How does quiet storm look in the second decade of the new millennium? That’s one of the questions posed by the music video for Drake’s latest single, which has to be one of the most mesmerising and mercurial things I have seen all year, especially in its closing minutes. Throughout his career, Drake’s music has straddled what might once have been described as the nexus between rap and hip-hop, but perhaps now makes most sense to describe as the point at which a consciously crafted hip-hop sensibility brushes up against the omniscient hip-hop affect that has come to pervade all parts of popular music. While he’s often placed alongside artists like Kanye and Lil Wayne, then, Drake is very emphatically a hip-hop artist, only incorporating actual rapping into his music insofar as it’s just one component of the current hip-hop zeitgeist, rather than in the spirit of a sustained rap vision or career. For that reason, I find Drake least convincing when he is rapping and most convincing when he is trying to split the difference between an individual hip-hop signature and a generic hip-hop milieu. Once upon a time, hip-hop was the most languorous, lavish and sensuous of genres, a will to pleasure and an affirmation of pleasure on the part of African-American artists in particular that often felt as radical as the most violent statements made by gangsta rap and more combative musical genres, but in many ways that potential has waned over the last decade, inducing artists to seek out innovative strategies for recovering that pleasurable horizon, or deforming it into something new.
In part, that’s because, as Mark Fisher has pointed out in an excellent essay on Drake’s Nothing Was The Same, the most recent generation of rap and hip-hop artists, such as Drake and Kanye, have enjoyed a level of pleasure that was inconceivable during, say, the halcyon days of 90s hip-hop, let alone the many waves of r’n’b that preceded it. While African-American artists have been steadily increasing in acclaim and visibility ever since the earliest days of rock’n’roll – albeit at a much slower rate than the white artists who appropriated their songs, sounds and styles – it’s only with the ascent of Kanye, in particular, that the libidinal horizon fantasised by hip-hop has started to come into existence. Of course, Kanye is extraordinarily wealthy, but he also enjoys a perfect confluence of critical adulation, crossover popularity, credibility from both the staunchest rap fans and the poppiest teen demographics, and, increasingly, a political presence that has seen him speculate about running against Trump in 2020, in what promises to be the first great post-political election in the United States, and one of the defining events of the early twenty-first century. In fact, I’ve wondered for some time whether Kanye would ultimately run for President, not only because he often feels like a displaced Obama, a mouthpiece for the rage and frustration that Obama has to deflect into a hokily immediate Democratic relatability, but because even Kanye’s concrete achievements pale in comparison to his extraordinary ability to self-apotheosise, to continue envisaging – and enacting – newer and better versions of himself, as if he had simply transformed into one of Daft Punk’s self-replicating automata around the time that he transformatively sampled “Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger” on Graduation’s “Stronger.”
With Kanye, then, I feel as if we are very much in the realm of the post-human, witnessing a species of subjectivity that is so empowered by the social media machine’s capacity to harness waves of global affect and affirmation that it has taken on powers of self-extension that are inconceivable to mere mortals. While that may be exhilarating, in some ways, for Kanye, it also means that he reached the libidinal horizon envisaged by hip-hop music aeons ago, with the result that his music doesn’t exactly have any pleasure to aspire to any more, something that was particularly clear in the brutal, jagged, broken rhythms of Yeezus, which formally announced Kanye’s salvational potential only to try and claw its way out of the lineage and language of hip-hop altogether in the direction of a industrial-metal-noise nexus that is as typically as cloistered in its whiteness as the upper fashion echelons that Kanye blasted in “New Slaves.” In that sense, Yeezus set forth the project of creating a rap aesthetic that wasn’t indebted to hip-hop, producing something closer to the “dirty” vocals that tend to be smeared over death metal tracks, and explaining why he has been so acclaimed by Lou Reed, who also spent the last part of his career exploring precisely this possibility, albeit from a white perspective, building upon the spoken-word-over-noise dissonance of 1973’s Berlin to create what amounted to a white rap collaboration with Metallica, in which Reed intoned a spoken word summary of Frank Wedekind’s two “Lulu” plays over a cacophonous metallic dissonance.
