Music

Is Drake’s Latest No. 1 a Hit Song or a Hit Meme?

“In My Feelings” is an accidental smash. It could become Drake’s biggest hit.

Drake.
Drake.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Raymond Hall/GC Images.

Sixteen years ago, in July 2002, singsongy rapper Nelly commanded the Hot 100 with his salacious sultry-weather hit “Hot in Herre,” the leadoff single from his monster Nellyville album. The only question was how he would follow it up. “Hot” was about halfway through its seven weeks on top of Billboard’s big chart, and over at Universal Records headquarters, the planned follow-up was Nelly’s up-tempo posse cut “Air Force Ones,” an ode to Nike sneakers. But radio programmers had other plans—unprompted by the label, they were gravitating toward the gentle, lilting pop-and-B track “Dilemma,” a near-duet between Nelly and Destiny’s Child member Kelly Rowland, singing a hook from a classic ’80s Patti LaBelle ballad. Since the end of the ’90s, after a decadelong war against the retail single by the music industry, the Hot 100 had begun to allow songs unreleased as singles to appear on the chart—so radio now had even more outsize influence over what would be a hit.

Radio made the right call: “Dilemma” not only topped the Hot 100 in August 2002, Nelly replaced himself at No. 1, as “Hot” gave the top slot away to his Rowland duet. “Dilemma” went on to spent 10 weeks on top, actually exceeding the run of its predecessor. (When “Air Force Ones” finally became a single in the fall, it only got as high as No. 3.) The effects at the time in music biz land were fairly seismic, messing not only with Universal’s plans but also with Beyoncé’s father, Mathew Knowles’: He reportedly delayed his daughter’s solo debut to get out of the way of bandmate Rowland’s suddenly higher profile.

The current, record-breaking No. 1 song—now in its second week atop Billboard’s Hot 100—was similarly seismic and accidental, driven largely by forces beyond the label’s control. And like that Nelly-Kelly duet, this No. 1 hit satisfies the public’s midsummer jones for something fluttery and more romantic, even coming from a multiplatinum rapper.

That would be “In My Feelings,” the third straight No. 1 single from Drake, the undisputed king of streaming music. Like Nelly in the summer of ’02, Drake replaces himself at No. 1. Actually, Drake did Nelly one better: He ousted himself from the penthouse for the second time this year. Just as “God’s Plan,” Drake’s wintertime single and a very early advance track from his album Scorpion, was replaced on top in April by the more up-tempo “Nice for What,” last week “Nice” was ejected from the top slot by Drake’s own “In My Feelings.” And like “Hot in Herre” giving way to “Dilemma” in ’02, with this swap, Drake is trading an up-tempo, club-friendly summer jam for something more midtempo and lovelorn. It’s certainly not the first time Drake has scored a hit with a mellow, even romantic single, from 2010’s “Find Your Love” to 2013’s “Hold On, We’re Going Home.” But just weeks after Scorpion dropped, “In My Feelings” is already the biggest dreamy-Drizzy song ever on the charts. It might wind up being his biggest hit, period.

That’s because “Feelings” has just broken Billboard’s all-time weekly streaming record, and in this, its second week at No. 1, it’s bigger than any Drake single has been before. Billboard reports that a gobsmacking 116.2 million Americans consumed “Feelings” on streaming services last week. And for once, Drake is not setting the record via the playground he usually dominates, the on-demand audio sites Apple Music and Spotify. “Feelings” is achieving this thanks to viral video views, finally beating a record that has held on the charts for more than five years. That old record—103 million views in a single week—was set in February 2013 by Baauer’s “Harlem Shake,” a song that wound up at No. 1 entirely due to a meme in which thousands of people uploaded videos of themselves dancing to the song. In the half-decade since that mark was set, no one—not Miley Cyrus, not Taylor Swift, not Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee—has been able to beat it, no matter how heavily consumed their videos. Once again, the bulk of the streams were not for an artist’s official video but an army of ordinary citizens uploading their own videos.

