"Hotline Bling" Picks Apart R&B Video Conventions, and It's Mesmerizing

I haven’t fallen in love with a music video for a long time. There’s something about "Hotline Bling" that drew me in.
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NJ Stallard
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I haven’t fallen in love with a music video for a long time. There’s something about "Hotline Bling" that drew me in.

Every major music video controversy since 2013 can be divided into two categories:

1) White girl appropriates black culture (Taylor, Miley, Iggy).

2) Black man appropriates art world (Kanye, Drake, Jay Z).

Since Drake released "Hotline Bling" last week, the Internet has taken great pleasure in pointing out how the Director X-directed video’s transcendent neon backdrops borrow heavily from the work of 72-year-old artist James Turrell, whose LACMA retrospective Drake visited in January 2014.

But this time the art world doesn't seem to mind.

Drake at a James Turrell light installation at LACMA, 2014

Drake at a James Turrell light installation at LACMA, 2014

I haven’t fallen in love with a music video for a long time. There’s something about "Hotline Bling" that drew me in. The pink tees and blue jeans. The awkward cha-cha. The sublime physicality of its soft neon lights.

For all these reasons and more, Hotline Bling was obviously going to go viral. We’ve had everything from Drake "can’t dance" pizza memes to a dreamy Erykah Badu version to a feminist revision of its lyrics.

The original Hotline Bling.

The original Hotline Bling.

At exactly the same Internet moment we saw another video go viral, too – the newly-elected Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau joining a group of Bhangra dancers on the dance floor. These two events are now permanently mingled together on our news feed. Both Canadians, both dancing. I don’t know about you, but I can no longer imagine them apart.

I think there’s something even deeper at work in Hotline Bling, however.

Just as James Turrell’s light installations are able to suspend our perception of perception -- or as the artist himself puts it, "You can see yourself see," -- there’s something else being revealed in Hotline Bling. It’s not just another highly stylized RnB/hip hop video. There’s actually a little feminism. And a lot of loss.

While writing this article the photographer Gabriela Maj sent me a photo of this accidental Hotline Bling remake in Sharjah, UAE.

While writing this article the photographer Gabriela Maj sent me a photo of this accidental Hotline Bling remake in Sharjah, UAE.

What do I mean?

First, let’s take Hotline Bling’s opening setting – the call centre. 

The mobile phone has been an essential dramatic device in the RnB/hip hop video since day one. It’s a useful signifier for male and female relations as well as a display of wealth – or product endorsements – from Three 6 Mafia’s diamanté-encrusted Motorola T900 in "2 Way Freak" to JLo's imagined conversations with an absent Puff Daddy in "Love Don’t Cost A Thing." 

There is definitely a whole essay to be written on telecommunication lovin’ in the RnB video –

Three 6 Mafia receive a traditional SMS.

Three 6 Mafia receive a traditional SMS.

Cassie - 'Long Way To Go' in 2005 totally anticipates Tinder, for example.

Cassie - 'Long Way To Go' in 2005 totally anticipates Tinder, for example.

– but let me just sum up its major kernels for now: the Motorola Bravo/T-Mobile Sidekick/Blackberry Curve is where the male's endless pursuit of the increasingly financially independent female meets the latest in technocrat-ish capitalism.

In "Hotline Bling," we see Drake both enter and refuse this narrative. The song is called "Hotline…," for starters. But Drake doesn't give us a phone – nobody hangs up on him, there are no flashing mobile screens. Instead he gives us a corporate minimalist fantasy: the water cooler, the swivel chairs and headsets, the chilly Céline-gray partitions.

The opening mise en scène of Hotline Bling.

The opening mise en scène of Hotline Bling.

It is also a very retro fantasy. His call centre, like his relationship, no longer exists – only in memory. Drake's lyrics have always revolved around the central theme of loss, and this time his loss is so achingly crystalized in the opening line of Hotline Bling: "You used to call me on my cell phone...."

