Stepping into Drake’s apartment on the 52nd floor of a Toronto high-rise, with sweeping, unobstructed views of the CN Tower and Lake Ontario in the distance, all is quiet, save for a large-screen TV playing nonstop coverage of Hurricane Irma on CNN. Though he no longer has a house in Miami, Drake is transfixed by the news. That’s just the way he approaches any subject that interests him. He dives deep, albeit on his own schedule. “This interview is kind of early for me,” he admits, though it’s presently 1:45 p.m. The night before, he started plowing through musical ideas — an instrumentation, a beat, an arrangement — well after midnight, and he didn’t stop until 10 a.m. “My wheels just start spinning faster than most people’s at that hour,” says the 31-year-old rapper-musician and former teen actor, dressed in a navy blue tracksuit and plain white Nikes. “It’s best for me to find an atmosphere that’s quiet. I don’t like a lot of people around when there’s a task at hand.”
Case in point, I find no entourage here, only longtime manager and business partner Adel “Future” Nur, 32 (not to be confused with Future, the Atlanta-born rapper). The duo is in their hometown of Toronto on this brisk September afternoon to debut their first movie as producers, The Carter Effect, a documentary about high-flying NBA star Vince Carter, which is premiering at the Toronto Film Festival. The previous night, LeBron James swung into town to host a celebratory dinner at Drake’s pan-Asian restaurant Fring’s for a group of 30, including executives from HBO Sports and Universal Pictures and such stars as Idris Elba (who rolled in from his Molly’s Game premiere with an entourage of about 12). After heaping congratulations on his friend, James joked in a toast that they both now have “day jobs” — a reference to their budding Hollywood careers.
Drake is eager to talk about his ambitious push into film and TV, which includes teaming with Netflix to revive the critically acclaimed but short-lived British crime series Top Boy (think an across-the-pond version of The Wire). Drake and Future along with James’ SpringHill Entertainment will executive produce the series, which will go into production early next year for a 2019 debut. The pair also is shopping the Sean Menard-helmed Carter Effect, which also may land at Netflix. But the biggest indicator of Drake’s big Hollywood push is whom he is partnering with next: Steve Golin, who runs Anonymous Content (one of Hollywood’s hottest production houses and home of Spotlight and Mr. Robot), for an untitled TV series; film studio A24; and, perhaps most significantly, Apple, which has given him the go-ahead to produce whatever he chooses — at least, according to Drake and Future — just as the cash-flush titan is poised to shake up the content space.
If some of the details seem vague, chalk it up to the fact that everything Drake touches becomes a news story or internet meme, with lengthy trademark battles ensuing. He once popularized the term “YOLO,” the acronym for “you only live once,” on “The Motto,” a bonus track from his 2011 album, Take Care. The term wound up on unauthorized clothing and merchandise and became a legal headache. That’s why he and Future won’t even divulge the name of their new company yet. Ditto for the specifics on their film and TV projects. Everything needs to be locked down first, including the rights to a magazine story that will serve as the basis of the Golin collaboration.
But there’s one thing Drake is eager to discuss in depth: Harry Potter.
For the past four years, he has been chasing a first edition of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, and it’s finally on the market for $160,000. “Yeah, I read them all,” he says of J.K. Rowling’s series, two tiny diamonds glinting from his front teeth as he breaks into a wide smile. I tell him I’m reading the series to my kids, and he immediately peppers me with questions, “What book are you on?” “Goblet of Fire,” I respond. “What part?” Then, as if to talk himself into the purchase, he says: “I should get it. My birthday’s coming up. Maybe I’ll buy it for myself as a treat.”
And why not? What’s 160 grand when you’re selling out concerts from Amsterdam to Auckland that gross more than $1 million a night? And when you’re one of the top five richest hip-hop stars in the world, according to Forbes? In fact, at just 31, Drake already is one of the best-selling artists of all time. His most recently released album, More Life, set the record for most first-day streams with 90 million globally. His 2016 collection, Views, held the No. 1 spot on the Billboard 200 for 10 consecutive weeks and notched more than 500 million overall streams.
Yet, despite all the monetary success, three Grammys and artistic cred, Drake possesses a self-deprecating streak, which throws me. The 15-foot white walls of his apartment are mostly bare, save for a neon art piece that says: “Less Drake, More Tupac,” from L.A. artist Patrick Martinez. “I love it,” he says of the piece that set him back a mere $6,000 but allows him to take a certain ownership of the haters, and there are many who think he’s not hard enough. “I mean, people are entitled to their opinion, but this opinion, I’d just rather it be here than anywhere else.”
If it were up to Hollywood, that art piece would simply read: “More Drake.” At a time when the film business is arguably broken, an increasingly bifurcated system of globally consumed tentpoles lacking any cultural specificity and small movies that fall into the ether, Hollywood certainly can learn something from the Drake model. “They’re really geniuses with the marketing of their music,” says Golin. “Their social media, the way they do all that, that’s very interesting to us. I’m kind of enamored of the way that they communicate and interact with their fans and their audience.” He also just finds them pleasant to be around. “There’s a lot of vain musicians at that age who are successful that I can’t deal with, but those guys are very accessible. Drake doesn’t mind when it comes to meetings and being involved; he wants to be proactive.”
