It’s hard to say where the drama between Drake and the artist formerly known as Kanye West and their respective camps began. Some say Ye soured on Drake early; it’d explain past quirks like removing his guest verse from My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy’s “All of the Lights” in 2010. Others point to the late aughts tiff between Lil Wayne, Drake’s mentor and former Young Money labelmate, and Pusha-T, a regular Ye collaborator and president of Ye’s G.O.O.D. Music label since 2015. Whatever the case, Ye and Drake have ups and downs, but last night the duo seemed to be on their best terms since Ye’s guest spot at Drake’s OVO Fest in 2013. Drake performed a set of Certified Lover Boy songs at the elder rapper’s “Free Larry Hoover” benefit concert at the Coliseum in Los Angeles on Thursday, tipping relations between the longtime frenemies back to what looks like friendship after a tense summer tit-for-tat characterized by spiteful leaks and subliminal disses that stopped abruptly when Texas hip-hop exec J. Prince stepped in to broker a cooldown, as we’re told he did a few years back when Drake was gearing up to scorch the earth after the release of the Pusha-T diss track “The Story of Adidon.” Hoover led Chicago’s Gangster Disciples in the late ’60s until a murder arrest in 1973 resulted in a 200-year sentence; Hoover publicly denounced crime in the ’90s but was found guilty of a gaggle of conspiracy and extortion charges while serving time for the murder charge.
It was an intriguing show, not just due to the speed at which it seemed to come together over the last few weeks. It juggled praise music and street rap, 2000s stadium rap and emotional 2010s trap, altruism and capitalist commerce.
The concert — streamed by Amazon, which also acted as vendor for “Free Hoover” merch “engineered by Balenciaga” — advanced Ye’s ongoing push for change in the carceral system, at least in the messaging and branding. Prison reform activist Alice Johnson, who received clemency from outgoing president Donald Trump last year thanks in part to Ye and Kim Kardashian’s lobbying, gave remarks as fans filed into the stadium (but if you were watching from home this portion was easy to miss, and the subject scarcely came up again). The bigger news was the two rap titans burying the hatchet and flexing their strengths as performers and hitmakers. To this end, Ye’s set was surprisingly full of hits, a textbook festival-headlining trek from early classics like “All Falls Down” and “Jesus Walks” to the singles from this summer’s Donda. Watching a hits set from Kanye is jarring in 2021. The last few times we saw him in a stadium this year, his focus was tightening up a track list for the new album, repeatedly; his ongoing Sunday Service events, meanwhile, foreground the choir’s repertoire of Christ-ified rap and R&B covers and slippery deconstructions of Ye hits. Unless you see him on a proper album tour, there’s no counting on hearing the classics, and Ye hasn’t toured in five years. There’s pressure there; one of the biggest hitmakers on the planet was present, and although reconciliation was the name of the game, anything less than excellence might be received by an audience too used to pitting the two against each other as a failure. Ye hit hard and delivered, except when he pushed too far into the back catalogue and forgot words and in sporadic moments when he slipped into micromanaging the gig mid-performance. Jams like “Touch the Sky,” “Bound 2,” and “I Wonder” tickled the nostalgia of a fandom that hasn’t taken this extensive of a nostalgia trip with this artist since his evangelical Republican contrarian era began.
Drake is an interesting guest for a benefit concert like this one. His music doesn’t really center big sociopolitical problems the same way that Kanye records like “Jesus Walks” and “New Slaves” are able to balance personal struggles and examinations of the cultural divisions fueling them. He writes convincingly about love, trust, and spite, but in the instances where he has ventured into conversations involving social justice, he has sometimes lacked the polish and bluster that seem to come naturally to the Toronto star as he addresses his exes and enemies. For Drake, this concert was an opportunity to get behind a no-brainer good cause at a time when people want answers about Astroworld, where he was a special guest. Drake opened with Donda’s prayerful “24” — it is a fascinating confluence, on a day when we heard Travis Scott break his silence to stress that he’s “a man of God,” to witness Drake going for it in a gospel song during his first major performance since the tragedy — but then blessed the stadium with a set favoring songs his Spotify page deems most popular. Certified’s “Way 2 Sexy,” “Knife Talk,” and “Girls Want Girls” flanked the Lil Baby team up “Wants and Needs,” the Future hit “Life Is Good,” the non-album Lil Durk hit “Laugh Now Cry Later,” and others. It was immediately clear that Drake is the more technically gifted rapper and the more refined singer, but hearing his take on the runs in “24” punctuated how Kanye is a less-trained but more passionate vocalist. A tentative set list that made the rounds early in the day suggested appearances from “Glow,” “Blessings,” and “Pop Style,” past collaborations where Drake and Kanye’s divergent personalities and skill sets combined to make magic, but the closest we got to a tandem performance was Drake hitting the “Hey, hey, hey” when Ye played his Thank Me Later production “Find Your Love” and an encore where Ye rapped his verse from “Forever” for the first time in nearly a decade. Maybe they missed an opportunity to really put the buddy act over the top, but it was still monumental for these two to share a stage so soon after all the threats and subliminals they’ve traded.
This reunion is so fresh that Drake’s recent-hits set list contained a bunch of snaps we’ve all understood to be slick Ye disses. Aside from “Forever” and Kanye’s attempt at “All Day,” whose words he forgot, the shock of the night was Drake teasing “No Friends in the Industry,” although the track was cut before the fireworks: “Your circle shrinking, see some boys escaping / Rest of them is guilty by association.” It’s refreshing to have rap beef resolve without bloodshed or litigation, however forced, but hard to know where this truce goes from here, or how it stands to spring Larry Hoover if he didn’t get clemency last fall when Trump pardoned Lil Wayne, Kodak Black, Death Row Records cofounder Michael Harris, and dozens more on the way out. I’m not sure anyone has come from this with a more nuanced, wider understanding of the issues incarcerated Americans face during and after lockup. Until we see some accounting of where all the money “raised” went or whether the Biden-Harris administration will bow to the spectacle and issue Hoover a pardon, it was a great night for fans of both artists, a rare moment of peace in the most staticky stretch of Drake and Ye’s endless frenemy relationship to date, and more questions than answers.