Yesterday Drake released “Back to Back Freestyle,” the latest chapter in his burgeoning feud with Meek Mill. That Philadelphia rapper lit the fire on Twitter last week when he alleged that Drake’s guest verse on his latest album, June’s Dreams Worth More Than Money, was ghostwritten. To some, Meek included, that’s a pox on “authenticity,” a slippery measurement of hip-hop greatness that, as the Beck-versus-Beyonce moment touched off by Kanye at this year’s Grammies showed us, remains a tool some music fans and even musicians themselves are eager to employ in an argument.
Drake’s since responded to Mill with a couple dis tracks, filling the rap authenticity quotient in a case like this. “Back to Back Freestyle” and Drake’s first response song, “Charged Up,” which he debuted Saturday on his OVO Sound Radio show for Apple Music’s Beats 1 station, made about as much an imprint on my memory as Dreams Worth More Than Money, which is to say not much. And yet Drake managed to make a point with “Hotline Bling,” one of the other songs he premiered on OVO Sound Radio.
“Hotline Bling” is billed as a remix of “Cha Cha,” an irresistible R&B cut from Virginia singer D.R.A.M. that’s built on a Super Mario World sample. But “Hotline Bling” barely resembles the effervescent shot of summertime it’s remixed. On Drake’s track the tinny accordion-like synth from “Cha Cha” has been slowed to a sluggish shuffle that resembles a cell phone ringtone, which infuses the song with the nighttime mystique and shades of sadness the Toronto rapper-singer plays so well.
In “Hotline Bling” Drake’s focus is on an ex, and he hits all the major points of a scorned lover. He recounts the times she called him in need late at night (seemingly the hours when Drake is at his peak, given how much of his material seems to grow out of the wee hours); he mentions the reputation she’s garnered since he’s been out of town and out of touch, that she wears fewer clothes, goes out more frequently, and hangs with people he doesn’t know; and he does it all employing language that undermines his ex’s autonomy, chastising her for not acting like the “good girl” he once loved. Drake, or rather his protagonist, appears petty, selfish, and oblivious to the desires and wishes of the lives not in his orbit on “Hotline Bling.”
And yet Drake’s performance breathes some humanity into his terse words. He sounds hurt, neglected, and confused even while he’s admonishing his ex—often because he seems surprised to be saying the things he’s saying (or rapping and singing). He’s hurt, looking in on the life of someone he once cared about from the outside; he’s unable to understand the changes taking place, so he tries to reside in the memories he holds dear, no matter how hard it seems in the current context.
Drake, like the protagonist in “Hotline Bling,” is in a position to fight change. He sits at hip-hop’s peak, and even though he arguably already shares the throne with a few other MCs, it’s a position he wants to keep. And accusations like the one Meek Mill made a week ago can eat away at the person at the top, regardless of the statement’s validity. But what’s missing from Drake’s dis tracks that’s present in “Hotline Bling” is a range of emotion that makes room for vulnerability and even empathy. While Drake’s protagonist in “Hotline Bling” spits venom, he also reveals shades of remorse and regret. As in some of Drake’s best tracks, the MC casts himself in a gray area morally, and he succeeds in getting people to feel for him in such a state—he doesn’t look great in the stories he weaves, but he sure sounds great weaving them.
Sounding great is the key. “Hotline Bling” is sui generis Drake—it’s hard to imagine anyone else pulling off this kind of song with the same verve. Even if others did contribute to his lyrics, he’s the one who was executes them and makes them resonate. I haven’t been able to listen to much else since I first pressed play on “Hotline Bling,” and that’s the sign of success: I should want to listen to D.R.A.M.’s uplifting “Cha Cha” right about now (it fits the warm weather), but I’m still drawn back to Drake’s downer, which is “Cha Cha” but with the touch of Sadness from Inside Out that only Drake can provide.
If you’re in the mood to experience the lighthearted original “Cha Cha,” head to the Mid tonight to see D.R.A.M. in the flesh; read my full preview in this week’s Music section.
Leor Galil writes about hip-hop every week.