A frigid cold front rolled into Toronto about the same time that one of hip hop's hottest prospects, young actor-turned-rapper Drake, returned home for a few hours between tour stops. He'd been on the road for weeks with his mega-selling mentor Lil Wayne, and when the tour hit New Orleans, everyone stuck around for an extra night of gambling. Echoing his musical luck as of late, Drake, former star of Degrassi: The Next Generation, left the blackjack table with a cool $900 in his pocket.
Still, it brought him back a day late. With no time to hit the studio to finish his almost-done mixtape So Far Gone, he chose instead to gather friends for dinner and make a late-night trip to his barber, before heading to Montreal for his next show.
This is Drake's first-ever tour and though he's only onstage for a couple of songs, he's still been losing his performance cherry in front of 20,000 people a night. "I've never done my own full-fledged show. Prior to this, I'd probably performed maybe 10 times in my life," he says, seated in a resto in Toronto's hip Little Italy neighbourhood. "It's like skydiving every night. You're nervous [but once]you hit the ground, you wanna do it again."
If Drake's plan holds, it may not be long before he's headlining - he may as yet be unsigned, but he shares management with hip-hop icons Wayne and Kanye West, and he worked on Dr. Dre's feverishly anticipated album Detox. He also has a MySpace page, where So Far Gone now resides, which boasts almost 30 million plays.
It probably helps that Aubrey Graham (Drake's his middle name) spent eight years on Degrassi: The Next Generation playing Jimmy Brooks, famously wheelchair-bound after a school shooting. The perennially popular high-school soap is a hit in Canada and a pandemonium-causing cult sensation down south. ("There are very few subtle Degrassi fans," notes the 23-year-old wryly).
And though he has the swagger of someone used to screaming fans, Drake doesn't appear to have the ego to match.
On his latest leaked track - a Wayne-assisted remix of Santigold's Unstoppable, which Kanye West posted on his popular blog, he even boasts of having "a decent set of manners." Sure, he summered in hardscrabble Memphis with his music-veteran father after his parents divorced when he was 5, but the school year was spent with his Jewish mother in Toronto's well-heeled Forest Hill.
"I loved the contrast, it kept me grounded. I never got caught up in the whole Forest Hill thing, but I also never was like, 'oh, I want to be hood.' It was a good balance, I got to see both sides of life," he says. "I'm not a wild dude; I'm a nice, approachable guy. I think it was beneficial being an actor first. It taught me about being poised, about having class, how to deal with interviews and fans."
During his final season on Degrassi last year, the producers made his character a rapper against his wishes. "I was really apprehensive about it because this is my whole leap from this and now you're going to make me into a rapper character? So I wrote my own verses and tried to keep it as not-corny as possible. And it worked out."
Drake, who is also known as Drizzy, made minor waves in 2006 with his self-released mixtape Room for Improvement and again in 2007 with the breakthrough Comeback Season. But things really started rolling when a friend from Houston serendipitously slid the latter to Lil Wayne last June. "He got through like 2½ songs and stopped the CD and called me right away. Like, 'yo, what are you doing? This is Weezy.' I was like, 'I'm just getting my hair cut.' And he said, 'I need you on a flight tonight.' "
Drake stayed on the road with Wayne for more than a week, laying down three songs on their last night. "That just sparked a whole partnership. It was undeniable chemistry - everyone that listened was like, damn, those guys sound good together. We look so different, but, y'know, young angel, young lion."
They've since collaborated on 15 tracks, including the online burner Ransom, and Wayne's co-sign sent Drake's Stateside rep soaring. But he comes by his superstar associations honestly. "I have a history of music and soul inside me," he says, noting his father was a drummer for rock 'n' roll legend Jerry Lee Lewis and his uncle is "Teenie" Hodges, guitarist and co-writer on Al Green's greatest hits.
Where Drake is really staking his claim is on the mixtape's original tracks, which eschew the requisite club bangers that most newcomers arrive with. (He did try the mainstream route with the 2006 single Replacement Girl, even making a cheesy video that aired on BET, but when industry folks wanted more carbon copies, he retreated.)
Produced by Toronto's Noah "40" Shebib along with D10 and Boi-1da, So Far Gone's core sound explores dark, relatively radio-unfriendly waters. Its icy moodiness is a far cry from the "next Fresh Prince" tag that Vibe magazine recently bestowed on Drake. The big downtempo beats move at a crawl while the bass rumbles ominously and synths go spectral behind Drake's methodical flow and self-crooned (and occasionally auto-tuned) choruses. The lyrics to such songs as Successful and Lust for Life are surprisingly vulnerable, revealing an insecurity that's rare in hip hop. On the forlorn epic Say What's Real, Drake even outshines Kanye West's own Say You Will beat.
"That's the thing about having an opportunity before the commerce comes into play," says Shebib. "You can't put out a record like that in the real world because you don't have anything that's going to go to radio or to the club. This is a chance to do that without taking a loss, because it's a mixtape. We're not selling it, we're giving it away."
Though parts of So Far Gone were recorded on the road, most of it was laid down in Shebib's condo. It's an apt locale: a high-end high-rise on a new street that doesn't yet exist on GPS. The area seems desolate, but the surrounding construction means this building won't be alone for long. Big things are coming, and fast.
"This mixtape is a story dating back to January," Drake explains. "From there I just take people on a journey. I have a song for Houston because that's where I met Wayne, and I have stuff about women that I went through and the climactic ending is where we are now. It's just me chasing all these things, chasing success, money and love," says Drake, adding it's also a test-run for his debut album, Thank Me Later, expected to drop in late-summer.
Though major labels are circling - Drake says he'll make an announcement soon - so far everything has just sort of happened. Take Brand New, the first song Drake ever sang on. Sending it out into the Internet ether, it took on a life of its own: Wayne remixed it, Stevie Wonder's daughter told Drake her dad uses it to warm up his for shows and YouTube is filled with non-famous fans singing along to it.
"We've done things very unorthodox and not necessarily in our favour financially, i.e. releasing another piece of work for free," says Drake's business partner, Oliver El-Khatib. "But this is his chance to put out music that's just for the sake of art. He's not answering to anybody. There's no label. This is a position piece - look, I'm an artist."
Besides, he adds, "this whole thing is unusual at this point, so we're just rolling with the fairytale vibe."