It’s a few minutes past 7 and James Blake and his bandmates are sitting in a trailer, still buzzing from their performance to a half-full amphitheater. Blake’s manager, Dan Foat, takes a sip of a beer and admits, “Everybody’s looking at us like, ‘Who are these skinny British guys?’” By everybody, Foat means the intimidating security, anxious fans and even some of the fellow artists at Drake’s OVO Fest in Toronto, and though Blake is an invited co-headlining guest here, he and his crew are clearly out of place.
Really, the electronic singer/songwriter is only here by circumstance. He was initially scheduled to perform during the first day of the festival, alongside an equally-alternative Frank Ocean, but after Ocean sustained a vocal injury, Blake was left alone as the only non-hip-hop artist on the bill. Even with Drake cutting his hometown party down to one day from two, he still wanted Blake to perform, so much so that he squeezed Blake’s set in at the last minute and scheduled him for a 7 p.m. slot, with the summer sun overpowering the venue and its occupants. It’s far from the twilight hour in which Blake prefers to perform, but the U.K.-bred musician is happy to be here. “Now we get to play for Drake’s fans,” he said earnestly before his set, “which is a silver lining.”
Blake is aware that Drake’s fans are not his own, but that might not be the case for long. After all, OVO Fest is just another moment in a long-brewing relationship that has found the universe pulling the two forces together. In March of 2011, Fader published a cover story on Blake, in which the writer and the subject started out at a Drake concert. At OVO, Blake explains that the profile happened before he’d even met Drake, but afterward he was inspired to delve into the Toronto native’s back catalogue. He admits that he liked the way Drake was making hip-hop.
Then on Memorial Day of this year, a “fake” tracklist of Drake’s forthcoming Nothing Was The Same leaked, on which Blake was credited for producing a song called “Her Regrets.” That placement came as a surprise to some, but only those who had neglected Blake’s recent love affair with hip-hop. In the past year, Blake collaborated with RZA on “Take A Fall For Me” from his sophomore album Overgrown; rumors swirled about Blake working with Kendrick Lamar, which went on to be both confirmed and denied by both parties; Mississippi rapper Big K.R.I.T. released a black and white video for “R.E.M.,” which sampled Blake’s “The Wilhelm Scream”; and during a rare Twitter Q&A with his fans, Jay Z admitted that Blake was one of the only non-rap artists to whom he’d been listening. “Each of those people, I’ve listened to their album a lot, and they’ve got in touch and said they listened to my album,” Blake explains. “And that’s something that’s very flattering… That’s about as organic of a way as you could want to be on someone’s radar. It’s not business, it’s just music.”
At OVO Fest, no one in attendance seems to notice that the withheld, wiry 24-year-old in all black is the the artist on every rapper’s mind. But as he walks from his trailer toward the stage, a blacked-out Mercedes rolls down its window and Kanye West (a surprise guest here) stops Blake in his tracks. For minutes, the two talk about whatever it is Kanye West and James Blake have to talk about, and just like that, the window is rolled up and Blake walks off. Later, rumors will circulate that Diddy is also dying to meet Blake.