While Drake hasn’t quite risen to Kanye’s heights, his music has been fascinated, from its very outset, with the same foreclosure of hip-hop’s horizons, partly because his musical sensibility is much more centred on hip-hop than Kanye’s. Of course, his wealth is enormous, and his cultural capital is impressive as well, but there is something about his status as a African-Canadian artist that has tended to displace him from the position that Kanye commands, even if it has given him the opportunity to pursue less declamatory strategies as well. If Kanye is now interested in envisaging a rap culture shorn of hip-hop overtones, then Drake takes things in the opposite direction, immersing himself in a hip-hop culture that has lost its potential to properly envisage pleasure, partly because of role models like himself and Kanye who have reached that libidinal horizon and still found themselves unsatisfied – or worse, complicit – but also because hip-hop has become so omniscient in popular culture that the pleasures it once envisaged no longer seem special, singular or sublime. If the omniscience of social media – and the way it collapses pleasure and boredom, eventfulness and mundanity, aspiration and achievement – foreclosed this horizon in the first place, then a certain kind of generic hip-hop has become the language of mobile social media par excellence, leaving little discernible difference between Katy Perry’s cultivation of her Twitter presence and incorporation of hip-hop motifs into her work.
It’s appropriate, then, that Drake has frequently acknowledged Aaliyah as his greatest influence, since his fascination with this lost horizon of hip-hop syncs up quite naturally with the career she never consummated. At the same time, Aaliyah’s smooth, silky, sinuous signature – an extension of quiet storm, really – percolates throughout Drake’s entire discography as a kind of condition of possibility, but perhaps nowhere as emphatically as on “Hotline Bling,” his most recent single. As yet untethered by an album – and so left to float in splendid isolation amongst the limbic spaces of Director X’s music video – this is one of Drake’s simplest and starkest efforts, a mournful refrain built around a sample from Timmy Thomas’ “Why Can’t We Live Together?”, itself one of the simplest and starkest of 70s soul classics. At the same time, that austerity is somewhat complicated by the harmonies and chord progressions, which may be skeletal but nevertheless conjure up the lush 80s lifeworld encapsulated in Sade’s own cover of the song as the final track of her breakthrough album Diamond Life, to the point where it frequently feels as if Drake is sampling Sade as much as Timmy Thomas, at least in spirit. Between Timmy Thomas’ funk-soul and Sade’s smooth-soul, a spectral quiet storm emerges, poised between the early 70s and the early 80s, that would almost feel like a throwback track were it not for the occasional glitches around the edges of the sound, as well as the extraordinary video clip, which has gained even more attention and acclaim than the song, and is so integral to its peculiar power and propulsion that it doesn’t make sense to discuss one without the other.
For anybody watching the clip for the first time, the two most noticeable features are Drake’s unusual, stylised, slow-motion dance moves, and the oddly abstracted spaces within which those dance moves are played out. For me the spaces, in particular, caused an uncanny shock of recognition and attachment, since they’re inspired by none other than James Turrell, the great American installation artist, an architect of light and shadow who split the difference between nineteenth-century transcendentalism and twentieth-century land art with a sublimity that few other site-specific artists have matched. In another hip-hop era, this kind of collision would have been dismissed or celebrated as an appropriation of high culture by mass culture – a sample too far, for better or worse – not unlike some of the bids for cinematic credibility made by Ice Cube’s lushest and most elaborate film clips, bids that seemed to make them even more distasteful to the general public. It’s a testament, then, to the increasing visibility of hip-hop – and in particular to Kanye’s efforts to redefine what rap and hip-hop can be – that this pairing of Turrell and Drake seems natural, almost inevitable, bringing out a synergy between the two that feels as intimate as that between the song and the clip itself. As a longtime fan of Turrell who only just saw a Turrell exhibit for the first time in person, there was something exhilarating about watching the Drake clip for the first time as well, not merely because it recalled my embodied experience of Turrell – an artist who simply doesn’t ramify in the same way in photographic reproductions – but also because the clip also seemed to capture the way in which Turrell’s aspatial spaces both embody and disembody, augment and curtail, in one and the same moment.
