When he first left Toronto to chase his dreams, Drake just wanted to be successful. Instead he found himself lost in a world that wasn’t too welcoming. Three years later he’s returned triumphant, bossing up and building his T-Dot movement, with more to take care of than ever before. There’s a lot of hate out there, but can a young spitter find love in the heart of the city?
This feature appears in Complex's December 2011 / January 2012 issue.
Drake isn’t happy. Not in an existential way or anything. He’s not upset about the direction his life is heading, or about the subliminal potshots rappers keep sending his way. Nah, he’s unhappy with how his photo shoot for this magazine is going down. Which is surprising because it’s a bright, unseasonably warm October afternoon in downtown Toronto, and things were going so well.
We’re perched on the roof of the posh Thompson Hotel where Drizzy’s being photographed overlooking his city like a feudal lord surveying his kingdom. To his left are cranes modernizing the largest city in Canada. To his right is the Rogers Centre, the convertible stadium seen in his “Headlines” video.
Suddenly Drake tells the photographer to stop and calls for his manager, Oliver El Khatib, 25, co-captain of the creative team October’s Very Own. Canceling a cover shoot at this stage would be a serious waste of time and money, but Drake doesn’t give a fuck. He wants things done his way or not at all.
Drake doesn’t want to keep shooting with this photographer. He’d rather get Hyghly Alleyne & Lamar Taylor—the same young Toronto dudes who shot the “Headlines” video—to finish the job. Never mind the fact that the first photographer is also a young cat from Toronto who’d been approved by Drake’s management and publicists.
“I’m not going to take that shit,” Drake says when I ask him later what went wrong at the shoot. “Nah man, I work too fucking hard for that. So does everyone around me.” Drake doesn’t often yell, even when he’s riled up. When he wants to emphasize a point, he focuses his stare and slows his speech so it’s clear. “Not to hate,” he says, “and to whoever I snatched that opportunity from, I apologize. But this is about what we’re trying to build here.”
What Aubrey Graham, 25, and his OVO crew are trying to build here is— excuse the cliché—a Toronto movement.
I just feel like I'm really good right now. I've never felt like that before.
“For Drake we have these budgets where we can do videos and shoot photographs by whoever the fuck we want, the hottest guys in New York or L.A.,” Oliver explains. “But I’d rather take Hyghly and Lamar, two kids who are 20 years old... I’d rather build up their portfolios and help them get on and do this video. So now they’ve done ‘Marvin's Room’ and ‘Headlines,’ and hopefully they can do more videos. They shot all Drake’s album artwork.
“We have this little fun factory in Toronto where there’s music being made, there’s art being done, videos being made, we’re starting to work more on our clothing,” Oliver says. “It’s kind of fun, you know? We’re giving opportunities to kids who deserve it... It’s different because everything we’ve done has worked.”
“There used to be a conversation in the Toronto hip-hop scene,” says producer Noah “40” Shebib. “You would [ask] on a regular basis: Who do you think is goin’ to do it? Do you think it’s even possible? Do you think a Canadian rapper could ever blow up in America? That conversation doesn’t get had anymore.”
Since breaking into the mainstream with So Far Gone, the 2009 mixtape that became his hip-hop baptism, Drake has positioned himself as one of music’s premier players. This coup was facilitated by his alliance with Lil Wayne, who damn near kidnapped the young Canadian, taking him on a nationwide tour before throwing him on numerous tracks. When Weezy reported to Rikers Island in March 2010 for an eight-month bid, Drake and his fellow Young Money/ Cash Money signee Nicki Minaj stepped up as the label’s primary breadwinners. His moody, emotionally honest debut, Thank Me Later, hit No. 1 on Billboard, selling 447,000 in the first week, and birthing three Top 20 hits.
Drake’s introspective, self-effacing lyrics—usually delivered in clever, succinct couplets—reveal the inner machinations of many dudes in their mid-twenties: the quest to live life to the limit, not just survive a nine-to-five; the balance of carnal desires with sincere compassion for women’s feelings; the struggle to act responsible when all you want to do is blow your paycheck on lap dances, liquor, and weed.