Drake is the biggest rapper in the game right now, but that's not what pays the bills. The Toronto native born Aubrey Graham has climbed the ranks of hip-hop royalty since his debut in 2010, and Drake’s half-pop-half-not style has seen him - arguably - hold the title of hottest MC since his 2013 smash hit record Nothing Was the Same. His unbelievable critical and commercial successes caused even Kanye West to concede defeat in the year of Yeezus, and Drake isn’t showing any signs of slowing down. Already, 2015 has seen the star release one solo full-length project and one 50/50 collaborative studio album with Future, while Drake’s fourth solo LP Views from the Six is due to be released sometime before year’s end. Yet the lead single from that album, July's pop smash Hotline Bling, raises quite a few questions about the dissonance between pop and rap in the present day.
If Hotline Bling climbs to the No. 1 spot on the Billboard Hot 100 next week - as many are predicting it will - the song will be Drake’s first solo song to achieve the feat. That’s an incredible statistic for an artist whose every solo album has debuted at No. 1 on the charts, and who has sold over 10 million albums in only five years. More telling still, since 2012 Drake has had the most No. 1 singles of any artist in the history of the Billboard Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart, far surpassing previous leaders Jay Z, Lil Wayne, and Kanye West. Yet Drake has stated on multiple occasions that a Hot 100 No. 1 would be the ultimate accolade; a crowning achievement, a goal shared by many aspiring stars.
This disparity between the realms of the R&B/Hip-Hop charts and the Hot 100 chart is remarkable. After all, Drake is commonly derided by old-school rap fans for his autotune pop singing, emotional subject matter, and made-for-women slow jams; he is an obvious candidate to top the pop and rap lists. Hotline Bling is the latest entry in Drake’s pop canon, currently charting at No. 2, but forecast to reach the top spot as the brilliant and subtly hilarious music video has been released this week. Yet Drake has been making better pop songs than Hotline Bling for four years, and his 2013 single Hold On, We’re Going Home - which peaked at No. 4 - was one of the finest popular songs of this generation. Why then is the lesser Hotline Bling set to be his biggest success yet?
Leaked by Drake on his blog at the height of his beef with Meek Mill, along with diss track Back to Back, Hotline Bling is a slow, sensitive, unconventional pop cut. It's a funky groove with some of Drake's signature vocals on top, not particularly impactful upon first listen, but insistently catchy nonetheless. The song owes the majority of its artistic success to its beat, which heavily samples Timmy Thomas’ 1972 song Why Can’t We Live Together?, borrowing a laid-back tropical island feel that has garnered many comparisons to Cha Cha by American rapper D.R.A.M., released in March. It’s true that Drake had previously expressed interest in remixing D.R.A.M.’s song, but the similarities between Hotline Bling and Cha Cha have been heavily overstated by music critics. In reality, Drake has been making songs like this for years, and that’s part of the problem.
“You used to call me on my cellphone/ Late night when you need my love/ And I know when that hotline bling/ That can only mean one thing,” Drake sings contemplatively on the chorus. There are no raps, just pop melodies and romantic missives: “’Cause 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’ve never seen before.” For an artist who belongs to the broad hip-hop world and who is a uniquely gifted rapper, Hotline Bling is another one of the occasional forays Drake makes into pure pop territory. Yet without the large-scale emotionality or groundbreaking attention to detail of his previous pop successes, Hotline Bling an unlikely candidate for Drake’s biggest song to date.
Belated as his chart success is, Drake can't complain, having scored 14 Top 10 hits (8 as a solo artist, 6 as a featured guest) to date; yet his highest-charting songs tend to be pop-oriented sung pieces, not the rap songs that generally prove to be his best and most original works. Occasionally, tracks like Started from the Bottom have charted highly for him, yet brilliant rap songs like that are easily eclipsed commercially by less interesting, less original pop cuts like Hotline Bling. It is interesting to note that even Drake’s mentor Lil Wayne couldn’t reach No. 1 with his world-conquering 2008 single A Milli, while Wayne’s lesser-but-catchier Lollipop hit from the same year easily reached the top spot on the charts. In fact, both Started from the Bottom and A Milli peaked at No. 6 on the Billboard Hot 100, though they fared much better on the Billboard Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart.
will.i.am and Britney Spears’ collaboration Scream & Shout was No. 5 when Started from the Bottom peaked just behind it. Remember Scream & Shout? Me neither. But Spears’ star-power is the key factor in this anomaly: though Started from the Bottom was one of the most notable, influential, culturally relevant, and highly-regarded rap songs of recent years, commercial appeal in the form of established pop veterans like Spears tends to trump artistic achievement. This poses the question of whether straight-ahead rap songs - no guest singers, no autotune, no catchy choruses - in the vein of Started from the Bottom and A Milli can stand a chance of topping the Hot 100 chart in today’s world.