Still, cautionary tales abound. Jay Z made a similar foray into Hollywood last year, but he bet on the wrong horse by aligning with (even then) financially troubled The Weinstein Co. on projects including In the Heights, Richard Pryor: Is It Something I Said and an untitled Trayvon Martin film. Given Harvey Weinstein’s pariah status, those projects remain in doubt. Ironically, Weinstein chased Drake to star in and produce a film called The Heist, but Drake rebuffed the overtures long before the mogul faced dozens of sexual harassment and assault claims. “I vetted him with five people and got bad feedback about working with him,” Future says simply.
Given that he and Drake are two of just a handful of chart-toppers who have figured out how to successfully stream music to a fan base without traditional (and expensive) marketing, there’s been no shortage of Hollywood suitors.
“Drake almost single-handedly helped us become culturally relevant from the day we launched [in 2015],” says Robert Kondrk, vp media apps and content at Apple Music. In fact, Drake perhaps is Apple’s most valuable partner, with Views the first album to top 1 billion spins on the service. A single episode of his OVO Sound Radio show on Beats 1 became the most listened-to show on the platform to date. Says Apple’s Jimmy Iovine: “If I had a company today, I would give it to Drake and Future to run in a minute. They’re incredibly talented guys. Very, very gifted.”
The Toronto Film Festival offers a full-circle moment for Aubrey Drake Graham, who grew up a few miles away from this high-rise in the ethnically diverse West End neighborhood before moving with his single mother to Forest Hill, one of the city’s most affluent areas. There, he had his bar mitzvah (Drake’s Canadian mother, Sandi Graham, is Jewish; his father, Dennis Graham, is African-American; they divorced when he was a toddler). “I identify as Jewish,” says Drake. “I am a person who, you know, I talk to God. I just try to live a very good life, to be a good person. I’m not necessarily extremely religious, but my mom and I always do the high holidays together.”
Sandi, who now lives in Los Angeles, urged him to go out and just be creative. “My mother is an incredible woman,” he says. “She never necessarily implemented anything. She’s always just told me, ‘You know, whatever you want to do, whatever you end up being, I’ll always love you. I’ll always support you.'”
In the summers, he would visit Memphis, where his father, a drummer who once worked with Jerry Lee Lewis, had relocated, but Toronto always was home. While his Forest Hill house was modest compared to the neighborhood’s stately Tudors and French colonials, and he never quite felt he fit in at the public school with the wealthy kids, it was here that the 15-year-old launched the first arc of his showbiz career: a role on Canadian teen drama Degrassi: The Next Generation, playing paraplegic Jimmy Brooks for an eight-year run.
“Obviously, everything’s for a reason. I met this kid whose dad was an agent. I got the audition for Degrassi,” he recalls. “And I started going to a school for kids with outside commitments [in the arts and sports]. I met a lot of people from a different [more economically diverse] side of the city. My friends changed at that point, and I started coming into my own and finding myself.”
He still feels grounded here, he says, despite requiring his beefy bodyguard at all times. “I can get in the car in Toronto and drive and go do my own thing. I know the streets. I know everywhere. I know everyone.” After we meet, Drake will shuttle six SUVs full of friends to the Princess of Wales Theatre for the Carter Effect premiere — the same group he began hanging out with during that pivotal moment in his teen life. Like Toronto itself, the group of young men reflects a mix of races (white, black, Asian), all in their early 30s. They also travel with him en masse wherever he goes, be it at his house in the L.A. suburb of Calabasas or at an upcoming Formula 1 party in Dubai, where Drake is a huge draw. (Weeks later, when I meet up with Drake again at a studio in Toronto’s East York borough, most of the group of 30 is there, while Gucci Mane and Chance the Rapper play on a laptop in the background.)
As Degrassi came to an end, Drake met Future, who was deejaying all-ages parties around Toronto at the time. They began collaborating, earning $750 a show. In 2006, he released his first mixtape, Room for Improvement. From there, Drake’s sound piqued the interest of Lil Wayne, who signed the singer-songwriter to his Young Money Entertainment record label in 2009. A year later, Drake released his debut studio album, Thank Me Later, which debuted at No. 1 on the U.S. Billboard chart. Over the ensuing years, the albums and tours continued to rack up massive numbers — and drew increasing attention to his outsized life. He has beefed with everyone from Kendrick Lamar to Ludacris. (To the haters, he says, “People sometimes lose perspective that you’re a human being and have feelings. They think they know you because they’ve read Wikipedia.”) Romantically, he has been linked to Jennifer Lopez, Rihanna and, most recently, Bria Vinaite, the lead actress in The Florida Project. He reveals that he has been collecting Birkin bags for years, a gift for “the woman I end up with.” Otherwise, he deflects questions about his love life as well as the meaning of one of his most well-known hits, “Hotline Bling.” (“You just got to call the kid and find out,” he says to me, laughing. “Call me this evening, and I’ll show you.”)
