“Hotline Bling” was released this summer, peaking at number three on the US Billboard Hot 100 charts and becoming Drake’s highest rated single since 2009’s “Best I Ever Had.” Maybe the reason “Hotline Bling” gained so much popularity was its tenderness, especially when compared to Drake’s other summer singles, the cocky Meek Mill diss tracks, “Back to Back” and “Charged Up.” “Hotline Bling” is refreshingly smooth, moody and tropical; the production is what makes the song charming, with its slow, electronic cha-cha beat. Still, the lyrics should be given some credit in explaining its popularity. Pitchfork called the track “an old-model Drake song.” It’s classic Drake, all up in his feelings again, reminiscing about an ex that used to call him late at night. Drake’s sensitive persona proves itself meme-worthy time and time again, but “Hotline Bling” takes this persona to the next level. This time, the lyrics don’t feel like a thoughtful meditation on how Drake just can’t make love work, instead they are a scathing reprimand of an ex-girlfriend whose behaviour is making him anxious. And as loving concern begins to come across as obsessive and controlling, one has to wonder if Drake really is the “nice guy” of rap that we can all relate to.
The song is allegedly about Drake’s ex Nebby, a stylist who he dated on and off when he still lived in Toronto. Drake moans on verse one: “Ever since I left the city, you / started wearing less and going out more/ glasses of champagne out on the dance floor/ hanging with some girls I never seen before.” His ex has a new group of friends, is dressing sexily and is obviously living a kind of lifestyle that would afford her bottle service. It’s a lavish lifestyle, but it certainly isn’t a problem. The accusations just get weirder from there: “You got exactly what you asked for / running out of pages in your passport” in verse two, as if Drake is personally offended that Nebby would take advantage of her opportunities and travel. All of this might seem a little less out of line if Drake himself wasn’t spending time expressing joy at his own bottle-popping, jet-setting lifestyle. While Champagne Papi justifies his extravagance by claiming that he’s on his worst behaviour, he denies his exes the chance at enjoying the same kind of revelry in being a little bit bad.
Drake solidifies the distinction between sensitive and straight-up manipulative in the bridge. Drake’s real stake in the issue is clear in the line: “Doing things I taught you, getting nasty for someone else.” Drake’s investment in Nebby’s life, after so much has changed between them, reveals an anxiety around the idea of her not belonging to him anymore. He criticizes her for never being alone and praises her for staying home in the past. Even the potential idea of her with another man is indicative that she is in fact not the “good girl” that she used to be.
Why is “Hotline Bling” different from Drake’s other fine whines? It’s in the tone and the position from which Drake is talking. He’s not convincing as a nice guy from Toronto anymore, instead he sounds more like a spoiled king. More than totally killing her vibe, he’s shaming his ex for expressing her sexuality in a way that isn’t directly for his enjoyment. “Hotline Bling” is obviously misogynistic, but because of Drake’s image as a sensitive creature whose insights into the trials of love make him a moral voice in rap music, it’s too easy for listeners to ignore the bad taste that this track should leave in their mouths.
Even if Drake is slut shaming with confidence, it’s questionable whether the song still can be justifiably enjoyed. If the selfishness of the lyrics can be bared, listeners can still appreciate Drake’s consistency in making honest, emotional rap music. “Hotline Bling” can be taken as a reminder to be critical of our idols and how they influence the way we think about the world.