Hip-hop superstar Drake’s 5 minute 12 second music video for Toosie Slide is a sad boy meditation on soulless rooms and lifeless splendour. Released on 3 April, it became one of the most provocative and controversial visual commentaries of the Covid-19 pandemic. In this essay, Jason King reflects on Drake’s promotion of his music through video virality at a time of global contagion, reaffirming problematic class distinctions and the tension between the Black indoors and outdoors in the midst of an unprecedented health crisis and worldwide economic instability.
In Don Juan, his 19th-century epic poem about seduction, freedom and slavery (among other subjects), Lord Byron writes:
“Some faint lamps gleaming from the lofty walls gave light enough to hint their farther way,
But not enough to show the imperial halls / In all the flashing of their full array.
Perhaps there's nothing—I'll not say appals, But saddens more by night, as well as day,
Than an enormous room, without a soul / To break the lifeless splendour of the whole.”
Hip-hop superstar Drake’s 5 minute 12 second music video Toosie Slide is a sad boy meditation on soulless rooms and lifeless splendour. Released on 3 April, it became one of the most provocative and controversial visual commentaries on the Covid-19 pandemic. Low-key and minimalist, the music video follows Drake, sporting a black face mask and gloves, through his spectacular 50,000-square-foot, $100 million Toronto estate. Drake’s home is so opulent and lavish that it has its own nickname: The Embassy. As he wanders through the grandiloquent rooms and spaces, Drake performs dance moves inspired by TikTok, the social networking app that allows users to share short music and lipsync videos.
Toosie Slide, produced by Turkish-Swiss beatmaker OZ, is hi-hat-heavy midtempo trap with a catchy hook: “I'm a show you how to get it / It go, right foot up, left foot slide / Left foot up, right foot slide / Basically, I'm saying either way, we 'bout to slide, ayy.” The song follows in the footsteps of a long history of Black social dance music, including novelties like the 1920s black bottom and the 2000s era wobble. But Toosie Slide shares DNA with more childlike and simplistic participation dances that feature movement instruction, including the Hokey Pokey and DJ Casper’s summer 2000 Cha Cha Slide. Almost anyone with a modicum of rhythm who is free from mobility issues can do the Toosie Slide—including octogenarian actor Anthony Hopkins, whose amusing quarantine response video went viral.https://www.tiktok.com/@anthonyhopkins
The Toosie Slide video, directed by Theo Skudra, has a fascinating story. Drake initially presented the verse and hook to hip-hop dancer and Instagram influencer Toosie, after whom the song is named. He asked Toosie to devise a choregraphed dance that might find viral success on the platform TikTok. Toosie, along with dancers Hiii Key and Ayo & Teo, filmed themselves dancing to the track, and then sent the footage to Drake.https://www.instagram.com/p/B-VWEyqpjQ8/ Toosie and co’s TikTok video snippet, released days before Drake’s song/video, went viral across several social media platforms. Most Drake fans first heard the song by way of those TikTok and Instagram snippets, not through traditional radio or streaming platforms, and many people created their own viral response videos before the song was officially released. New York Times pop critic Jon Caramanica addressed the calculated roots of Toosie Slide, calling it “marketing stratagem first, song second.” The marketing worked: Toosie Slide debuted at number one on the US Billboard Hot 100 chart.
Offering up images of celebrity solitude and social isolation, the Toosie Slide video is supposed to be fun and therapeutic.
Drake’s viral Toosie Slide took the charts by storm at a time when people around the world have been mandated by their governments to stay at home and isolate to reduce the possibility of viral contagion and community spread. Large-scale gatherings have been cancelled, while video communication technologies like Zoom, Twitch and Instagram Live have become increasingly essential proxies that help us maintain connectedness and kinship as in-person interactions with strangers pose a risk. Just before shooting the video for Toosie Slide, Drake went into self-isolation at his Toronto home since he was in personal contact with the Brooklyn Nets’ Kevin Durant, who later tested positive. Offering up images of celebrity solitude and social isolation, the Toosie Slide video is supposed to be fun and therapeutic. Meant to ‘go viral’ and inspire participatory sharing, the video promises interactive dance as a pleasurable way to bridge long-distance feelings of alienation and atomisation in an era of isolation and quarantine.
