of the venue capacity, not his potential drawing power.
This year proved a great capper for the first stage of OVO, with Drake using the opportunity to create a "this is your life" type set list -- dude even wheeled his mom out on stage! -- but going forward Drizzy needs to make it less about him and more about the festival.
He needs to move it from the amphitheatre to Ontario Place next door, where Digital Dreams was held, and take a Perry Farrell-type curator role to turn his festival into a Drakeapalooza.
Drake said from the stage, and not for the first time, that Toronto is the greatest city in the world. Well, time to give us the greatest hip-hop and R&B festival in the world.
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