Drake's 'Hotline Bling': A Song About Sprawl

A close lyrical reading reveals that Drake is sad about poor city planning, not an ex-girlfriend.

Drake just dropped the video to his new “Hotline Bling” single, a poppy little jingle built around a sample of Timmy Thomas’ 1973 song “Why Can’t We Live Together” (or possibly D.R.A.M.’s “Cha Cha,” or any number of bachata hits).

Many mistakenly believe that the song is about a guy who’s distraught about his ex-girlfriend getting on with her life after a presumably bad breakup. That’s all a ruse.

Clearly, Drake’s “Hotline Bling” is a metaphor for suburban sprawl, as evidenced by the fact that every other stanza begins with “Ever since I left the city… .” He’s building on the theme of Thomas’ song, which was about black and white people living together in harmony.

Below is a full annotation of all of the “Hotline Bling” lyrics, as interpreted by a kid in the suburbs (hereafter referred to as “Kid Suburb”) who is the purported subject of the song.

You used to call me on my cellphone.

Kid Suburb is alluding to the fact that ever since she moved outside the city, her cell performance hasn’t been as great, because her village is in a backwoods area that used to be endangered deer habitat and hence gets terrible cellular service. So her friends in the city often can’t reach her.

Let’s illustrate this with a map from Sensorly.com of the Baltimore region, showing the “Hotline Bling” cutoff points—the darker areas are those with the best cell performance, while the lighter ones have the worst. That’s what you get when you move to Anne Arundel County.  

(Sensorly)

Ever since I left the city you/
Got a reputation for yourself now/
Everybody knows and I feel left out.

Five years after Kid Suburb left the city, it went through an “urban revitalization renaissance” period in anticipation of its upcoming bicentennial celebration. An urban historian uncovered that one of its early denizens discovered the “cereal flake,” which today is known as the “Corn Flake,” since Kellogg’s stole the recipe and took it commercial. The city has rebranded itself as the “City of Cereal Flakes,” dispatching 100 life-sized cereal-flake figurines across the metro, each decorated by a local artist or non-profit. A few were even exhibited at Art Basel.

This is how Kid Suburb found out about the city’s new reputation: A friend of hers in Miami Snapchatted her the cereal flake exhibit with the message, “Dude, why didn’t u tell me ur city was so cool?”

Cause ever since I left the city, you/
Started wearing less and goin' out more/
Glasses of champagne out on the dance floor/
Hangin' with some girls I've never seen before.

Kid Suburb went into the city one Sunday to visit the church where she was baptized, only to find that it had been converted into a nightclub. She then went to the church of her mother’s youth and found it completely defaced with graffiti. She prepared to call the police, but an urban gardener growing kale next to the church explained that it was actually wrapped in a mural. The local arts council had commissioned an artist from Atlanta to mural-ize the church, which was also slated to become a nightclub by the end of the year. (Kid Suburb was further miffed that two-thirds of the women on the arts council just moved here from Portland within the past three years.)

Ever since I left the city, you, you, you/
You and me we just don't get along/
You make me feel like I did you wrong.

Kid Suburb still works in the city, and is pissed that she now has to pay a commuter tax. Since it was implemented two years ago, Kid Suburb has elected not to come into the city for anything other than work purposes. She also gets upset whenever she reads articles in The Atlantic blaming white flight for the decline of the city, especially since she’s black and she knows, like, 50,000 black families that also left the city for the hills in the 1980s.

Ever since I left the city, you/
You got exactly what you asked for/
Running out of pages in your passport.

When Kid Suburb lived in the city, it couldn’t get a federal grant to save its life. Since she left, the city has received 18 Neighborhood Stabilization Program grants totalling roughly $1.8 million, another $5 million in Community Development Block Grants, and about $20 billion in federal low-income housing tax credits worth of funding. (Her county’s council just passed a resolution banning any of those tax credits from being used in any of its jurisdictions, but that’s another story). When Kid Suburb’s family (and the 50,000 other black families) lived there, they constantly asked for federal bailout money to save the city’s lagging economy. Now that they’ve left, the city is finally getting it. However, the only project they’ve used the money on so far is sending the mayor on a global 150-city tour to learn best urban practices and to recruit residents—more people that Kid Suburb has never seen before.  

These days, all I do is/
Wonder if you're bendin' over backwards for someone else.

Here, Kid Suburb is referencing the deal the city made with Walmart, which gives the company a 50-acre, tax-free plot to build a store near downtown. Yeah, maybe that screws city taxpayers in the short run, but Kid Suburb forgets that her new village did like 20 of these deals in the past six months alone.

Wonder if you're rolling up a Backwoods for someone else.

Kid Suburb can’t get over the fact that the city has decriminalized weed. When she was in high school, she—or rather, her friend—got arrested for marijuana possession. Now, all the Portlandians have moved in with all their fancy cannabis cupcakes, and suddenly it’s legal? GTFOH.

You don't need no one else/
You don't need nobody else.

Kid Suburb can’t understand why the city is trying to grow its population. Why is it trying to be all attractive to people in Portland? What is this “creative class” stuff? Why does the mayor keep going to cities in Europe and coming back with a stable of “innovators” from the global tech sector? The city should be shrinking. Kid Suburb’s dad said that if people in the city end up moving to their village because the city is getting too dense and overpriced, then he just might have to leave the village and move back to the city.

Why you always touching road?

Why does the city keep trying to stop highway expansion? Kid Suburb also doesn’t understand why the city keeps proposing new public transit endeavors like light rail, mag-lev, and streetcars. And what’s up with all those bike paths? Where is she going to drive and park if they build all of this stuff? Don’t they know that roads were made for cars?

You was in the zone, yeah.

Inclusionary zoning? What the? Hell naw.

You should just be yourself/
Right now, you're someone else.

Kid Suburb wishes the city was the same as it was in her youth, when she could walk to church without having to step around the kale patches, when her church was a modestly adorned temple, not a burner from Wild Style. Before the city was getting all corn-flaked-up to make it cute and accessible to people from other cities. She feels like her city is basically trying to be Rachel Dolezal.

I know when that hotline bling/
That can only mean one thing.

It’s time to move to Portland.

About the Author

  • Brentin Mock is a staff writer at CityLab. He was previously the justice editor at Grist.