I’m intrigued by the way Toosie Slide resonates with scholars’ J. Cameron Karter and Sarah Cervenak’s book series on the Black outdoors. They interrogate how the Black ‘outside’ relates to the ongoing project of Black freedom, especially to “alternative ecologies and socialities beyond logics of property, sovereignty, and propertied self-possession.” In their co-convened 2016-2017 speaker series on the Black outdoors, Karter and Cervenak engage philosophers like Fred Moten and Saidiya Hartman in discussions about the “the un/settled grounds of legitimate American personhood and citizenship.” In the long and difficult history of Atlantic slave trade, unfree Blacks were policed and restricted from moving freely and confined to physical spaces like plantations. Acts like marronage, wandering, moving about and escape to ‘the outside’ became the essential building blocks of black liberation struggles. At the same time, the prospect of finding genuine freedom on the outside, or even in outdoor spaces that remain subject to policing and forms of terror, remains fraught.
Drake’s Toosie Slide interrogates the tension between the Black indoors and outdoors during a health crisis when those concepts have taken on surplus meaning. The music video starts outdoors, with silent nighttime shots of Toronto’s normally highly trafficked streets like the Gardiner Expressway and University Avenue. (Located in Eastern Canada, the city of Toronto became Underground Railroad refuge for fugitive Southern slaves seeking freedom from bondage. While Drake is a Canadian artist, not an American one, he is North American and his hip-hop certainly resonates with Black American music history and culture). Echoing the post-apocalyptic imagery from 2007 feature film I Am Legend, the video depicts deserted streets that are eerily quiet due to isolation mandates. Director Theo Skudra, also credited with the video’s cinematography and editing, handles what appears to be a two-camera shoot on Super 16mm. He’s previously described his photography aesthetic as “vivid photojournalism:” he relies heavily on fieldwork and he attempts to capture his subject naturalistically. With Toosie Slide, Skudra, who is a frequent Drake collaborator, extends his documentary aesthetic into the video realm.
Skudra takes us from the public outdoors into private enclosure. We join Drake, who is rocking an expensive and rare retro Raf Simons camoflauge bomber jacket, inside his luxurious ante-room. The camera does long tracking shots, giving us glimpses of awards in trophy cases, and paintings hanging on his wall, like the famous rendering of Chairman Mao by Andy Warhol. It pans past basketball jerseys including one that pays tribute to felled icon Kobe Bryant. Drake traipses through more of his artificially-light interior rooms. Designed by elite architect Ferris Rafauli as a “contemporary spin on Beaux Arts architecture,” Drake’s mansion features bronze, black granite, brown agate, and ebony construction materials. It all looks rather cold, sleek, like the inside of a bank or a high-end hotel. We see that Drake owns sculptures by Japanese visual artist Takashi Murakami, and he’s got a Bösendorfer grand piano that features a custom-crafted dark purple skull-inscribed cover. As Drake passes through more imperial halls, we behold his massive island kitchen, its size bested by his Olympic size indoor and outdoor swimming pools. While Drake calls his estate’s design aesthetic “overwhelming high luxury,” online haters joked that the interiors look much more like a shopping mall. Personal taste aside, the video elevates architectural luxury and interior design as the transcendent forms of black self-making.
There’s a final drone shot of the fireworks, taken from up high, while someone jokes off-video: “We definitely cannot run that.”
Exiting the kitchen, Drake wanders through a series of darkly lit rooms featuring wall photographs of musicians like Prince and Snoop Dogg. And finally, the camera follows Drake to the exterior of the house, to the backyard pool area where it is so dark that Drake’s white sneaker kicks steal focus. As the video comes to a wrap, Drake sets off remote controlled fireworks off on his own property. There’s a final drone shot of the fireworks, taken from up high, while someone jokes off-video: “We definitely cannot run that.” In her write-up on the video, NPR Music journalist Ann Powers describes Drake’s opulent mansion as “the kind of castle where a king hides from the revolution outside.”
