Adam DePollo: The Passion of Aubrey Graham — 'Hotline Bling,' commodity fetishism and the battle for the eternal soul of hip hop
Written to the tune of “Cha Cha,” by D.R.A.M.
Hello, friends. It’s me, Adam. I know we haven’t talked in a while, and yes, I read your texts. Yes, I know I had the read receipts on. Yes, I know I was tweeting at Justin Bieber instead of answering your voicemails. But that’s all in the past now, and I need to talk to you about “Hotline Bling.”
Wait, slow down, I can’t understand you when you’re screaming like that. Why are you cursing so much? We’ve been talking for 30 seconds and I haven’t quoted a single philosopher; I thought you’d be impressed.
Wait, don’t say another word. I know what’s wrong. You’re worried that Drake went too far with the “Hotline Bling” video. It’s the only thing you’ve seen on your timeline for the last week and you can’t stop listening to it, but it’s getting harder and harder to feel the magic — especially after they did that remake with Helmut the Pug.
And, you know, I really can’t blame you for feeling that way. You can only see so many “Hotline Bling”/Merengue Mix mashups before it just isn’t fun anymore. As much as it hurts me to say this, maybe the game’s over. Maybe the hotline has just about blung its last bling.
But I’m a glass-half-full kind of guy, so I’m gonna try to stay positive about this. “Hotline Bling” got to #2 on the Billboard charts and clocked in at about 120 million plays on Spotify, which can only mean one thing: it’s only a matter of time before Drake formally changes his Instagram account from “Champagne Papi" to “The 6 God.”
Now, if you turned all of your social media accounts into de facto “Hotline Bling” shrines like I did, rejoice! This transfer of power will go very smoothly for you. But if you thought you were too “cool” for the whole hotline fad, all I can say is that I hope you really like “Degrassi,” because you’ll be watching Wheelchair Jimmy get an erection on loop for the rest of eternity in the sixth circle of hell. You can’t play games with the 6 God. He moves in very mysterious ways, after all, and if you need to be reminded of what those strange moves can do to a guy, just take a look at Meek Mill’s Instagram. He’s putting #imnotacelebritydontcallmethat on his own pictures. Look at that new coat he got — Drake knocked him down so many pegs he forgot how to dress himself. It’s almost too painful to watch.
But before the coronation happens and we forget what it was like to live in a world where Drake’s face wasn’t on every denomination of Canadian currency, I’d like to take a moment to pause and reflect on how exactly we got to this bizarre juncture in the history of Western society. A half-Jewish Canadian actor named Aubrey just about took over hip hop with an R&B song about cell phones less than nine months after the new King of Compton released an album that critics were calling “Music’s Great American Novel.”
What the fuck is going on?
Now, if you’ll bear with me, I think you can find the answer to that question in the same place you go to find out whether you can avoid making eye contact with people in elevators — your cell phone.
You don’t need me to tell you how essential cell phones have become in our post-postmodern post-2012 Mayan Apocalypse wasteland, but, you know, really stop and think about them for a second. There has never been anything like the smartphone in the history of human civilization.
The smartphone is a relatively cheap, incredibly portable, easy-to-use and increasingly ubiquitous personal omniscience device, which allows us to record and produce audiovisual and textual data about every single moment of our lives and share it, instantaneously, with every other smartphone user (and overworked NSA agent) on the planet. We document our own aging process by filling them with an absurd amount of bathroom selfies, we use them to construct and curate our own public image on a slew of social media platforms, they allow us to stay vocally and textually connected with friends and family who might be on a different continent altogether and we can even use them to arrange romantic liaisons outside the confines of our social milieu.
In other words, smartphones have become an integral part of the way we function as social animals and, along the way, have gone beyond their basic use as telecommunication devices to become a fundamental part of our identities. It should come as no surprise, then, that scientists have begun to show that “cell phone separation anxiety” is an actual, real-life phenomena. When you leave your cell phone on the floor of the bathroom at Chipotle, you aren’t just leaving behind a hunk of rare-earth minerals extracted using ecologically disastrous methods that Apple forced a sweatshop-full of Chinese child laborers to make into an iPhone at gunpoint — you’re leaving behind a chunk of yourself.
Which brings us back to Drake.
Cell phones are a part of all of us, but they seem to be especially essential for Drizzy. Have you ever stopped to think about how often he puts his hotline on the track? He has rapped about it on every single album or mixtape he has ever made. His voicemail is the only thing in his discography with more guest spots than Lil Wayne, and since Lil Wayne features are basically the treasury bonds of hip hop, that means Drake values his cell phone somewhere on par with Berkshire Hathaway stocks.
I’m particularly fascinated by the way Drake uses the cell phone in his songs, though, because I think it is probably the clearest demonstration of the 21st-century relevance of one of my favorite pretentious philosophisms: commodity fetishism.
I know that you want to tell me to shut the fuck up and get back to playing PlayStation right now, but, again, I legitimately think this will help explain why we live in a world where Drake is killing on the Billboard charts and people are leaving Kendrick to play “Alright” into a half-empty room after Future gets done rapping about having sex in his Gucci flip-flops.
I assume you’ve never read the first volume of “Capital” by Karl Marx, but having spent pretty much my entire life pretending to be a Leftist intellectual, I can tell you that it’s not all that hard to get the gist of what he has to say.
Essentially, what Marx realized about commodities is that, like cell phones, they aren’t just neutral objects that we use to do a specific task, like texting your ex, or fulfill a basic need, like getting Amazon to send a box of raw meat to your house. Commodities can indeed complete tasks and fulfill needs, but, in more abstract terms, they’re also a sort of physical totem or relic — what Marx calls a fetish — that symbolically embodies the social relationships that made it necessary for it to exist.