Yes, hard as it may be to believe, Drake—the man who conceived his “Hotline Bling” video specifically to be meme-ified—appears to have had nothing to do with the meme that’s propelled “In My Feelings,” widely known as the #InMyFeelingsChallenge. At first, it wasn’t even a challenge: Less than a month ago, just days after Scorpion dropped, self-styled Instagram comedian Shiggy posted a video of himself dancing to “In My Feelings” outside of his parked car, and his guileless, infectious dance—made up of akimbo legs, waving arms, heart-hand gestures, and pure joy—became an instant sensation.

Within days, countless others replied with their own al fresco dancing videos to “In My Feelings,” from Odell Beckham Jr. to Ciara and Russell Wilson to Will Smith. Weirdly, the hook of the video meme wasn’t Shiggy’s particular steps. Unlike such 2010s viral smashes as the Dougie or the Whip/Nae Nae, there appears to be no one iconic Shiggy dance—although some imitators have come close to replicating his splayed-legs hip-hop-Charleston move. (Drake himself imitated it eventually for the cameras, but it took him more than a week.) No, the core of this viral phenomenon is the simple act of dancing to Drake’s “In My Feelings” in an improbable outdoor location, usually involving a car. Ill-advisedly, several takers of the “In My Feelings” challenge have elected to do the dance while jumping out of their own still-moving car. (Which, by the way, is less an homage to Shiggy or Drake, and more a revival of the mid-’00s Bay Area trend known as ghost-riding the whip. I guess some fads die hard, though not yet literally.)

If Shiggy’s meme had never happened, “In My Feelings” might well have blown up eventually. It would be unfair to say “Feelings,” as a song, had nothing to do with this phenomenon. Indeed, given the videos’ lack of consistency—many do not even feature a car, let alone the same dance steps—Drake’s hit might be the only common element. In this summer of our discontent, “Feelings” is suitably languid … even a bit mysterious. For starters, who is “Kiki”? The subject of Drake’s endlessly recycling lyric—“Kiki, do you love me? Are you riding? Say you’ll never, ever leave from beside me, ’cause I want you, and I need you, and I’m down for you always”—has prompted its own string of speculative online threads. Kiki theories range from Keshia Chanté, Drake’s back-in-the–day Toronto girlfriend, to more recent paramour K’yanna Barber. But the identity of Kiki matters less than the infectiousness of the song’s core hook and the nostalgia, even regret, with which a reflective Aubrey Graham sings about her. The song is Drake’s Age of Innocence, a mediation on an idealized love he cannot, or can no longer, possess. As such, it is as instantly familiar as any number of chart-topping lost-love laments. Talk about “Feelings.”

On the other hand, while “Feelings” might well have been destined to be a hit, it’s clear the meme goosed it. Drake and his label weren’t even focusing on any one single when Scorpion finally landed in late June, months after prerelease tracks “God’s Plan” and “Nice for What” had already stormed the charts. The week the album arrived and set a series of new streaming records, “In My Feelings” was not the most-consumed track. It wasn’t even the most-streamed new track. That title went instead to “Nonstop,” one of seven Drake singles in the Top 10, in a week when Drake surpassed a 54-year-old Beatles chart record for Top 10 dominance. In its first week, “In My Feelings” did well enough, debuting at No. 6. But given that the Top 10 also contained such curios as Drake’s duet with the late Michael Jackson “Don’t Matter to Me,” it was anybody’s guess which of these new songs would catch on. (At first, Team Drake hedged its bets by issuing both the Jackson duet and “Feelings” as radio promotional tracks from the album.) Only a week later, as piles of YouTube streams for the #InMyFeelingsChallenge came pouring in, did “Feelings” make its leap to No. 1.