A few weeks after the release of Toosie Slide, Architectural Digest ran a feature on Drake’s spectacular mansion.https://media.architecturaldigest.com/photos/5e8f62b9749ef40009e219d8/master/w_1600%2Cc_limit/AD000C1_0520.jpg Was the video, in hindsight, little more than a teaser for the magazine spread? Drake is hardly the first braggadocio hip-hop artist to push a materialist ethic: trap music especially revels in conspicuous consumption. But it’s altogether different to make a video to show off your affluent $100 million home in the midst of a global health crisis (and economic crisis) when the very meanings of terms like “home” and “indoors” are in flux for, and being contested by, millions. The coronavirus pandemic is forcing untold numbers of people to conduct work from their homes, effectively transforming private indoor spaces into public and semi-public offices. Others, including the homeless, lack the freedom to shelter indoors, and statistics demonstrate that domestic abuse and psychological crises have skyrocketed as the pandemic has taken its toll. Tours and live concerts, the bread and butter for many musicians who don’t have Drake’s tremendous resources or wealth, have been indefinitely cancelled.
Video communications apps like Zoom allows users to upload virtual backgrounds, which can help you conceal surroundings and maintain privacy. For some socio-economically disadvantaged users, those artificial green-screen backgrounds are crucial methods of avoiding the stigma or embarrassment of having to reveal an indoors that exposes income disparity.https://support.zoom.us/hc/en-us/articles/210707503-Virtual-Background Watchdogs have raised privacy concerns about video communication apps, exposing their lax security protocols, and highlighting the troubling ways that smartphone contact tracing protocols require users to be constantly geolocated and potentially tracked by exploitative third-parties and governmental actors. By forcing us out from our own outsides, the Covid-19 pandemic demands that we take a harder look at surveillance technologies, and the connections between residential property and class privilege.
The video’s images of palatial emptiness and pandemic desertion careen between darkness and light, both indoor and outdoor.
Ultimately, the Toosie Slide video is a performance of labour. As the camera tracks Drake moving from room to room in his estate, the video becomes the way we witness Drake working to market and boost streaming numbers for his product, the Toosie Slide song (recently included on his mixtape Dark Lane Demo Tapes). Drake’s music video emerges as an example of the productivity so many of us are instructed or expected to achieve during the supposed ‘down time’ of isolation, distancing and “shelter in place” orders. Why sit at home doing nothing when you can make and earn revenue from a video about being at home? In the midst of the pandemic, many workers have had to take their labour home, so to speak, and to work from home, or improvise ways to earn money or self-promote while stuck indoors. Millions of others have been fired, laid off or furloughed, based on rising unemployment numbers. Entrepreneurial Drake, however, found a way to make video that encourages you to be productive by learning his new dance. In turn, he is earning income, racking up streams and impressions by gifting you the freedom to move during stay-at-home mandates. It’s the latest iteration of George Clinton’s gleaming promise in the song One Nation Under a Groove:”“here’s a chance to dance our way out of our constrictions.” Encouraging interactive dancing as therapeutic pleasure, the Toosie Slide video wants you to get free while you’re constricted at home.
Yet the video’s images of palatial emptiness and pandemic desertion careen between darkness and light, both indoor and outdoor: they feel, at times, more menacing than pleasurable or free. On one level, Toosie Slide looks a lot like those reality shows in which celebrities take the viewer on televised tours of their luxurious homes, including Robin Leach’s 1984-1995 Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, and MTV: Cribs (dirty secret: the celebrities sometimes rent, rather than own, those homes off-camera). In its gorgeous lensing of Drake’s high-end luxury interiors, Toosie Slide is an unabashed celebration of private property, of home ownership, of the celebrity dwelling as a Superman-style fortress of solitude. It unironically—and callously, even—celebrates extreme wealth at a time of worldwide economic insecurity exacerbated by the global health crisis. Toosie Slide is brand-building in that it dedicates itself to the suite of values for which Drake’s music has long been praised—inwardness, navel-gazing, narcissism, self-regard, and self-possession.