While it’s not my intention here to theorise Turrell’s work at any length – he is one of the most written-up about artists in the United States – it is perhaps useful to give a description of how it feels to enter a Turrell exhibit, especially one of the large-scale immersive exhibits that rotate throughout “Hotline Bling.” While I haven’t been able to deduce whether Turrell actually played a part in the construction and choreography of the clip’s sets, several of these spaces are very similar to those I experienced when I saw his retrospective at the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra earlier this year. In particular, they remind me of one exhibit – simply titled “Ganzfeld” – that could only be entered in groups of ten to twelve at a time. After queueing for about half an hour, we were lead into an antechamber, ending with a pair of steps, where we were asked to take off our shoes and to put on a pair of socks, and then wait for the previous group to come out. At this point, all we could see at the top of the steps was a rectangle of light that continually modulated in colour. For all intents and purposes, it was two-dimensional, although the position of the steps and the occasional appearance of a head or limb across the edges of the frame suggested that there must be some kind of room or space beyond as well, even if we couldn’t adequately conceptualise it.
After about five minutes, ten or twelve figures appeared – I wouldn’t exactly say they emerged – from the rectangle and walked down the stairs, looking variously exhilarated and disoriented, at which point we were called upon to walk through the threshold. Given that the experience of “entering” this space was utterly ineffable, it perhaps makes most sense to hypothesise the actual physical parameters of the space – although I can’t be sure – and to then work backwards to the experience that I had of it. From what I can deduce, we were in a room of about twelve by twelve metres, with a ceiling of about five metres. At one end of the room, the floor apparently fell away, since there was a security guard positioned there to warn us of the drop, but there was nothing on the floor I could see to indicate anything other than more indefinite space. At the same time, and from what I could feel with my hands, I think that the corners and matrices between the walls, and between the walls and the floor, had been curved out to prevent any kind of line, vector or shadow intervening to produce any sense of spatial orientation. While the lights kept changing, from blue to green to yellow to pink to purple, there was no discernible source of light. While this was the premise of all the other Turrell installations as well, for the most part you could make a reasonable “guess” as to where the light was coming from, whereas in this case it was utterly incomprehensible. In retrospect, I wonder whether it might have been coming from the gap in the floor at the end of the room, since I have no other way of explaining why that kind of safety hazard, and the additional inconvenience of a security guard, would have been included, especially because the sensory parameters of the room meant that the security guards had to swap shifts every half hour or so.
If those were the physical parameters, then the phenomenological parameters were quite different, to the extent that I hesitate to even use the vocabulary of phenomenology to describe them anymore. Apparently, Turrell’s intention is to create something akin to the sensory deprivation that ensues when you are immersed in pure darkness, except that in this case darkness is replaced with a colour field so uniform and unstructured in direction, depth and tone that it produces what is know as a Ganzfeld effect, a state in which the mind overcompensates for that lack of sensory or spatial orientation with what is known as “neural noise.” In many ways, the notion of neural noise is what best captures my experience of Turrell, and yet it is an extraordinarily difficult thing to to conceptualise for someone, like myself, who has a pretty cursory understanding of neurology. Perhaps the most honest way to approach it is simply to quote what appears to be a fairly well-cited Wikipedia entry, which states that it typically refers to “the random intrinsic electrical fluctuations within neuronal networks. These fluctuations are not associated with encoding a response to internal or external stimuli and can be from one to two orders of magnitude. Most noise commonly occurs below a voltage-threshold that is needed for an action potential to occur, but sometimes it can be present in the form of an action potential; for example, stochastic oscillations in pacemaker neurons in suprachiasmatic nucleus are partially responsible for the organization of circadian rhythms” At the same time, the article makes the additional points that “neural noise has been evident in the early stages of processing sight, smell, and hearing” while “current research suggests that neuronal noise is beneficial to non-linear or complex neural networks up until optimal value.”