In sum, while the shift in the fortunes of “Feelings,” from an undifferentiated album cut to a chart-topping megahit, wasn’t exactly the same as the radio-driven rise of Nelly’s “Dilemma” in 2002, “Feelings” is still an organic chart-topper. In both cases, the song’s smash status sounds inevitable only in hindsight.

Of course, just as we did in late 2016 when Rae Sremmurd’s “Black Beatles” shot to No. 1 on the back of the #MannequinChallenge, it’s fair to ask the question: Is this a hit song, or is it a hit meme? In 2013, it was easy to be cynical about “Harlem Shake”: Billboard literally changed the Hot 100 chart rules the week the meme was peaking in 2013, and after the Baauer song that soundtracked the meme topped the Hot 100, it never became a radio hit or led to any follow-up hits by the trap DJ. In 2016, “Black Beatles” was a more legitimate hit, already lodged in Billboard’s Top 20 before the Mannequin Challenge took off. Even after the meme cooled, Rae Sremmurd’s cheeky single became a Top 10 radio hit by Christmas 2016. What made the “Harlem Shake” streaming record, until now, so hard to top was the meme’s low bar for entry: As few as you and a couple of friends could shoot yourself pelvic-thrusting to the song, whereas a proper Mannequin Challenge video generally demanded more warm bodies.

Maybe that’s the secret of Drake’s success when it comes to “In My Feelings”: the best of all possible viral worlds. The #InMyFeelingsChallenge has an even lower bar for entry than the Harlem Shake, just you and a camera. And even more so than “Black Beatles,” Drake’s song is a believable radio hit—it’s already risen to No. 14 on Billboard’s Radio Songs chart and seems destined to dominate the airwaves. The remarkable thing so far is that “Feelings” is breaking records and leaping up radio playlists entirely based on fans’ viral videos. There is no official video for the song yet—although Drake is working furiously to fill that gap, reportedly shooting an official “Feelings” clip with his current favorite video director Karena Evans (who helmed the acclaimed clips for bothGod’s Plan” and “Nice for What”). Whenever it lands, that video will add another can of gasoline atop the “Feelings” fire and likely keep it atop the Hot 100 the rest of the summer, threatening Cardi B’s current, rather tenuous position at the front of the 2018 Song of the Summer race.

What’s truly paradoxical about this YouTube-fueled success is it flies in the face of the chart development all of us chart nerds had been avidly watching as the calendar flipped to July: Billboard’s new rules for streaming, previewed last fall, finally took effect on the Hot 100 this month. And after all the overheated rhetoric, they appear to have been a wash, as I half-predicted late last year. As announced, Billboard now counts streams on paid services, like Apple Music and the subscriber tier of Spotify, about three times as much as it counts “free” streams. That includes such ad-supported services as nonsubscriber Spotify or—the main target of the industry’s change—the lower-royalty-paying YouTube. But the chart dominance of Drake, and especially “In My Feelings,” in this first month of the “new” Hot 100 is ironic on two levels. First, the new boss is the same as the old boss, because Drake dominates paid streaming services like Apple Music just as much (if not more) as he does the free, ad-supported tiers. And second, when a video-fueled hit like “Feelings” is huge enough, no chart formula change is going to prevent it from stomping its way to the top.

And anyway, by the time summer is over, “In My Feelings” might be so omnipresent, we will no longer think of it as a YouTube meme. In my recent Hit Parade podcast episode about the history of the music video and its impact on the charts, I pointed out that many now-classic hits were goosed by seemingly faddish videos—from “Don’t You Want Me,” “Take on Me,” and “Sledgehammer” in the ’80s right up through “Call Me Maybe,” “Wrecking Ball,” and “This Is America” in the ’10s—before proving themselves enduring hits. Drake has already defied his critics more than once this year with singles dismissed as time-killers that turned out to have longer legs than anyone could have imagined. At every turn, Drake has seemed, in retrospect, to know exactly what he was doing, a 6 God working in mysterious ways. How funny it would be if his biggest hit song ever was the one he didn’t foreordain at all?