On another level, Toosie Slide resonates with visual culture that depicts super-rich folks at “home alone”—socially disconnected, reclusive, and physically, or psychologically confined and shut in their spectacular mansions. An incomplete list of films in this list has to include Citizen Kane, Sunset Boulevard, Phantom of the Opera, any of the Batman feature films, Arthur, The Great Gatsby, Richie Rich, The Aviator and The Favourite. What Drake refers to in the lyric as “thug passion” is really the glib self-satisfaction of hip-hop infused hypercapitalism laid bare. Passionate self-satisfaction is the video’s raison d'être, driven home in the final drone shot of fireworks. No crowds are permitted to gather to watch them. The fireworks aren’t in celebration of any particular event, except maybe to celebrate Drake himself. It’s the cinematic equivalent of lifeless splendour, a masturbatory money shot.
Toosie Slide is also part of a genealogy of cultural works about Black men, solitude, and domestic space. That genealogy includes Langston Hughes’s lyrics for the aria Lonely House from Street Scene, his 1946 opera collaboration with Kurt Weill. Lonely House tells the tale of a despondent man stuck indoors because he struggles to find a romantic partner: “Lonely house, lonely me / Funny with so many neighbours / How lonely it can be.” There’s Luther Vandross’ classic 1982 remake of Dionne Warwick’s A House Is Not a Home, her 1960s ballad written by Burt Bacharach and Hal David. The lyric suggests that romantic intimacy is the secret to domestic bliss: a house doesn’t become a home until the solitude of one becomes the romantic partnership of two. It’s people, not things, that make the world go around.
Late pop superstar Michael Jackson—Drake refers to him constantly in the lyric to Toosie Slide and copies his dance moves in the video—famously danced alone every Sunday at his luxurious, massive Neverland estate, furiously practising and perfecting his moves. Then there’s the 1984 paranoid pop of Somebody’s Watching Me, by Motown one-hit wonder Rockwell (again featuring Michael Jackson in the hook): the Frances Delia directed video tracks the singer through the hallways of his haunted house. In 1995, Michael Jackson and his sister Janet starred in the video for Scream, directed by Mark Romanek: the brother sister duo willfully self-isolate on a futuristic spacecraft to escape social injustice and tabloid nuisance. I’d be remiss if I didn’t also mention all those late 1990s and early 2000s R&B and hip-hop video clips like R. Kelly’s 1997 Half on a Baby (directed by Hype Williams) and like Usher’s 2001 U Don’t Have to Call, that draw a correlation between the black good life and extravagant interior design. I’m especially intrigued by some of the music videos of R&B crooner Maxwell in that same era, including 1996’s Whenever Wherever Whatever and 1999’s Fortunate, that depict the sultry crooner at home, wandering his own version of imperial halls, trapped in an azure, if seductive, mood.
It’s hard to talk about Toosie Slide without conjuring up the history and culture of the Black bachelor pad as a tool of masculine seduction. In his writing about representations of the bachelor pad in 1950s popular culture, author Steve Cohan once argued that the popularity of the bachelor figure following World War II suggested a changing and ambiguous representation of American masculinity. The lifelong bachelor gets accused of “arrested development”—the inability to settle down, lack of responsibility, and latent homosexuality. Yet in the 1950s the bachelor also represented a new breed of sophistication, worldliness, sexual intrigue, a playboy alternative to compulsory married life. The Rock Hudson-Doris Day 1959 film Pillow Talk, featuring a high-end, technologically enhanced bachelor pad as a seduction suite, is a case in point. In distinction to the typical suburban home, the bachelor pad highlights a particular “architectural layout, characterized by flowing interconnected spaces [that] reflects and supports the bachelor’s holistic subjectivity.” We can draw a clear line between early consumerist representations of bachelor pads in Hollywood films and the image of the recording studio and living/live-in space where mythic sexual activity is imagined to occur, like Jimi Hendrix’s Electric Ladyland in the 1960s, and Prince’s Paisley Park in the 1980s. Drake’s The Embassy is just the latest iteration of the high-tech, consumerist bachelor pad man cave. It’s only that he has no one to seduce in the Toosie Slide video because of isolation rules—except the viewer. (The camera does catch a glimpse, while Drake is in the kitchen, of a mysterious masked person sitting down).