Of course, much of this terminology is meaningful only within the context of neurology. However, there is a more vernacular extrapolation of some of these ideas about neural noise that also holds true to my experience of Turrell as well. From what I can gather, neural noise is a electrical movement within the nervous system that doesn’t necessarily correspond to internal or external stimuli, nor is it sufficient for action to occur. Nevertheless, it simultaneously exists in the form of an action potential and can contribute to early, pre-conscious parts of the sensory process, as well as contributing to the complex networked structure of the nervous system in a whole. In many ways, then, neural noise corresponds to what Mark B.N. Hansen has described as nonsensuous perception, “a vague, inchoate form of perception in the causal background of experience itself…fleetingly glimpsable in moments when we realise that we “see without our eyes” or “touch with our hands.”” For Hansen, twenty-first century media increasingly address this nonsensuous realm, gathering data about us and addressing us below the threshold of conscious sensory experience. In order to find some way to come to terms with twenty-first century media, then, it is important for us to develop what Hansen describes as feed-forward mechanisms, technologies, such as “biometric and environmental computational sensing,” that allow us to access these nonsensuous determinants of our behaviour. In many ways, my experience of Turrell’s sensory deprivation chamber functioned as a feed-forward mechanism and made me aware of this nonsensuous precursor to sensory experience, since precisely what occurs in a Ganzfield effect is that the nervous system, devoid of sensory perception, is forced to fall back upon the neural noise that usually precedes sensory perception unnoticed, but in this case starts to manifest itself in the form of mild hallucination and glitches throughout the field of vision.
In that sense, neural noise is a profoundly audiovisual experience, an electromagnetic neural vibration that we “hear” in the form of a glitchifying of the visual field. By extension, it is peculiarly attuned to the language of music video, in which sound and image are more intensely fused than in any other medium, as well as the wider emergence of post-cinematic affect, which, as Steven Shaviro has noted, also tends to be audiovisual insofar as the digital camera combines audio and visual recording technologies in a single device. I’d like to suggest, then, that “Hotline Bling” offers up something like an aesthetic of neural noise, a dissolution of space into a subsensory noise that is then visualised as both a glitchiness but also, perhaps more originally, as an particular postural orientation as well. For, while the clip is quite glitchy in the way in which it is edited and put together – especially towards the end – with Director X frequently cutting between shots and postures at the most abrasive or angular moments, Drake’s own movements are quite fluid, even if they’re occasionally condensed down to more recognisably choppy dance moves. While there is undoubtedly something disembodying about the way in which the Ganzfeld effect of Turrell’s installation provides you with a point of entry into your own nonsensuous, pre-conscious processes, part of the surprise of the installation lies in finding that you are still embodied despite that nonsensuous access, with the result that it’s neither the pre-conscious nor the conscious body that’s really the object of the installation but the continuity between them. As a result, I found myself moving and manipulating my body in quite an uncanny way, suddenly aware of its indebtedness to a subsensory threshold that I normally take for granted. Apparently, one of the key events in the National Gallery of Australia’s promotion of the exhibition was a nude “showing” of this installation, and I found myself wondering whether this environment would render nudity more or less confronting. Probably both, but in a new way for each, since my relation to the other people in the exhibit quickly felt like a new iteration of cruising, not so much in the sense of sexual interest or attraction, but in the emergence of a profound provisionality that inevitably accompanied the dissolution of the distinction between conscious and nonconscious body language that allows us to distance and detach ourselves from strangers in an anonymous space, suggesting, in turn, that the wonder of Turrell’s spaces is not so much in their anonymity, but in the way in which their anonymity suddenly becomes intensely personal and almost private over the course of a couple of minutes.
I guess what I’m trying to say, then, is that Drake’s movements in “Hotline Bling” feel like an exaggerated version of my efforts to orient myself within one of these spaces, as well as the new and strange kind of cruisiness that that process unleashed as well. While Drake’s dance moves have become a bit of an internet sensation in themselves – meme after meme, gif after gif – there doesn’t exactly seem to be a consensus that this is bad dancing so much as an uncertainty about how to respond, or whether to even class it as dancing at all, not least because Drake has never been one to dance extensively in his video clips, and certainly not as nakedly as he does here, in a kind of moody counterpoint to Beyonce’s “Single Ladies” that Director X has stated was designed to make men feel more comfortable about dancing. Whether you call it dancing or not is probably a bit beside the point, but if the most iconic dances manage to encapsulate the collective mind of a particular era reaching out to steady itself, then Drake’s dance has to be one of the most iconic of the 2010s, and my personal favourite since Janelle Monae’s “Tightrope.” Always on the verge of falling over or losing his balance, he seems to be learning the parameters of his body anew with each shot, only to lose them again we we cut to the next. Of course, music directors often use editing to disorient us with respect to the singer’s movements, but in this case the synergy between Drake and the camera feels so absolute that Director X seems to be ceaselessly constituting and reconstituting him each time he cuts away for a new angle, to the point where it feels as if the installation is only a cipher for the way in which Drake is trying to orient himself to the multiple and infinite versions of himself that the presence of this camera affords.
