I don’t like Drake’s music. Well, I don’t like Drake as a rapper. I think he’s much better at singing hooks than carrying the full three verses and a chorus of a hip hop track. In the name of full disclosure, I think I have to start there. I think it’s ridiculous when people (often students) try to convince me that he should be a part of the upper-echelon of hip hop artists—with Kendrick Lamar, Eminem, and (say what you will) Kanye West. I have only ever liked Drake as a featured artist. “Poetic Justice” by Kendrick Lamar features Drake, for example, and his verse is good because it’s on a Lamar track, not the other way around.
So I’m mostly puzzled by “Hotline Bling” and its soaring popularity. It is (still) all over the radio, and its music video has (at the time of this writing) been viewed over 300,000,000 times on YouTube. The song is peak Drake, though. It does everything he does well, and everything he doesn’t do well. It opens with that catchy-ass hook that Drake is so good at writing and delivering—like the male Rhianna. There is nothing groundbreaking about the songwriting in the hook, though. “You used to call me on my cell phone,” is not a divinely inspired line. But it is effective for a few reasons. One—the poetic rhythm of the line’s delivery is almost iambic, at least for a line.
ᵕ / ᵕ / ᵕ / ᵕ / ᵕ
You used | to call | me on | my cell | phone
The line ends with an unstressed syllable which is amplified by the falling inflection Drake uses to sing the word “phone.” In poetry explication, an incomplete iamb at the end of a line that ends in an unstressed syllable is called a “feminine” ending (I’m aware of the gender politics of this word choice). The feminine ending means that the line ends with an unstressed and weaker sound than it would if the last syllable were stressed. This metre doesn’t necessarily hold up throughout the song since Drake devolves into his typical mumble rapping pretty quickly, but the opening moment of the song is effective as a hook—and catchy as all hell for reasons that baffle my brain.
His syllabic patterns throughout the rest of the song are pretty consistent—holding on the verses to a mostly 8-10-10-10-8-10-10-10 syllable count per line. The count is imperfect, as these things typically are, and the syllable count is always sacrificed to the god of Rhyme whenever necessary, but he is usually only over or under one syllable. This doesn’t quite qualify as a metre, but it is essential to the catchiness of the song. The catchiness of any song depends on its patterns. If it doesn’t feel random and it doesn’t stress our brains out trying to navigate its musical choices, it’s probably catchy. It may not be good, but it’s catchy.
In terms of musicality and delivery, the song is a non-event. It is tough to tell when the verses end and the chorus begins (if not for that catchy-ass line), like a weird collection of hip hop zebras all standing together to confuse a predator. Drake’s delivery of the verses sounds like his delivery of the chorus, which is like the pizza guy’s delivery when you’re the last pie of the night—kind of half-assed. The music similarly drones on, like sleepy reggaeton.
The single biggest problem I have with “Hotline Bling” is probably the title’s line of origin. Drake mumbles: “Call me on my cell phone / Late night when you need my love / And I know when that hotline bling / That can only mean one thing.” Here, Drake essentially says “I know what it means when my cellphone lights up” or “when my hotline bling.” This is a weird construction because bling is not a verb. I understand how we get to “hotline” from “phone.” But he’s verbed a noun (or an adjective) which isn’t a new thing, it’s just an unexpected thing for Drake to give us a new use of a word—to recast a word as a different part of speech altogether. “Bling” as a noun is a flashy piece of jewelry. “Bling” as an adjective is the flashy quality of said jewelry. “Bling” as a verb, then, probably means the act of the flash itself—so the “flash” of the cellphone. It makes sense, and maybe I don’t hate it like I thought I did. It’s just a bit jarring when I hear the construction.
Now on to the subject matter of “Hotline Bling,” which has been praised (it’s like “Roxanne” reimagined!) and slammed (Drake is a misogynist!). I get the pain of the speaker. The worst part of a break-up is imagining your ex banging it out with some new dude. That goes double for break-ups that are the other person’s idea. If I come up with the idea to break-up with someone, I probably care less that they start slapping skins with someone else. But if the break-up is her idea, that hurts a little more. According to Drake, his ex-ladyfriend is bouncing around town with all kinds of dudes: “You got a reputation for yourself now / Everybody knows and I feel left out / Girl you got me down, you got me stressed out / ‘Cause ever since I left the city, / you started wearing less and goin’ out more / Glasses of champagne out on the dance floor.” So, in Drake’s eyes, she’s drinking more, going out, and getting a “reputation.” In other words, she’s single. Drake has been rightfully slammed for this not-so-subtle slut-shaming. He’s implying that her reputation is one of promiscuity (“bein’ loose”), but it sounds like she’s just having fun. I mean, “YOLO,” right Drake? Or is that philosophy only for dudes?
Additionally, Drake is moping around because his ex is “Hangin’ with some girls I’ve never seen before” and getting loose with champagne, but it’s his fault. He’s the one that “left the city.” He clearly indicates that her reputation kicked up “since he left the city,” which implies that the break-up corresponds to his leaving. Where did he go? Why? Did he get a new job? Did he go on tour? Did he go to White Castle?
The point is, Drake (or the speaker of the song, if you think Drake is standing in for some character he’s created) left. It seems he kept in touch with the girl for a while—I mean she used to call him on the cell phone—something that wouldn’t have mattered as much if they were still geographically close and able to see each other. The emphasis being on the communication via cell means they tried to keep things up when he left—maybe a long-distance situation. At any rate, the distance was obviously too much for her, and now Drake is bitter because she’s off having a life while he’s super mopey at his new place in a new town with no new friends. I don’t think there is even evidence that she is hooking up with that many randos—not that it would be bad if she were because, YOLO—but I do think Drake is demonizing her to himself so it’s easier to deal with the heartache.
The opening shot of the music video (below) is a call center filled with curvy women all dressed the same and all calling their respective guys (making their “hotline bling,” I suppose). The aesthetic of the video is a dreamscape with the colors and weird rooms (and that redundant music), and since it feels like a dream, it would imply that in Drake’s mind, he’s bitter at women in general, seeing them all as employees at a call center, only talking to “bae” because it’s their job. Once they clock out, who knows what they’re up to?
It’s not a good look on Drake. He does come across as sad because he can’t control her. But I still can’t help but like that damn song, and I don’t think I’ve talked myself out of it. Some things are just catchy, I guess. It doesn’t mean they are good, but they are catchy.