It’s a TikTok! No, It’s a Song! Drake and the Viral Feedback Loop

It’s a TikTok! No, It’s a Song! Drake and the Viral Feedback Loop

Drake’s new single “Toosie Slide” was released on Friday, but that’s only if you think of a song’s release in an old-fashioned way — which is to say, a full song and an accompanying official video put out by the artist himself.

“Toosie Slide” was truly let loose a few days earlier, when a well-known viral hip-hop dancer named Toosie posted a clip of himself and some of his dance celebrity friends — Ayo & Teo, Hiii Key — doing a smooth floor routine to a small section of the then-unnamed song, including the crucial dance-instruction hook: “Right foot up, left foot slide/Left foot up, right foot slide.”

The voice was Drake’s, but the track was a mystery. Instantly the snippet, and more crucially the dance step, entered the slipstream of content on TikTok, where it began to spread.

Drake, who has been in a symbiotic relationship with the viral internet for almost his entire career, had commissioned the dance clip, and by the time he made it official, “Toosie Slide” was already a hit. In the song’s proper video, Drake saunters around his Toronto mansion in a balaclava and gloves — a socially distanced lifestyle of the rich and famous — and is sure to hit the essential step. But there’s something uncanny happening: He’s participating in a scheme of his own invention, but also is just another person emulating a popular dance step, as if he weren’t both the alpha and the omega.

“Toosie Slide” sets a low bar for participation — it’s a dance song that even those who can’t really dance can dance to. It is marketing stratagem first, song second. Maybe this is inevitable, though. Attention spans are shrinking, and the most effective modes of distribution favor the brief and interactive.

TikTok videos end up like the equivalent of a movie trailer released before the film’s completion. The platform’s power goes hand in hand with the rise of snippet culture, in which sections of songs played by rappers — Playboi Carti and Lil Uzi Vert, among others — on social media become cult favorites, and sometimes more popular than actual hits. Increasingly, the way to cut through the clutter is to do less, and leave behind a thirst — and an opportunity — for more.

This has been happening organically on TikTok since the app’s beginning: TikTokers mine music (new and old alike) for snippets they can reinvent as short dances or comic films. Look at recent popular dances, like the one-pose-per-mood routine to Megan Thee Stallion’s “Savage” (“I’m a savage/Classy, bougie, ratchet/Sassy, moody, nasty”), or the soundtrack to the Renegade craze: “Lottery,” by K. Camp — or at least the beginning of “Lottery,” a song that K. Camp eventually raps on. In the case of Jack Harlow’s “Whats Poppin,” the clips don’t feature a dance, but umpteen thousands of handsome young people shamelessly flirting with their phone cameras.

“Toosie Slide” merely anticipates the response — why not just cut to the chase?

Drake had already done this, unintentionally, with “Nonstop,” his 2018 collaboration with Quavo that recently became the soundtrack to one of TikTok’s funniest routines — see Jennifer Lopez and Alex Rodriguez flipping the switch and swapping outfits.

And he is no stranger to feeding the viral maw. In 2015, the “Hotline Bling” video, with its lush neon-tone backgrounds and easily legible dance steps and facial expressions, was engineered for the meme era, every scene a potential GIF.

But less well-known artists who are savvy enough to read online tea leaves can do something similar. For them, TikTok can also serve as a test run, a way to gauge potential interest in an idea, a sound or a lyric, before committing resources to it.

Such is the case with The Kid Laroi, an Australian rapper who last month posted a snippet of a song on TikTok — “I need a bad bitch/Addison Rae/Shawty the baddest” — name-checking the TikTok superstar with 31 million followers, who’s been part of the dominant Hype House collective.

With everyone in quarantine glued to their phones, a strategic @ mention can reach its intended recipient, no matter how famous that recipient is. On her Instagram story, Rae filmed herself listening to the clip, surprised, and then posted a clip of herself playing it for her mother on TikTok. Eventually Laroi and Rae spoke. “She was like, ‘Is this song, like, a real song?’ and I was like yeah, it is, and it wasn’t, but I was like yeah, it is,” he said in an interview with Genius.

And so, in short order, it became a real song — keyword optimized, algorithm friendly, half-cooked but just cooked enough. Most newborn rap songs from relative unknowns have just the faintest chance at survival in the harsh digital clime. But a nurturing boost from one of the most famous young women on the internet might make it last.

Choosing to name your song after someone famous is something of a gimme, however. Taking less obvious source material and reframing it into a song requires a touch more improvisational savvy. That’s not a phrase one has historically associated with Tyga, a genial hip-hop hanger-on for at least a couple of generations. But quarantine has extracted something strange, cheerful and winning from him.

Curtis Roach, a TikTok comedian, posted a video at the beginning of March where he eye-rollingly rapped “bored in the house and I’m in the house bored” while banging out a beat on the floor. It was catchy, and just the right degree of comically exasperated.

Soon after, Tyga posted a clip of himself dancing in his kitchen and spinning on his hoverboard to Roach’s audio (as have around 400,000 others). Before long, he posted a second clip, more ornate than the first — jumping from couch to couch, dancing on his pool table, washing his hands, walking like a cat on the mantle in front of his television. (Tyga has a big house, too, though perhaps not quite so Brobdingnagian as Drake’s.) He’d added a beat to Roach’s words — bubbly and light, like the jerk music that dominated Los Angeles hip-hop in the late 2000s — and in the caption, announced that he’d made a song with Roach.

For the song “Bored in the House,” both recorded humorous verses. Tyga: “Tell the bitch chill like refrigerator doors/We can heat up some ramen, can’t go to the store”; Roach: “Locked down, I’ma stay stayin’ in-in/Ramen noodles every night for my din-din/Hulu, binge watchin’ episodes of ‘Ben 10,’” and so on. It is primo comedy rap, the stuff of morning-zoo radio, and an elegant example of spinning gold from hay.

Where “Toosie Slide” plays like a royal benediction — the world’s most savvy and influential pop musician spinning an entire digital platform on his fingertip — “Bored in the House” feels like from-the-ground-up playtime. We are all left to our own devices now — how nice it is to make a meaningful, if brief, connection across the social distance.


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