The disorientation is all the more noticeable in that there are parts of this Turrell landscape that ramify as quite classicist within the history and vocabulary of music videos, with the clean bright slabs of light reflecting the iMac aesthetic prominent in the mid-00s, the geometrical backdrops recalling the cubes so precious to boy bands and r’n’b dance groups in the mid-90s, and the exaggerated staircase recalling the monumental theatricality of 80s music videos, with the bizarre architecture of Lionel Richie’s music videos coming to mind in particular, especially “Dancing on the Ceiling,” shot in its entirety on the upper level of the Bonaventure Hotel . And yet while Drake’s dancing may borrow from all of those registers, it is as decontextualised as a contemporary pop artist who has listened to the best of the 80s, 90s and 00s on the internet and then collapsed it into a simulacral style of their own. I’m reminded of Grimes’ description of her musical style as post-internet, since there’s something about Drake’s dancing that is post-internet as well, even or especially as it takes the internet as its main forum, having clocked up over 120 million views at the time of writing this piece, and set to make its way into the top YouTube videos of all time.
Poised between a past comprised of music video pastiches and a future that is somehow contained by Turrell’s installation art, it’s also worth focusing on the three main ingredients that Drake adds to flesh out his version of the present. Firstly, and perhaps most pervasively, he is not alone in this abstract environment, but accompanied by a bevy of big-bootied women, who grind up against the walls and floor with just a little more fluidity than he does. Of course, there’s nothing new about this kind of conspicuous consumption and display of women in music videos, but in Drake’s hands, and in this space, it becomes something considerably stranger. For one thing, the relationship between Drake and these women is provisional rather than possessive, distended by both the cruisey distances and the cruisey intimacies opened up by Turrell’s space itself. While there are admittedly many women for just one Drake, it doesn’t feel as if there is necessarily any deterministic relationship between them, just as there’s no guarantee that this whole setup is necessarily designed to end in the orgiastic sexual abandon that functions as a horizon to so many hip hop anthems. In part, that’s because the human body is so resolutely denaturalised here that the distinctions between sensuous and sexual experience don’t really ramify, just as the extension of sensuous experience backwards into a nonsensuous realm also opens up the possibility of sexual experience also feeding back into experiences that are not necessarily or consciously sexual either. The result is neither sensuality nor sexuality in any traditional sense but instead perhaps best described by what Hansen describes as “worldly sensibility” or “radical environmentality,” an expanded realm of sensory and nonsensory perception that occurs in what he described as “the operational present.” Not only do twenty-first century media bypass consciousness to address this operational present, but they do so in a way that yields a “peculiar combination of intensification and revelation” since “at one and the same same, twenty-first-century media broker human access to a domain of sensibility that has remained largely invisible (though certainly not inoperative) until now, and, it adds to this domain of sensibility since every individual act of access is itself a new datum of sensation that will expand the world incrementally but in a way that equally intensifies worldly sensibility.”
Hansen’s writing is heady stuff, and complex in ways that often exceed my conscious grasp, but one of the points I take away from this is that twenty-first-century media offer us a unique insight into the way that media doesn’t simply mediate the world but recreates the world with each mediation, intensifying the world as much as revealing it. In many ways, this describes the progression of “Hotline Bling” perfectly, since my impression is not merely that Drake is trying to attune himself to each shot but that he is trying to attune himself to the cumulative version of himself that those shots have called into existence. Rather than a mere succession of images, the video clip instead presents something like a holographic intensification of Drake’s presence that creates an extraordinarily visceral anxiety by the final few images, even or especially as that anxiety is subsumed back into the narcotic, hypnotic drift of Timmy Thomas’ samples. In many ways, this is Drake’s definition of quiet storm – a revelation and intensification of neural noise – and the models who crowd the film clip finally feel as if they can never be available to Drake collectively just because Drake himself is never collectively or completely present, but instead communing with and consummating each of image of himself that has gone before, to the point where the prospect of intercourse, let alone sexual intercourse, with anyone else becomes purely notional. Perhaps that’s why the film clip has such an oneiric quality as well, speaking more to late-night masturbation by iPhone screen more than any corporeal hookup – or, even more specifically, late-night masturbation to the very hookup fantasies that the mere presence of a SmartPhone seems to call into existence, fantasies that the song both celebrates and elegises with exquisite melancholia.