While R&B musicians who emerged in the 80s and 90s like Luther Vandross and Maxwell were relatively conservative stars who yearned to turn their bachelor houses into monogamous homes, Drake writes lyrics that make no such commitment. “Two thousand shorties wanna tie the knot, ayy, yeah… Got so many opps, I be mistakin' opps for other opps,” he raps in Toosie Slide. The flipside of Drake’s self-isolation and solitude is the infinite opportunity for hook-ups to come when his isolation (and lockdown rules) are lifted. Here is the latest iteration of the archetypal promiscuous male rock star, surrounded by groupies, but now updated for an era of vectors and super-spreaders.
I’ve written before about how music videos by superstars like Michael Jackson, Janet Jackson, Beyoncé and Jay-Z reaffirm and re-stage problematic class distinctions even as they progressively represent how Black people occupy space. During the Covid-19 pandemic, some self-isolating celebrities took to their social media accounts to complain or humble brag about their spacious at-home situations, and others posted blithely naïve singalong videos, like the Gal Gadot led video set to John Lennon’s Imagine. In response, we’ve seen a burgeoning critique of vacuous celebrity privilege. Drake found himself in the bullseye of that public antipathy on account of Toosie Slide. While few would fault Drake’s right to be proud of his accomplishments or his earnings, some critics found Drake’s boastful video to be distasteful and tone deaf at a moment of rising unemployment numbers and looming economic catastrophe—a time in which the less fortunate have been forced indoors under less than ideal living conditions, or relegated to the streets or subways to sleep. Others were more jovial in their critique. Watching Toosie Slide, Twitter users joked one-liners like: “Drake’s house reminding me how broke I am” and “Drake’s house so big I still haven’t even heard the song.”https://twitter.com/FancyClown2/status/1245945278705827840 To be fair, Drake did indeed lend his celebrity to Covid-19 relief, appearing in an IG Live session and fundraisers to raise money for essential healthcare workers.
Toosie Slide manages to be both a celebration of, and an implicit commentary on, racial home ownership. American slaves were never able to own their own land or property—the effects of that brutal system have endured and shaped unequal home ownership statistics to the present day. Many post-civil war blues songs of the 19th and 20th century depicted newly freed Black men and women striving to own their own homes as part of their struggle for personal autonomy and self-possession. Drake’s Toosie Slide video, crafted in an entirely different time and place, takes North American antebellum dreams into the second decade of the 21st century. By now, Robin Leach’s quaint dreams of “champagne kisses and caviar dreams” have morphed into trillionaire, bitcoin-inflected, Jeff Bezos level fantasies in which the 1% socially distances and quarantines itself from the other 99%.
If you weren’t told in advance that masked Drake owned that opulent home in the Toosie Slide video, you might have thought that he was robbing the joint, given that he’s dressed like an Ocean’s Eleven burglar.
Toosie Slide revels in a vision of bourgeois haute living that is unattainable for most. But Drake’s sartorial choices in the video – including a Balaclava face mask and a hoodie — unexpectedly conjure up stereotypical images of black criminality. As worn by African-Americans, the hoodie became a controversial piece of clothing in the aftermath the tragic 2012 shooting of Trayvon Martin. And if you weren’t told in advance that masked Drake owned that opulent home in the Toosie Slide video, you might have thought that he was robbing the joint, given that he’s dressed like an Ocean’s Eleven burglar. In response to federal and national mandates to wear face masks during the pandemic, some Black men have suggested that that wearing masks will put them at greater risk to be profiled and policed by law enforcement officers. It should come as no surprise that black and brown people sporting masks, especially in retail stores, are differently scrutinized differently than whites. One concerned citizen told a reporter: “The image of a Black man, especially a tall, dark-skinned Black man with a bandana on his face, I just feel like the racial biases that will pop into people’s heads will be something that could very well be the end of my life.”
