Editorial writers, assemble—there’s been another demonstration that civility in America is dead! Drake, the Canadian rapper, actor, singer, and, as of last week, marijuana entrepreneur, took to the stage last night at the Camp Flog Gnaw Carnival, a music festival in Los Angeles. He played a few songs. The crowd grumbled so much that he left. To summarize, the biggest rapper in the world was booed off stage at a big rap concert—a telling story about toxic buzz storms, the vagaries of coolness, and Drake’s special relationship with the phenomenon of public shaming.
The footage of Drake’s exit feels like a scene in a biopic—a scene you’d watch through your fingers so as to avoid the protagonist’s nightmare from replaying in your own dreams. He’s performing the final lines of his song “Wu-Tang Forever,” but they sound lonely and weak, rapped by inertia. Faint woos and scattered claps reply. Drake walks in a tight circle. He addresses the crowd with the pre-confrontation politeness that a boss might use to broach the subject of Juuling in the office: “You know, I’mma tell you, like I said …”
“I’m here for you tonight,” he continues. “If you want to keep going, I will keep going tonight. What’s up?” The response to his passive-aggressive positivity includes cheers—but the clips that are circulating online today also depict groans, boos, and some folks yelling “No.” Drake listens for less than a second. There’s a brief wince. He’s made his decision. “It’s been love,” he says. “I love y’all. I go by the name of Drake. Thank you for having me.” He walks, not runs, off the stage. His posture suggests that he might literally be telling himself in that moment, Keep your head held high.
Incase you wanted to see Drake get booed off stage at flog gnaw... bruh pic.twitter.com/TgyqWvOZtq— Baby Carrot (@lrroze89) November 11, 2019
Camp Flog Gnaw is the festival of Tyler, the Creator, who first found fame as the demon-voiced leader of the filthy-fun Odd Future rap crew. He’s since grown into a young statesman of sorts, influential not only in music, but also in fashion and social media and the TV-cartoon ecosystem. Among his talents is the management of hype, though last night’s incident appears to be a case of mismanagement. Camp Flog Gnaw has been running annually in some form since 2012, and this year’s poster featured a garish “???” in the spot where a headliner’s name would be, next to Tyler’s own. Hence a mystery preceded the event: Who would play?
Fans had been speculating that the surprise performer would be Frank Ocean, which would have been a big deal because it’s basically a surprise anytime Ocean performs anywhere in public. Now one of the most enigmatic and acclaimed artists of his generation, Ocean was introduced to the public in the early 2010s as simply a pretty-voiced singer in the Odd Future crew. It’s been two years since he played a proper concert, but lately Ocean has entered a renewed period of activity by releasing new songs and holding (controversial) nightclub shindigs. Camp Flog Gnaw would be as good a place as any for Ocean to return to headlining festivals, like a pop star is supposed to.
Drake is a considerably more available entertainer than the reclusive Ocean. For the rapper to bound onstage thus not only disappointed Ocean’s famously ravenous fans, but also set up a clash of tastes. Tyler and Flog Gnaw’s brand is colorful and punkish and opposed to all things serious. Drake’s is chilly and commercial and calculated. He has charted 205 songs in the Hot 100—more than any other solo artist ever. For some Flog Gnaw attendees surely, Drake showing up was the equivalent of a popular jock crashing the art geeks’ party and demanding to take over the aux cord to put on Maroon 5.
Taste hierarchies and schemas of coolness are, however, not very logical things. Tyler’s fans may have balked, but Tyler himself is obviously a Drake fan. In 2012, the two rappers took selfies backstage at an Ocean show. In recent months, Tyler was playfully hitting on Drake online. Tyler’s swaggering but confessional music and his lifestyle-as-brand empire owes Drake a debt, in fact. It’s not like the Flog Gnaw is exactly underground either. Other performers this year, such as DaBaby and Juice WRLD, are radio powerhouses—and would love to enjoy Drake’s longevity.
On Twitter today, Tyler chided his fans: “YALL REPRESENTED ME AND FLOG TO MY GUEST AND MADE US LOOK SOOO ENTITLED AND TRASH.” But he also understood why some were annoyed to see Drake: “I THOUGHT BRINGING ONE OF THE BIGGEST ARTIST ON THE FUCKING PLANET TO A MUSIC FESTIVAL WAS FIRE! BUT FLIPSIDE, A LIL TONE DEAF KNOWING THE SPECIFIC CROWD IT DREW.”
Who cares, a Drake defender might ask, if a subculture of people who wear checkered jumpsuits and bucket hats rejected him? He still has his Grammys and his house in Hidden Hills. What’s potentially damaging isn’t the booing itself, but its virality and the narrative it creates. The prospect of oversaturation and the fear of a shark-jumping moment would loom for anyone after a decade of cultural conquest. If Drake’s career has thus far defied the rule that what goes up must come down, a very public rejection might be just the thing to upend the years-long balancing act he’s performed.
Then again, Drake exists for moments like this. His entire career has been defined by spasms of public mockery—for being “soft,” for using ghostwriters, for being curved by Rihanna, and on and on. Each scandal just ends up motivating him to innovate catchy new spectacles of pettiness and dominance. In his music he insists he’s the greatest there ever was. In his public battles and setbacks, however, he’s constantly being reminded of how many people don’t buy it. He walked off last night so as to walk on again, no doubt.