This month saw the annual BET Awards show air with much fanfare. As usual, the most highly-anticipated moments of African American music’s night-of-nights were the pre-recorded cypher cutaways. In each of these throwback traditionalist songs, a handful of MCs both young and old battle it out, spitting longer-than-usual battle-rap verses over old-school beats curated by turntablists like DJ Premier. BET have been adding these cypher showdowns to their award ceremony since the show’s 2006 inception, and over the years, everyone from Nicki Minaj to Eminem, Dizzee Rascal, Kanye West, Kendrick Lamar, and the A$AP Mob have fought it out for street credentials.
This year, we saw beatbox legends like Doug E. Fresh and Rahzel alongside talented up-and-coming rhymers like Vincent Staples and Casey Veggies, and industry veterans like Redman and Black Thought. It was a fascinating meeting of minds, and a night in which the spotlight was cast on much-deserving young underground artists like Daveed Diggs and Joyner Lucas. These two rappers shone through their verses, as most viewers scrambled to Google their names and learn more about the old-school-style wordsmiths being put on display.
Lucas’ verse was particularly illuminating, drawing attention to the struggles he has faced as a lyrical and conscious rapper trying to break through in 2015. “At some point I gave all you niggas my demo/ You hopped inside your limos and threw it out the window,” he roared furiously. “When Dre gon’ realise I ain’t no shit to ignore?/ When Diddy butler gon’ come and get my shit in the door?” The anger of the artist was palpable, sick of all the slammed doors and unanswered calls. And the commercial future doesn’t look bright for artists like Lucas, when the last “real” rap song - no Katy Perry hook, no 4-bar verses - came in February 2011 with Wiz Khalifa’s Black & Yellow. Even then, it was a rather poppy rap song that reached the summit.
One can’t help but reflect that today, every musician - including platinum artists like Drake - needs to ditch long-form rapping and employ catchy-hook vocals to even consider approaching No. 1; for upstarts like Joyner Lucas, who raps in compassionate detail about real-life Detroit murders or records incomprehensibly complex lyrical exercises, the prospects of ever ascending the charts in any fashion seem slim. Lupe Fiasco - that bastion of modern conscious rap - just barely broke the Top 10 with his biggest song, the commercial-but-brilliant, big-chorus, guest-featuring Superstar.
Rap songs simply don’t hit No. 1 anymore. It seems bizarre to think that Drake, with all of his status, success and collaborations alongside everyone from Beyoncé to Nicki Minaj, has still never reached No. 1 with one of his songs. At the beginning of his career, he once glimpsed the peak of pop music through his guest feature on Rihanna’s 2010 hit What’s My Name?. In reality, his contribution to that track listed 37 hurried seconds before the singing took over. Though Drake is ten times the artist musically and commercially now, it still takes either a big-name guest appearance or a "sell-out" pop track to make a realistic attempt at a No. 1 hit.
This month, Drake has been making a conscious sprint for the finish line. Of Hotline Bling’s success, the rapper-turned-singer recently announced via Instagram:
“I spend my life trying to make waves for the city I am from. No accolades really matter to me other than the fact that I have never had a billboard number one. If I get my first number one during the month of October it will be the biggest moment of my career to date (in my mind) and if you are looking for me on that particular evening I will be passed out in the water slide that connects to our pool. I love you and thank you for these memories. I always love the moment right before it happens more than when it actually happens. So thank you…even if it doesn’t.”
Drake has given us some of the best mainstream rap in recent years, with songs like Tuscan Leather, Worst Behaviour, The Motto, 0 to 100, and Energy. By rights, these tracks that continue in the A Milli lineage should be chart-toppers; they are certainly inescapably omnipresent in the cultural landscape, and they capture the zeitgeist as much as music by any pop singer does. Yet sales and commercial support prove more elusive, and it seems destined to be Drake’s often-derided pop efforts that eventually break him into the No. 1 spot where he belongs. Pop music has always been a fickle friend to hip-hop, and things look grim for ambitious traditionalist rappers; in the past decade or so, some large degree of singing, dancing, and watering-down seems to be a necessary prerequisite for a rapper making designs for a chart-topping song.
Ironically, the current No. 1 hit which Drake must topple from Hotline Bling's No. 2 position is The Weeknd’s The Hills. Drake and The Weeknd go back a long way, sharing a hometown and many collaborations over the years. To most observers, the pre–2015 idea that Abel “The Weeknd” Tesfaye may have ever outsold, outperformed, or in any way proved more commercially viable than Drake would have seemed absurd. But in the end, The Weeknd beat Drake to the top spot. After all, he stopped rapping first.
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