To clear up what I just said, think back to “Hotline Bling.” The song obviously isn’t really about that one time Drake’s hotline blang. It’s really a sexist anthem about how he’s mad that his ex got over their breakup and moved on with her life, so he decides to put her back in her place by reminding her that they used to make the beast with two backs.
There isn’t any socially acceptable way to say that, though, so Drake comes up with “I know when that hotline blings, that can only mean one thing” instead. The implicit end of that line (and its actual intended message) is “We’re gonna do the nasty … Remember? You used to call me up so we could do the nasty. You might be doing fine by yourself now, but not too long ago you were dependent on me, and, if you think about it, you always will be.” But, in practice, what Drake has done is create the commodity known as “hotline.” It’s an object he can use to more efficiently emotionally terrorize his ex and, at the same time, a fetish representing the shitty social arrangement in which Drake emotionally terrorizes his ex.
Now, the obvious question you might be asking yourself is how “Hotline Bling” still manages to go so dumb in the club when, at the end of the day, we’re listening to a song where Drizzy partakes in some quasi-Chris Brownian douchebaggery with essentially no remorse. Are we all sexist assholes? Are we idiots? Is the 6 God simply too powerful to be destroyed?
The answer to those last three questions really depends on your politics — I’m personally voting a depressed yes on all three — but Marx can help us out with the first one, at least.
The problem we’re dealing with here arises out of the fact that, although the hotline is a fetish of Drake’s sexist douchery, when you look at the phone itself, it’s entirely impossible to see any of that. This is because, when you think about it, Drake’s relationship with his ex simply doesn’t exist in the same way that Drake and his ex or the hotline do. It does exist, but only in what Marx calls in Capital the “mist-enveloped regions of the religious world.” In this way, Drake’s shitty relationship with his ex is a lot like the Christian Holy Ghost. It’s there, in theory, but if you wanted to point to it, what would you point at?
Really, you could only do the same thing I’ve been doing for the last 600 words — point at the hotline. Or, if we’re talking Christian theology, you’d point at Jesus. And, let’s face it, Jesus and hotlines are both cool. “Hotline Bling” is a fantastic song and, since we’re being honest, the Passion was pretty damn lit, too. Shouts out to the 6 God and God Classic™ for the primo content.
But here, I think, we can finally figure out why we don’t start throwing up every time “Hotline Bling” comes on. It’s because we’ll sign on to be a part of basically any terribly destructive social arrangement whatsoever — like the ones where we dance around like idiots doing a half-assed merengue so that Drake can terrorize his ex-girlfriend, or where we toss all of our weed money into a collection hat so that a bunch of priests can molest kids and tell us not to masturbate — provided that we’re not paying attention (which we usually aren’t) and that the assholes who are selling it to us put it in a fancy Hotline Jesus case first.
Now, if we were just talking about “Hotline Bling,” this column wouldn’t need to get all that heavy. But, as I mentioned earlier, we aren’t just talking about “Hotline Bling.” We’re talking about hip hop, and about why Kendrick Lamar is playing to empty arenas while Drake is trying on his next set of really big rings. We’re talking, in other words, about the soul of hip hop. So we’re gonna get heavy.
2015 has been, without question, one of the biggest years in the history of hip hop. Just about every major hip-hop center in the United States is producing artists like Kendrick Lamar, Chance the Rapper, Danny Brown, Babeo Baggins, Flying Lotus, J. Cole, Milo, Young Thug, Future and Drake who are radically reshaping the music of their cities, inventing new artistic vocabularies for their unique identities and social milieus, and producing albums that, I’m convinced, will be considered classics 10 or 15 years down the line.
This is also one of those rare moments where social discontent and creative genius have peaked at roughly the same time, reaching the point where a particularly masterful piece of art could, perhaps, inspire the sort of activistic fervor that needs to exist for political change to become a legitimate possibility.
Police violence and Black marginalization — the precise issues hip hop is designed to address — have come to the forefront of our political consciousness at the exact moment when the United States’ first Black president is reaching the end of his time in office and a candidate like Bernie Sanders, who understands the link between institutionalized racism and institutionalized economic disparity, actually stands a chance at getting into the White House and doing something to address those problems.
The conditions are perfect and, you know, we already have To Pimp a Butterfly, gotdamnit. There already exists, in the real world, an album that addresses all of these issues, complete with campaign slogans and an incredibly coherent social platform to go along with them. Literally all you need to do is go outside, throw that Kendrick on your speakers and start marching.
But, instead, here I am writing 2,000+ words explaining why you couldn’t give less of a shit about how “Hotline Bling” is just a well-polished sexist turd, and here you are reading them, presumably getting distracted by the Drake Google Alert flashing onto your iPhone screen every 30 seconds. Yes, he’s inventing Canadian hip hop right now, but, like, for real? You really listened to “Hotline Bling” on Spotify 120 million times? What the fuck is wrong with you?
And, just to bring everything full circle, if you were wondering why Drake is on top of the game right now, it’s for the same reason that you can’t stop listening to “Hotline Bling,” no matter how offensive you find it’s political content. Just look back down at the logo on your phone. You remember how the video dropped on Apple Music? Do you perhaps find it strange that Apple — the company that makes the fucking iPhone, you know, the one that has become so essential to your self-concept that being away from it for more than five minutes gives you separation anxiety — decided to sign an exclusive licensing deal with the guy whose entire discography is a low-key shrine to his cell phone?
Do you remember the part in “Dune” where Baron Harkonnen says “He who controls the spice, controls the universe”? Well, we live in America, and instead of spice we have iPhones.
“Hotline Bling” is an iPhone commercial.
DePollo is Steve Jobs. For swag, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.