Brainy Bling: Here’s why Drake is always on beat

“You used to call me on my cellphone…” Who doesn’t know that inescapable line by now? We’re talking, of course, about Canuck rap superstar Drake’s Hotline Bling — the video that launched a thousand memes, with fans setting the clip of Drizzy’s, well, unique dance moves to everything from the Cosby Show theme to indie-rock hits.

But just how do all these clever juxtapositions work so well? The phenomenon has spawned its own hashtag: #DrakeAlwaysOnBeat, which aims to prove that no matter which song you set Drake’s moves to, he’ll somehow always manage to stay on beat — take a look:

All amusement aside, Drake clearly shows off some major musical and physical smarts in the video, which features the rapper slow-grooving against a backdrop of futuristic lightboxes. He even came up with the now-infamous moves himself, choreographer Tanisha Scott has said in recent interviews.

While this chart-topping hip-hop innovator is obviously one intelligent artist, apparently he might have been using his brain for more than just coming up with a great song and video — turns out when it comes to staying on beat, your brain interprets the sound and helps you stick to the rhythm.

To help us better understand how this might work, we turned to some of our very own musical masterminds, Canada’s Smartest Person composer Orin Isaacs, and acclaimed rapper Shad, host of CBC Radio’s daily arts and culture program, q.

“There are really only two main elements to music: pitch and rhythm,” Orin explains. “So when I produce, I think rhythmically first — it’s kind of primal. Since the beginning of time, musicians are counted in before they play the first beat of music: 1, 2, 3, 4. If you make music on a computer, the metronome is the first thing you hear. You can have just a great drum beat and get people moving. So for me, it’s rhythm first always.”

Shad concurs, but notes that for artists like himself (or Drake, for that matter), it’s about accepting that musical fundamental but also trusting your own intuition.

“I think being a good musician or dancer is about playing with the beat, and the space between beats, much more than it is about concentrating on being on time,” he muses. “I think the skill to learn is actually forgetting about the beat and allowing yourself to respond to the music. Beats are generally steady. If you're responding to the music naturally, you should stay in pretty good time.”

So since rappers rely so heavily on rhythm, does that mean they’re natural dancers?

“I know lots of good musicians that are terrible dancers!” Orin points out, laughing. “So keeping on beat and moving your body to that beat are two different things.”

Shad’s a little less equivocal, adding, “Not necessarily. I think a DJ or an emcee has rhythm and energy in their head and in their hands/mouth, but being a great dancer is about having a really smart, agile body kind of all-around.”

Whatever any of us might think of Drake’s moves — on-beat or not — at the end of the day, most seem to agree that the video is uncommonly canny.

“I think it’s funny. It’s popular because it Drake!” Orin offers. “Here’s one of the biggest rappers in the world dancing and kinda being goofy about it. I hope that was his intention. If not, he just lost a whole lot of street cred,” he quips.

“Love it. It's perfect. It's like... distilled,” Shad raves. “Everything entertaining, loveable, and memeable about Drake is captured very succinctly.”

Do you have a favourite Hotline Bling meme? Let us know in the comments below! If anything, the amazing array of clips that show how Drake seamlessly fits into almost any scenario makes us think he might just be an ideal candidate for Canada's Smartest Rapper (that is, if iLLvibe hadn't beat him to it this season!).


Could be that the smartest thing of all about this video — and the memes it inspired — is the addictive catchiness of the track itself. After all, Ernie's on beat, too:

As is this guy (just in time for Halloween!):

Think your musical smarts are all blinged-out since you've been watching the video (and its many variations) on an endless loop these past few weeks? There's only one way to find out — evaluate your intelligence by playing along with the musical challenges on the all-new episodes of Canada's Smartest Person every Sunday at 8 p.m. on CBC (look out for the Music Match challenge on this week's show!), or download the interactive app and try out the daily bonus challenges that include a number of tuneful tests. And if you need a little extra inspiration, you know just which track to throw on!