How many times can a professional basketball team host a night themed around a local rapper with a vaguely defined affiliation with the franchise and still have people care? The answer, we learned Wednesday, is “at least three.”
In what stands as a major credit to the public relations team of MLSE, the Raptors, Drake, OVO, and even city councillor Norm Kelly, Drake Night 3 absorbed an entire calendar day. Somehow, three years into a tradition that doesn’t actually celebrate anything, it doesn’t yet seem tired or redundant.
Wednesday saw the Hotline Bling Booth dominate the Toronto media conversation from sun-up to tip-off, with fans and local pseudo-celebrities able to film themselves dancing a la the former Degrassi star (or with their own moves) in the actual booth from Hotline Bling, folded up, driven down the road from a downtown studio, and reconstructed outside Gate 1 of the Air Canada Centre. Kelly got things started with an 8:15 dance in the booth with The Raptor, the latest in a long list of minor, mostly meaningless victories for Kelly’s team, who deserve some kind of award when 2015 is through. From there, Jack Armstrong, Strombo, the Dance Pak, and even Masai Ujiri stepped into the booth for at least a brief move or two.
It was all incredibly silly, but I think that’s kind of the point. Unlike the previous two instalments of Drake Night, Drake Night 3 had a deprecating self-awareness about it. Instead of being asked journalistic questions about what his role as global ambassador would mean for the Raptors franchise (Drake Night 1) or being tasked with pushing a Brooklyn-Toronto feud only one side saw as a rivalry (Drake Night 2), Drake Night 3 saw Drake field mostly tongue-in-cheek questions. Will Norm Kelly have a mix tape? (It’s a priority over Views From the Six.) Did you rehearse your dance moves for Hotline Bling? (They were all impromptu.) Would you do a remix with Adele? (He’d do her laundry, if she asked.)
It may be over-reaching to assume, but the Hotline Bling video itself and Drake Night 3 suggest, to me, a growing self-cognizance of the Drake brand. It’s always been there in part, as it’s tough not to be at least a little willing to laugh at yourself when you’re a serious recording artist who used to play a wheelchair-restricted teen on a cult Canadian television show. Drake entered the game a meme waiting to happen, and he’s done incredibly well to maintain that air of accessibility while also establishing himself as one of the preeminent pop culture figures of his generation. Drake isn’t “cool,” necessarily, but he’s immensely talented and largely affable, not to mention incredibly well-managed from a brand perspective. (There’s strong evidence, not the least of which is Ujiri speaking openly about Drake’s vision as a marketer and obvious intelligence, that Drake has a large hand in dictating the brand strategy himself, as he should.) Every move he makes, including the affiliation with the Raptors, which helps to keep a strong connection to his roots in the city and the city’s younger demographic despite spending less time here by necessity and luxury, is well-calculated and serves a purpose.
The Hotline Bling video almost seems like a heat check in that sense. He’s a rapper, a profession that demands those in its ranks to be cool above all else. Drake has dabbled in the odd studio gangster line, and maybe there is toughness and bad-assery at his core. But Drake isn’t at his best when he’s doing what most other rappers do. It’s part of the reason why What a Time to be Alive isn’t very good; Future is an ideal partner in popularity, for marketing, and perhaps even stylistically (that’s debatable based on taste), but not in terms of personality or spirit. Drake dominates the mixtape, but the two lack a certain chemistry, in part because they seem to be dramatically different people. Instead, Drake’s at his best in two modes: Painfully raw, emotional, and wistful (Heartbreak Drake), or genuine and kind of goofy.
In the Hotline Bling video, Drake throws all attention to image out the window. Or seems to. I shouldn’t presume to know his intention, and maybe he thinks the moves he busts out are all-timers. Personally, I thank him for recalibrating what the bar for acceptable dancing is – Drake’s moves aren’t objectionably bad, but they’re cheesy and easy, serving to make me, at worst, a replacement-level dancer. The video seems like a very meta exercise. He’s not really all that cool by traditional definitions, but he’s become so immensely popular that he can become entirely comfortable in his own skin. He can post gym selfies (he is looking quite swole, to be fair), he can say goofy things about doing Adele’s laundry, and he can step into a weird booth and just dance for three minutes, even if it has nothing to do with the song.
(A song that is terrible lyrically, by the way, something that gets overlooked because of the quality of the beat and hook, until game operations plays it 100 times in one night and you’re forced to face the reality that Drake is expressing ownership over an ex and essentially slut-shaming someone for moving on. I digress.)
Three minutes of unrehearsed, mostly uncool dancing is an incredible expression that “I’m untouchable.” The guy who was a crippled nerd on Canadian TV and got no reaction at the ACC when opening for Lil Wayne and T-Pain one January blew up the Molson Ampitheatre with a surprise appearance just a few months later and has been rising in popularity since. He has detractors, as all artists do, but the quality of his catalogue and the near unassailability of his image are independently remarkable, and interdependently unstoppable right now. Drake can seemingly do no wrong, the ultimate made man, and so he’s now just doing literally whatever he wants, because when everyone will accept whatever character you decided to portray, why not portray yourself, even if you’re more Carlton Banks than Usher Raymond?
So Wednesday seemed like an extension of that. Drake did this goofy video and has this somewhat silly annual Drake Night with the Raptors, and in this case the timing matched up perfectly to make for a really fun day around the ACC. There was the booth, there was immense TV and radio coverage (I was even on CBC Here and Now talking about Drake…seriously), there were new jerseys, free shirts and headbands, a ton of new merchandise to push, a freestyle verse specific to the Raptors thrown down by a “random fan,” and a ton of other goofy stuff. There was no veil of seriousness about Drake’s presence or role in luring Kevin Durant or anything like that, he was just there because he loves the team and the city loves him and he’s got enough bangers to play throughout an entire game without it getting stale. It was just Drake Night because an 82-game season is very long, Drake had some new merchandise to sell, and LeBron James was in town.
When he first signed on as global ambassador, he talked a lot about the city’s “momentum.” Following Pan-Am and a Blue Jays summer most will never forget, the Leafs hiring Mike Babcock, Toronto FC making the playoffs, Raptors 905 coming into existence, and the NBA All-Star Game coming here in February, Drake’s goal seems prophetic in retrospect, if not achieved. Toronto is an awesome place to be right now, especially for sports fans.
Drake Night 3 had nothing to do with that, really, but like Drake, maybe we’re all growing secure enough that we can embrace levity for a night and just have some cheap, silly fun. It doesn’t hurt that the Raptors won an awesome game and remain undefeated on Drake Night. As does Drake, and as does the MLSE organization. As intangible as the relationship is, it’s pretty clearly serving it’s purpose in adding value to the ACC experience, the MLSE bottom line, and Drake’s overall profile in the city.
Let’s do it again next year.