The Digital Rhetoric of “Hotline Bling”

As the prophet Asher Roth once spoke, shortly before falling off of the face of the planet, “Yo, Cannon, what would this mixtape be if I didn’t get on the one beat everyone gets on? You know I had to dawg.” And likewise, what would this blog be if I didn’t analyze the one video that everyone has analyzed. You know I have to, dawg(s). And as advertised, I can say that, even in the short week or so of its release, just about everyone has given their two cents about Drake’s aggressively odd “Hotline Bling” video, from every Vine user ever to the f***ing New York Times (apparently Drake can now shed his “Greatest Rapper Alive” title in favor of the NYT’s proposed moniker: “meme archivist-historian”). Fortunately, I can actually bring something new to the over-set proverbial table, as where most of these analyses focus on the images (of admittedly baffling dance moves), I can focus on how said dance moves (visual rhetoric, for the record) augment the already-present aural rhetoric of the lyrics to create a stronger piece.

One could reasonably view this song as persuasive rhetoric, a plea to a lost love (or more likely, side chick) to come back. This idea is danced around throughout the track’s entirety, but most explicitly stated in the line:

“You don’t need no one else

You don’t need nobody else, no”

Aurally, the piece also brings in the refrain, “I know when that hotline bling/That can only mean one thing” to elicit Drake’s ex’s memories of simpler times when the two were together. And of course, in typical Drake fashion, he takes blame for their breakup, alleging that their problems emerged “ever since he left the city.” All of these set the stage for the piece’s persuasiveness. However, all of these elements are present in any audio version of the track, too; all you have to do is walk into Skeeps on a Friday night and this “argument” will be presented to you an average of five times. To really understand the successfulness of this rhetorical example, we must look to the visuals themselves.

The New York Times describes Drake’s dancing as meme-bait – simply a subtle yet outstanding marketing technique and nothing more. It could easily be written off as such; Drake is, after all, a brilliant salesman if nothing else, from the calculated release of his Meek Mill diss tracks to the perfectly-timed string of surprise album and single releases leading up to the highly anticipated January release of his fourth album, Views from the 6. In my mind, there’s no doubt that the gif-ability of this video was on the forefront of Drake’s mind when he shot it. However, there’s something different about Drake’s posture in the video, particularly in contrast with his recent attempts to cultivate a “hard” image, seen in the former child star’s baffling presence on street anthems like “Live from the Gutter” and “I’m the Plug,” or in unlikely lines such as, “Brand new beretta, can’t wait to let it go/walk up in the studio like where my check though.” Recently, it’s as if he’s tried to distance himself from the emotional, borderline R&B songs such as “Marvin’s Room” or “Take Care” that launched him into the peak of his career, and yet here, he drops all facade in what could only be accurately called the dad dance of the century. Mixing elements of cha cha, hip-hop swag, and pure gyration, the experience of watching Drake pelvic thrust in a gray turtleneck is nothing less than surreal. And yet, even if this wasn’t the case, it gives the impression that he just got up in front of the camera and did his thing. It’s the visual equivalent of laying his heart on the table and seeing what happens.

In this dense video, there are moments of raw, semi-uncomfortable emotion, moments tailor-made to launch his #2 Billboard track to the top of the charts (a task at which it unfortunately failed… sorry Aubrey), and moments that are just purely inexplicable. But when all of them come together, Drake and Director X, the alleged director of the music video (although Drake’s significant artistic sway in all of his projects is well-documented) have created something akin to a form of art, equal parts interpretive, provocative, and above all, persuasive. At the very least, it works as top-shelf entertainment. At the most, it’s a stellar piece of digital rhetoric in one of the oddest venues. If this won’t get his girl back, I honestly don’t know what will.

2 thoughts to “The Digital Rhetoric of “Hotline Bling””

  1. Hi Chad,

    I love that you decided to use this piece for your digital rhetoric blog because it ties into your repurposing project as well. I can tell, from both your repurposing project and this blog post, that you must be a fan of rap. As someone who appreciates rap, but definitely wouldn’t call it my favorite music genre I appreciate getting to know more about it from reading your stuff. I also completely agree with the statement you make that Drake knew just how “gif-able” this video would be. Based off of his success, I don’t think anything he does is by chance, I’m sure a lot of it is much more calculated than any of us would ever anticipate.

  2. Hi Chad,
    I’ve always been fascinated by music videos. I love the millions of ways that artists choose to express themselves . Sometimes the videos supplement/emphasize the song, other times, they tell a complete story altogether. Some videos have a storyline, others are mosaics of dance-offs, random digital affects, etc. It’s cool to see the artist’s style and their reasoning behind why they chose the music video to be portrayed a certain way.

Leave a Reply