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James Blake Plays OVO Fest, Finds His Place In Hip-Hop

When asked about Drake’s self-reflection, Blake eagerly admits, “I like that in him.” Later in the evening, Drake will play his Destiny’s Child-sampling “Girls Love Beyonce,” a through-and-through R&B song about getting burned and feeling isolated in a relationship, which Blake describes as having “a lot of vulnerability.” True as that may be, the two differ in an important and obvious way—where Blake is always “on,” singing effortlessly about discomfort and loneliness, Drake is as prone to pen “Beyonce” as he is to rap about Miami strip clubs on a braggadocios radio hit (see: “All Me”).

He’s also minutes away from all but ditching his vulnerable side to put on his very own rap all-star show that will feature performances from just about every swag-obsessed artist in the world, from Diddy to Lil Wayne to Big Sean to French Montana. This speaks to Drake’s fan base more than it does to the actual individual.

While Drake and Blake are not-so-different artists who find ways to meet in the middle with their music, their fans are as different as can be. Where Drake is most celebrated for his bravado and his cosigning of the “who cares?” YOLO lifestyle, listeners of Blake’s music are often reminded of their own frailty and the harsher side of the fact that they only LO. They’re both vulnerable, sure, but the way they’re experienced by fans puts them at opposite ends of the vulnerability spectrum, with different live show expectations to live up to.

After loitering in his trailer after his set and geeking out about the Roland TR-808 and the Teenage Engineering OP1 Synthesizer, Blake, his manager and his girlfriend—a fellow musician he met at Barcelona’s Primavera Sound Festival—make their way back toward the theatre and pass by a battalion of high-end cars and a frantic 40 (Drake’s longtime producer) before ducking into the side-stage area where All Access guests are permitted to stand and watch Drake’s unfolding event. Nobody notices James, and he seems to prefer it that way.

For two hours, he and his girlfriend (who’s only slightly more enthusiastic) serenely stand by and watch the over-the-top ridiculousness that is OVO Fest unfold. His eyes widen at certain moments, like when Lil Wayne hops onstage, and even occasionally flashes a timid dance move to some of his favorite cuts (i.e. Big Sean performing G.O.O.D. Music posse cut “Mercy”), but on the whole Blake’s a stoic onlooker. Though the festival wouldn’t make sense for someone as understated as him to enjoy, later he diplomatically declares, “There was a lot of energy in that show.” Does that mean he would ever try to put a show like this on himself? He clarifies, “You can create energy in loads of different ways.”

Long after his manager and his bandmates have left the venue, exploring Toronto for better prospects than a Drake concert, Blake remains, and sees Drake’s set through to the end. As the lights go up and 20,000 people pile out of the amphitheater, James follows his girlfriend to the backstage area and shoves through the masses of fans but gets stuck in a security standoff. Exalted concertgoers hover around, hoping for an encore from Drake, and one looks over at Blake and yells, “James Blake! You’re fuckin’ awesome!” Blake doesn’t notice, and neither does anyone else, and just like that he disappears, just another Drake fan in the crowd.

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