“I’m sure I’ll stop [making music] one day,” says Drake of rapping. “When it starts to feel like I’m making it up. Hopefully I’ll catch it before I ever get there, right? But right now it feels like we just started, so I don’t plan on stopping anytime soon. But I do plan on expanding — to take six months or a year to myself and do some great films. Music’s always there.”
The fact that Drake and Future already are deep in business with Apple bodes well for their content plans — be it film, TV or digital. All industry eyes currently are on Apple, with its billions of dollars to spend on original programming, and how it will disrupt Hollywood. How exactly Drake and Future fit into Apple’s plan remains a mystery, but the tech giant will simply support whatever they want to do (though Iovine and Kondrk would not be the executives the pair would be collaborating with on any potential film, TV or digital projects). Apple Music head of content Larry Jackson is confident that Drake will replicate his music success for the screen, be it as a producer or actor. He recalls shooting Drake’s 25-minute visual album, Please Forgive Me, in South Africa: “Drake was on set with us till 7 a.m. every morning,” he says. “There were certain instances in Soweto where it was really dodgy, and we all felt a little out of our comfort zone, to say the least. And he stayed and was there with us, all huddled around insufficient space heaters trying to keep warm. This guy is one of the most dedicated guys I’ve ever worked with.”
That point was echoed by Future, who offered an anecdote to illustrate Drake’s relentless nature. “When we first met, I remember Drake kept a picture of this insane grotto pool on his desktop. Waterfalls, the whole thing. He didn’t even know where the house was,” he recalls. “He just kept saying, ‘I’m going to have that house.’ And I really believed. I’ll never forget walking into that house with him in Calabasas [in 2012], and he literally wrote a check and bought it.” Not a similar house with a similar grotto, but that exact house, for $7.7 million — a bargain given the asking price was $27 million.
Although he has been entirely in the music zone for the past decade, Drake still receives a script a week for acting. The studios, knowing his background and looking to tap into his global fan base, have offered up everything from rebooting the Barbershop franchise to superhero sidekicks. So far, he has turned everything down. “We’re not looking to drop him into some Battleship,” says Future, a reference to Rihanna and her ill-fated stab at the big screen.
Instead, Drake and Future would rather set up film and TV projects with more niche, auteur-driven companies like A24, the studio behind February’s best picture Oscar winner, Moonlight. Days before Carter Effect debuted, Drake attended a private screening of A24’s The Florida Project and became obsessed with the Sean Baker-helmed film about a destitute mom and her 6-year-old daughter living in the shadows of Disney World. “That was one of my favorite things I’d seen in a long time, just because it taught me something about a world I would never think of and what it was like to live there. It was just very pure and very human,” he says.
Though neither side would divulge exactly what they are collaborating on, A24 production head Noah Sacco says it encompasses both film and TV. “When we spoke with them, they articulated their passion for shepherding new voices. We look at what they’ve achieved in the music industry. And it made a lot of sense to us,” says Sacco. “We found that we saw eye to eye very quickly.”
It makes sense also when you consider Drake’s other obsessions. Ask him whom he would most like to work with, and the answer is Edward Norton. The show he can’t get enough of? Netflix’s Ozark. “My taste in television or movies is always kind of similar to my approach to music, which is, I like when people really hit the nail on the head with real human emotions,” explains Drake. “So with Ozark, it’s just the family dynamic. The arguments. The love. The struggles. I really relate to how accurate it is.”
A few years ago, Drake caught the original Top Boy series on YouTube and was struck by the way it depicted London as simultaneously beautiful and malevolent. “And that human element drew me in,” he says. “I started just looking them up. Like, who are these people? Are these actors I should know? Are they just famous over there? I remember I hit Future, and I was just like, ‘This show is incredible.'” But the series, which launched the career of director Yann Demange (now a frontrunner to direct the next James Bond movie), already had run its course and ended in 2013. “Drake’s passion for Top Boy was clear from the first conversation, and he really drove its resurrection,” says Netflix vp original content Cindy Holland.
Toronto’s other notable denizen, Margaret Atwood, recently made a public offer for Drake to cameo in season two of The Handmaid’s Tale. Future says Drake got a kick out of the suggestion, but, tellingly, what they’d prefer is to option one of Atwood’s available books and shepherd it to the screen. Future perks up when I tell him her dystopic MaddAddam trilogy, currently at HBO, will go back on the market Dec. 1 because Darren Aronofsky couldn’t get it off the ground at the network.
Ultimately, Drake is happy to shatter whatever fixed ideas exist about how a successful rapper should evolve. “Being a young black guy, I think there’s definitely the chance to get typecast. But I also have been pretty adamant about showing range. I try to show it through different outlets, like Saturday Night Live, showing people that I can be funny,” he says of his well-reviewed hosting gigs, during which he poked fun at his various beefs. “When I get back into acting, I want to do things that make people go, ‘Wow, I didn’t expect that.’ Like, it’s nice to hear you say, ‘You know, I didn’t expect you to like those things,'” he says, referring to my surprise at his Harry Potter fixation.
When I see him weeks after our initial meeting, I ask him if he bought the $160,000 book. “Nah, not yet,” he says with a laugh. “But I will. My birthday is still a few days away.”
This story first appeared in the Nov. 8 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.