Hip-hop stars hit one of the country's biggest venues...

I have a confession to make. I love arena shows. The bigger the better! I know that intimate performances are considered cooler, but there’s something about the ridiculous energy and overblown excitement of an arena that I can’t get enough of.

It might have something to do with the fact that I’ve never been into sports. I feel like the same atmosphere that sports fans have described to me, is the one I get from waiting for some mega-star to hit the stage. Everyone on high alert, with even the smallest sign of activity evoking shrieks of excitement. A few too many camera lights arousing suspicion in one section of the arena creates a virus of tiny lights across the crowd, FOMO-fuelled as they desperately fumble to capture the activity (it just happens to be two girls dancing in the aisle.) An arena show is perhaps the only environment that has grown men and women screaming with delighted approval for the removal of a black curtain, while they sip on a medium Coke that cost them £4.

Another reason that I love arena shows is that, despite my career as a music writer, I rarely get to go to them. This is the trouble with specialising in hip-hop. Although it’s the biggest genre of music in the world right now, it’s also one of the most diverse, and rarely does an artist achieve the kind of star power that allows them to headline an arena. The culture’s most successful crossovers tend to headline O2 Academy’s, and its the same handful of names that I get to experience in arenas every couple of years.

These shows tend to start off with a warm up set which sets the tone for people to experience what a usual hip-hop show would be like, a technique that leaves plenty room for the main act to blow the crowd out of the water. On his ‘Boy Meets World’ Tour, Drake basically has the pick of the bunch when it comes to support acts, so he’s quite rightly opted for of the biggest current names in rap, Young Thug, as well as one of his own OVO Sound signees R&B duo DVSN (although only singer Daniel Daley can be seen on stage, with producer Nineteen85 presumably behind the scenes.)

In many ways Atlanta’s Young Thug is an evolution of the sound that Drake has popularised in hip-hop; putting melody before pretty much anything else, but retaining enough rhythmic sensibility to be deemed a rapper over a singer. Of course, Young Thug has taken this to almost abstraction, with excited fans lining the urinals admitting to each other: “I don’t even know the words, but it sounds good,” as they attempt to mimic his bars and ponder what he’ll pull from his already extensive catalogue.

Thugger’s work rate - his Wikipedia page lists 16 projects since 2011 - suggests that the studio is where he’s most comfortable, and this comes across during his performance. The enigmatic rapper stalks the stage, eyes to the ground while delivering tracks from last year’s trio of mixtape offerings - at times breaking into mind-blowing acapella sections that serve as a glimpse at his incredible approach to manipulating language to fit his means. A somewhat reluctant performer initially, he loosens up after a while wandering onto a platform in the centre of the arena from which he performs his biggest hits, ‘Pick Up The Phone’ and ‘Lifestyle’, his star potential shining through as he grows increasingly comfortable with his environment.

At this point in his career, Drake is navigating uncharted waters. He’s reached a level in the grey area between hip-hop artist and pop star that hasn’t yet been achieved. And since his first UK appearance as support for Jay-Z at Manchester’s MEN Arena in 2010, his show - and the production around it - has been working to follow that. Tonight he’s using platforms to beam himself up out of the stage, fireworks to punctuate his percussion, choreographed levitating orbs and a fiery inflatable globe that resembles the eye of Sauron: hip-hop has never gone this far before!

During interludes between tracks, he maintains a theatrical sincerity while he shares rehearsed stories, straight out of ‘La La Land’, of nights spent playing in a restaurant band with his keyboard player for $150. “We used to split that four ways,” he insists, without ever cracking a smile, followed by a staged argument with his band for playing too many slow jams. During the upbeat numbers, he manoeuvres the stage like one of his beloved Toronto Raptors, playing invisible defence and running drills as he crescendos into screw-faced reactions that follow devastating lyrical blows to his imaginary offence. There is a level of meme to all of this, and he embraces the online humour that surrounds him, hamming everything up and owning his self-awareness.

Drake’s discography has reached a place that allows for the kind of unpredictable set-list usually reserved for veteran bands with huge cult followings. ‘Boy Meets World’ is a celebration of Drake’s career in totality, from his 2009 breakthrough ‘So Far Gone’ to unreleased music that’s expected to land on his forthcoming ‘More Life’ project. The show sees Drake navigating the various styles and cultures that he’s co-opted into his music, switching up the vibe (and often his accent: “Selectah, this better be a bad tune bruddah!” he declares at one point) from London Roadman to Jamaican Soundboy, as he introduced sounds to the arena environment - dancehall, hyphy, trap - that aren’t commonly witnessed there.

Rather than building up to his biggest pop smash, the show is carefully sequenced around energy levels; an explosive medley of throwback hits, for example, is followed by a smooth selection of R&B cuts. And long after ‘Hotline Bling’ and ‘One Dance’ have triumphed, Drake is digging into 2015 mixtape tracks to the delight of his strongly invested fan-base (but less so to the local newspaper journalist to my left, who’s taken to investigating the call log of his Nokia mobile.)

The difference between the hip-hop shows that I’m used to attending and the arena set up, isn’t so much to do with the music - it’s rare that hip-hop, no matter what size the venue, really sounds better live than the studio version. But as he rattles through a mammoth set-list of over 30 tracks, Drake is creating an experience for his devotees. Through his showmanship and the extravagant show production, he adds new context to the music that we’ve previously only consumed on record.

And the more obtuse these presentations are, the more memorable they become. Those tracks that were nestled into the middle of 17 MP3’s on our phones suddenly have an extra layer of meaning, they’re now attached to memories that we’ll discuss in the bar afterwards, as we venture out in search of a suitable after-party and the next day when we revisit them through our speakers.

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Words: Grant Brydon

Photo Credit: Vicky Grout (Taken at the O2 Arena, London)

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