Before moving onto that dimension, however, it’s worth also noting that the women who adorn this abstracted space represent something like the libidinal horizon of hip-hop mentioned earlier, since, historically, hip-hop’s fixation on pleasure has often condensed itself to the big female booty. Whether that’s as a riposte to the t-and-a so “tastefully” fetishised by the white rock tradition, or because the projected pleasures of anal sex dissociate themselves from any functional or generative imperative, booty has become a synecdoche for the right of African-American men to experience pleasure without constraint, as well as for African-American women to embrace a body image that is perceived as dysmorphic within the canon of white middlebrow taste. In hip-hop clip after hip-hop clip, then, the booty is presented as a kind of gravitation point, with the camera, dancers and singers all move inexorably towards it as a kind of corporeal cornucopia that exceeds the language of music video itself. It’s often at these moments that the audiovisual co-ordinates of hip-hop music video most yearn to enter the realm of the tactile, or the kinaesthetic, just as the booty often represents the moment at which whatever putative emotion is residual in the song is evacuated in favour of a more collective and deindividuated affect. In “Hotline Bling,” that process is arguably taken to its logical conclusion, with the various booties on display seeming to dissociate themselves from their respective bodies to gyrate with an autonomous, self-generating – and, once again, masturbatory – pleasure and melancholia. At the same time, Drake’s gyrations quickly feel like an effort to dissociate and detach his own booty, a process that is admittedly incomplete, but nevertheless a wonderful vision of how a hip-hop aesthetic might look in which men and women were equally objectified and compartmentalised into their various body parts and attributes. In that sense, there is something considerably more optimistic about “Hotline Bling” that Drake’s previous work, since while it is undoubtedly true that we are situated at a kind of exhausted hip-hop horizon, that horizon is deformed and denatured with such perversion that it feels as if the clip is witnessing the emergence of some new sexual or sensual orientation that hasn’t been named yet, and possibly cannot be named.
Along with these women who fill out his installation – and the way in which they induce Drake to become-woman and embrace his own booty in turn, the most provocative gesture possible within the homophobic economy that still underpins hip-hop music – Director X augments Turrell’s space in two more related ways. On the one hand, Drake is provided with a phone for a great deal of the clip, an accessory that is absolutely not allowed to be on display in any of the Turrell immersive environments I’ve experienced. On the other hand, the space itself is prefaced by a short prologue and an ever shorter epilogue set in what appears to be some kind of phone sex centre, although it’s fitted out like the reception space at a classy corporate institution. Most immediately, that serves to contextualise the clip in terms of the experience of dispersed mobile social media, as well as suggesting that Turrell’s space is no longer singular or exemplary in any way, not merely in terms of what it represents, but in terms of its specific architectural and spatial co-ordinates, which have become more and more integral to a corporate aesthetic in which opacity of structure underpins the kind of luminosity and false transparency on display here. At the same time, however, it sets up a kind of linear, teleological vision of technology – from switchboards to mobile phones, phone sex to mobile phone sex – only to puncture it in the next moment, as the sheer indiscernibility between the most futuristic and old-fashioned objects and experiences in this media ecology produces a kind of pre-emptive nostalgia for any possible development that might occur over the horizon, a booty call that has always already been foreclosed. And yet, just as Drake and Director X manage to deform the very spectacle of pleasure that might seem to have exhausted hip-hop’s wonder, so there is a sense in which the clip also deforms this pre-emptive nostalgia at the same time, as if the clip had to pass through a kind of climactically conservative nostalgia mode – nostalgia for everything – to transform nostalgia itself into a new way of calibrating futurity. In that sense, “Hotline Bling” will perhaps be remembered as the first step in an Afronostalgia that is every bit as visionary as Afrofuturism, a mechanism for feeding-forward our apprehension of a world in which even the most visionary and far-reaching gestures – even the clip itself – are overtaken by the futurity they generate, a mechanism for recovering all those experience designated as inexorable “past” by the time they present themselves to conscious attention, as ghosts of their former selves.