“Hello” by Adele. “Hotline Bling” by Drake. These two songs serve as the No. 1 and 2, respectively, on Billboard’s Hot 100: anthems of longing, nostalgia, regret, and bittersweet acceptance. Both are centered around changing and changed relationships, but address them differently.
Although “Hello” has been described as a song “about my relationship with everyone that I love,” and not an “ex-relationship” or “love relationship,” it’s difficult to agree. Adele is seeking closure from a past romantic relationship, calling this man “a thousand times” to tell him she’s “sorry for everything [she’s] done,” but only receiving silence instead.
“Hotline Bling” is similar, a song about the dissolution of a romantic relationship, where Drake wonders about a woman who’s been doing well without him. “Cause ever since I left the city / You started wearing less and going out more / Glasses of champagne out on the dance floor / Hanging with some girls I’ve never seen before,” Drake croons, the sequence sounding like a late-night thirst scroll through this woman’s Instagram feed. However, Drake isn’t seeking closure; he can’t help himself in his obsession, in denial that this part of his past still means so much to him.
Pairing the two together side by side, it’s interesting to see how Adele and Drake explore these themes lyrically and sonically, but especially visually. “Hello” is explicit in its nostalgia: a series of monochromatic scenes featuring a countryside, an abandoned and dust-filled house and, of course, that infamous flip phone. Sure, the internet predictably responded to the phone’s inclusion through GIFs and memes, but the device conveyed a point: This was a part of Adele’s life that no longer existed; a part that was obsolete. “But it don’t matter, it clearly doesn’t tear you apart anymore,” Adele sings as the song ends. The phone calls are never answered, and therefore the closure never really comes.
“Hotline Bling” attempts to ignore longing through distraction, Drake dancing (and dancing and dancing and dancing) in a room that pulsates with vibrant colors. Although the lyrics are actually melancholic, they almost become a joke in the context of the video, the singer transforming his hands into phones and dancing in a manner that reminds you of your father, uncle or grandfather. Drake’s downplaying what he’s singing about as if to say, “I’m actually doing fine, too, and look — I’ve even met someone new!” But once the club lights turn on and everybody heads home, Drake is lonely and stressed out all over again, never initiating conversation with this woman, awaiting a late-night call that may or may not ever come.
“Hotline Bling” isn’t addressing longing in some new and profound way, but it’s so contemporary in its presentation, which is why it works. We’ve all been there before, romanticizing and immortalizing a person’s past self that we fell in love with, while taking the more masochistic route of keeping in touch with them, scrolling through their social media feeds searching for answers when they’re only a call away.
The sentiment is prideful: wanting what you could possibly have, but hesitant to make the first move. This is something that we all can relate to, which is why “Hotline Bling” was popular even before its music video dropped. We love Drake because he’s just like us: someone who wants love, but doesn’t; someone who doesn’t want to be alone, but does — a contradiction, especially when it comes to the complexities of love.
Adele, like Drake, has also built a career off the good, bad and ugly of love. Since her debut album 19, we’ve come to expect a certain narrative from Adele: the hopeless romantic who’s at times bitter or scornful, but unflinching in her vulnerability. She writes songs that instantly gain your attention not just because of the technicalities of her music, but because of how bare it is. It’s as if she’s having a conversation with you, sharing some of her most personal experiences not because she wants to, but because she has to for her own sake — her own sanity.
This speaks to the overnight success of “Hello,” a song that, lyrically, functions as a conversation. Maybe she’s trying to speak to a former lover; friend or family member she’s no longer close to; or herself. Realizing that your life is no longer what it was several weeks, months or years ago is the easy part, but coming to terms with that is where the challenge lies. “Hello” is the acceptance of longing; of understanding that it’s an inevitable experience you’re going to endure, and how horrible it’ll make you feel. But eventually you’re going to have to seek some closure from it, or risk it affecting your life forever.
On a chronological scale of longing, we have to go through our “Hotline Bling” phase before our “Hello” phase, which is why their placement on Billboard’s Top 100 is so fitting. Both display a different type of handling longing, but they’re both so relatable. The prideful and self-loathing approach of the former; the accepting and self-forgiving approach of the latter. You can try and dance your pain away, pretending that everything’s fine. But eventually you’re going to make that call for closure.