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Thursday, June 20, 2024
The Observer

Drake, 'Hotline Bling' and his relentless work ethic

LAUREN WELDON | The Observer
LAUREN WELDON | The Observer

Perhaps the most revealing moment of Drake’s cover story in the current issue of The Fader, the first interview he’s given since February 2014, is that he has started driving himself places again. In the rest of the interview, he gives a vague reply to Meek Mill’s ghostwriting accusations from this summer and offers some boilerplate answers about making music to which his fans can relate. But the revelation that the most popular rapper in the world is behind the wheel again seems significant.

“I’ve been deprived of driving for a long time,” Drake explained. Riding to the studio with a driver and security and stuff, you lose something.”

Of course, that anecdote is meant to humanize him, to show that he’s still the same kid from Toronto even if he’s driving a Mercedes Pullman now. Yet, it’s also symbolic of someone not content to merely sit back in leather seats and be driven around — he’s a rapper who is not going to coast on his massive success. “Young, but I’m makin’ millions to work the night shift,” as he rapped on “6 Man” earlier this year, speaking to his inexorable work ethic.

Drake would have plenty of reason to slow down. It’s difficult to remember the last time a rapper had such a strong chokehold on the culture to the degree Drake has in 2015. His two mixtapes — “If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late” and “What a Time to Be Alive” with Future — had the two best first-week sales of 2015. “If You’re Reading This” is only album this year so far to be certified platinum. All this, too, before the release of next “proper” studio album, “Views from the Six,” which his reps say should be expected “imminently.”

His current hit, “Hotline Bling,” is, likewise, shaping up to be the biggest pop hit of his career so far. The song sits at No. 3 on this week’s Hot 100, Drake’s highest-charting single since his debut single, “Best I Ever Had,” peaked at No. 2 in 2009. On Instagram, Drake teased that a video for the song is coming soon, which could help propel the song to the top of the charts. Such a huge hit would be an achievement for any artist, but it’s even more remarkable considering that it began as one of the one-off tracks he regularly uploads to SoundCloud and isn’t even expected to be included on “Views from the Six.”

“Hotline Bling” is, in some ways, the most quintessential Drake track to date. It flips Virginia rapper D.R.A.M.’s tropical “Cha Cha” into a late-night meditation, continuing Drake’s penchant for latching onto the styles of rappers even younger than himself. Lyrically, too, the song is peak Drake, centering on some late-night Instagram stalking. “You / started wearing less and going out more … Hanging with some girls I’ve never seen before,” he raps, contemplating on an old flame. Unfortunately, the track also engages in the good girl-bad girl dichotomy present in so much of his discography.

More than anything, though, what makes “Hotline Bling” such a great Drake track is the way in which it puts his ear for melody and distinct phrases to work. As Lorde wrote on Twitter after first hearing the song, Drake “has a total pop songwriter approach to hook words/titles … using such dynamic hook nouns isolates a song so it’s instantly more memorable than most others.” The hook that begins each verse — “Ever since I left the city youuuuuu” — is endlessly catchy, a phrase that works as well as an Instagram caption as it does being screamed at a party.

Even if Drake is not the best rapper alive, it is this skill for crafting these moments that manage to be universal despite being grounded in his own experience that has made him one of the most popular artists in the world. That Drake has managed to churn hits like “Hotline Bling” out at such a relentless pace, while continuing to innovate sonically and improve as a lyricist, is what has made his run over the past few years so exciting. As he rapped on the recent “30 for 30 Freestyle,” “Drastically changing, thank you for all your patience / I'm just in a different space, and I choose to embrace it.” Even though Drake’s changed a lot over the past decade, luckily he has retained the same work ethic of his younger days — he’s still behind the wheel.