To borrow an idea from Leon Neyfakh’s recent FADER 100 Drake cover story, the “Hotline Bling” video is like a master class on Drake’s superpowers, his uncanny ability to interpret inspirational source material into something transcendent and fun.
Visually, Drake brought his old #artselfies to the next level by filming in what looks like a James Turrell piece. Working with the legendary Director X, he also evoked the set and scenes of classic videos from Sean Paul and Kardinal Offishall . Maybe he was referring to Nicki Minaj too. I’m sure you can source some of his goofy dance moves to Vine.
And the song itself, of course, also echoes another: D.R.A.M.’s “Cha Cha.” Both vocalists follow similar lines. The sample in "Hotline Bling" of Timmy Thomas’ "Why Can't We Live Together" hovers around the same chord progression that “Cha Cha” achieved by sampling Super Mario. Regarding their songs’ overlap, D.R.A.M. recently tweeted, “I feel like I got jacked for my record.”
Drake spoke about the connection between the songs in the course of his interview with The FADER—though his comments haven’t been published until now. Responding to a question about a sunnier vibe to some of his summer output—see also “Sweeterman,” another riff on an existing song—he seems to acknowledge that “Hotline Bling” was based on “Cha Cha” and describes the song as a modern-rap equivalent to a dancehall artist recording their own spin on a hot riddim.
“You know, like in Jamaica, you’ll have a riddim and it’s like, everyone has to do a song on that,” Drake said. “Imagine that in rap, or imagine that in R&B. Imagine if we got one beat and every single person—me, this guy, this guy, all these guys—had to do a song on that one beat. So sometimes I’ll pick a beat that’s a bit, like, sunnier, I guess is the word you used, than usual, and I just try my hand at it. And that’s kind of what ‘Hotline Bling’ was. And I loved it. It’s cool. I’ve been excited by that sort of creative process.”
Drake's onto something—in a recent FADER interview with R. City, the hit-making brothers from the Virgin Islands also link "Cha Cha" to a Caribbean, or at least global, state of mind. "The world is opening so much and America is opening so much," said Theron Thomas. "We're in a place in this country where we've seen it all and heard it all. That's why on urban radio black kids are like, I like to cha cha. Cause like, what is it? I've never heard anything like it… We're getting flooded with information all the time, so the only things that can stand out are the things that stand out."
Beyoncé liked it, Drake liked it, the world liked it. Maybe Erykah Badu—who released an excellent "Hotline Bling" version—put it best, in a tweet replying to D.R.A.M. "We loved 'Cha Cha' first," she said. "Very unique and raw. That's that underground magic force that sparks a seed to grow a tree." I can understand how D.R.A.M. feels, but as a fan I'm also pretty happy to do the dance under the giving tree.
Update: A previous version of this post incorrectly said the "Cha Cha" beat was "recreating" the Timmy Thomas sample that was eventually used in "Hotline Bling." Gabe Niles, the producer of "Cha Cha," says that was not the case.