Though it unexpectedly conjures up images of home invasion, Toosie Slide has nothing to say about the fact that a growing number of Black people have been either arrested or killed in their own homes by overzealous law enforcement, even though they were not official suspects and committed no crimes. Gross police misconduct is not new, but it has received increased media attention due to the proliferation of social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook. In 2009, Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates was arrested for entering his own Cambridge, Massachusetts home; then President Obama positioned himself as an arbitrator between Gates and the arresting cop, inviting them to have a beer to ‘talk it out.’ https://d3i6fh83elv35t.cloudfront.net/newshour/app/uploads/2014/08/89543817-1024x645.jpg More recently, police have shot and killed innocent Black American citizens like Botha Jean, Atatiana Jefferson and Breonna Taylor in their own homes. Toosie Slide offers a seductive vision of the celebrity luxury estate with no consideration of this growing consciousness of Black homes as dangerous and unsafe spaces.
The Toosie Slide video also arrived in the midst of speculation by some (including pop star Madonna) that Covid-19 would emerge as a great equaliser—we were told it had the potential to sicken or kill millions regardless of race or class hierarchies. But the reality is that Black Americans, impacted by lack of access to essential information, resources and or healthcare and differently afflicted by co-morbidities and community-specific health issues, have been disproportionately represented as victims of the Covid-19. (The same racial inequity is true in the province of Ontario where Drake lives). Blacks have also been more likely to be charged with stay-at home violations than whites, and they’ve been more likely to be exposed to coronavirus in jails. Far from an equaliser, Covid-19 has illuminated a growing gulf of intractable social disadvantages.
To be Black in a supremacist culture is to recognise that no space, whether it is inside or outside or somewhere in between, is truly free.
For all these reasons and more, Drake’s video is a strange, queer artifact. It was engineered to produce social media virality at a time marked by global fears of viral contagion. In its TikTok ambition, the video asks us to move and get physical at a time in which federal mandates encourage masses to slow down and avoid interaction with strangers. At a time in which a black man like Ahmaud Arbery is hunted down while jogging outside and killed by armed white bystanders, the black outdoors cannot be a one-size-fits-all space of liberation. Drake’s video is an elite celebration of celebrity interiors, of the good life indoors. But to be Black in a supremacist culture is to recognise that no space, whether it is inside or outside or somewhere in between, is truly free—you cannot simply ‘get out,’ to crib the title of Jordan Peele’s famous film. Drake’s home as gilded cage reminds us of the porousness and tenuousness of these outside/inside distinctions.
During the Covid-19 crisis, every unregulated outdoor community interaction has become an opportunity to contract or spread the virus. With more than seven and a half billion hosts to infect if we don’t act swiftly to stem its spread, the novel coronavirus has so many opps. Even a champagne kiss can now lead to a brutal infection. The problem of exposure is not just a medical issue: it is also the lifeblood of the enticing pop star, who is always seeking novel and viral ways to reproduce his fame, to make music more contagious. Drake’s infectious viral video, key to the representation of his celebrity freedom, is a symptom of class struggle. The fireworks in the final frames of the Toosie Slide video are flashing lights in the night sky—they signify nothing, only praise for the king who is not permitted to rally the crowd. The revolution outside the walls of Drake’s mansion will not be televised—all we’ll get is a seven-second TikTok snippet, a Zoom dispatch from a glitchy wi-fi connection. In the midst of such broken connection, can someone, anyone, turn Drake’s spectacular house—all the lifeless splendour, imperial halls and enormous soulless rooms that serve as the perfect setting for entrepreneurial TikTok hypercapitalism—into a home?
Jason King is the founding faculty member at New York University's Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music where he is Associate Professor, Director of Global Studies, and Director of Writing, History & Emergent Media Studies. A journalist for publications like Pitchfork and NPR Music, as well as a musician, DJ and producer, King is the author of The Michael Jackson Treasures and he has been an expert witness in copyright infringement cases for Katy Perry, Jay Z, Timbaland, Lady Gaga, Madonna and others. He was the host and co-producer of NPR's Noteworthy, the curator of NPR&B, NPR's 24/7 R&B radio channel, and the host of CNN’s original podcast Soundtracks. Follow him on Twitter and IG: @jasonkingsays.
Cohan, Steven. 1997. Masked Men: Masculinity and Movies in the Fifties. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.