So much so that he has to stutter it:

"You used to call me on my, you used to, you used to
You used to call me on my cell phone"

Sad face.

It’s a far cry from the half-naked Notorious BIG reaching for his Ericsson across a bed of equally half-naked honeys in the opening of "Warning". (As it should be, that was over 20 years ago).

Notorious BIG receives an urgent phone call from Puff Daddy.

Notorious BIG receives an urgent phone call from Puff Daddy.

Standing in a neon-lit room with no possessions or phone, Drake’s lyrics continue to expand on his loss. There is a great feminist rewrite of Hotline Bling's lyrics by Javetta Laster currently circling the Internet. 

Drake has room for improvement, for sure. Nevertheless, in the opening verses we find the familiar image of a dejected Drake, pining for a former lover in an unnamed "city."

This idea – that there is a woman back home who is more meaningful than all these hoes and woes the game have brought him – is a constant theme in Drake's work. But this time, Drake’s girl is actually having a great time – she’s going out more, drinking champagne with women on dance floors and other liberating stuff. She’s even "running out of pages in her passport." Sounds like fun.

So Drake feels jilted. The girl no longer calls him. His whole soliloquy is peppered with a creepy Facebooky sense of surveillance. As he says, "Everybody knows and I feel left out."

(This is also why the Erykah Badu version doesn’t work lyrically – who would jilt Erykah like that?)

It’s a mini-subversion. And Hotline Bling’s styling reflects that too. The video opens with a classic off-duty hip hop look: the cherry-red Moncler jacket, the Nike Air tee, the Timberland 6" Classics. This could easily be Kanye circa 2008. But then we switch to hoodies and expensive ribbed turtlenecks – the Netflix n Chill uniform. 

Drake doesn’t give us gangster, he's not the bad guy here. Instead we can imagine Drake at home, missing his woman and scrolling through his phone for Tinder chats (the women in the call centre...) rather than suffer the eternal loneliness of the modern condition that is watching Netflix alone.

Of course let’s not forget, ever, Drake’s notorious Trust Issues. The man who says he makes music "strictly for the purpose of driving at nighttime." It’s problematic to paint a multimillionaire rapper as merely a big softie. But as one fan puts it, "Drake isn’t a rapper, he’s an emotion." Just like an emoji, we’ve subsumed Drake into how we communicate the very basics to each other.

Hotline Bling’s floating pastel backdrops and empty staircases only emphasize this. The stripped down sets are full of disaffectation, kind of like the music video equivalent of a Tao Lin novel.

Hotline Bling’s stairway to loner heaven.

Hotline Bling’s stairway to loner heaven.

Things get even more confusing for Drake as the video brings us to the traditional climax of the "dance routine." What happens normally = Bump n Grind. What does Drake give us = the cha-cha.

Sure, Drake would never give us a choreographed dance routine, and he’s totally messing with the "Drake can’t dance" thing here. But he is also offering us another subversion – the cha-cha deflects the typical, often misogynic moves we’ve come to expect, and offers something more tender, more bizarre, in a way that only Drake can.

It’s a real shame, to me, that Hotline Bling insists on cutting to silhouettes of other women. The cha-cha dancer, with nothing but "WOES" on her baseball cap, is so familiar and yet so alien.

(James Turrell has often referred to Plato’s allegory of The Cave while discussing his light works. Are Drake’s dancers actually the silhouettes of other, truer forms of women in the real world? Have I taken this too far now?)

This is precisely how Hotline Bling, like any good music video, positions itself in that magic, unchartered space between high art and teenage desire. A music video is the ultimate trend forecaster, a form of global poetry. The best ones don’t even make sense.

And like any good music video, Hotline Bling gathers all of those things – the shy feminism, the loss, the art world – and makes it into a global event. Without even realizing it, Drake officially roots us into our projected future via our collective past.

No wonder James Turrell isn’t bothered.