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Drake Takes: Rating the Many Covers of ‘Hotline Bling’

We weigh in on versions of the smash hit by Sam Smith, Erykah Badu, Alessia Cara and others

Drake

Drake performs during Austin City Limits Music Festival in Austin, Texas on October 10th, 2015

Erika Goldring/FilmMagic/Getty

UPDATE: Drake released the sleek "Hotline Bling" video featuring phone sex operators and some charmingly goofy choreography.

Drake released "Hotline Bling" during his Beats 1 OVO Sound radio show at the end of July; since then, the song has become a phenomenon. It instantly eclipsed the rapper's Meek Mill diss track "Charged Up" (which arrived the same day), despite all the hoopla surrounding the Drake-Meek beef. "Hotline Bling" recently climbed to Number Three on the Billboard Hot 100, which makes it Drake's second-biggest pop hit to date. The track is an outlier in the rapper's catalog, a strange blend of an old soul sample — Timmy Thomas's "Why Can't We Live Together," one of the first Seventies hits to employ a drum machine — a gentle Latin pulse and the frenetic drums that have a stranglehold on modern pop. But Drake's lyrics are of a piece with his past work, equal parts jealousy, bitterness and self-indulgence.

In today's pop world, the true measure of a song's impact is how many tributes it inspires — vines, dance routines, covers, memes — and "Hotline Bling" is a runaway success by this standard, as well. The track has spawned numerous alternate renditions and remixes (including Seth Everman's wacky Nintendo-fied take). Interestingly, almost all of the new versions have come from women. More interpretations are sure to roll in, but Rolling Stone rated seven below on a five-star scale.

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AUSTIN, TX - OCTOBER 10: Drake performs during Austin City Limits Music Festival at Zilker Park on October 10, 2015 in Austin, Texas. (Photo by Erika Goldring/FilmMagic)

Erika Goldring/FilmMagic/Getty

Mila J (4 Stars)

Producers BC Kingdom and Jonny dispense with Drake's treacly organ sample in favor of a minimal series of steel-drum-like blobs. These combine with Mila J's vocals — husky when they're low, breathy when they're high — to give the song an unexpected sensuality. This version sounds more like a come-on than an expression of angst: a notable transformation.

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AUSTIN, TX - OCTOBER 10: Drake performs during Austin City Limits Music Festival at Zilker Park on October 10, 2015 in Austin, Texas. (Photo by Erika Goldring/FilmMagic)

Erika Goldring/FilmMagic/Getty

Disclosure and Sam Smith (2 Stars)

The Lawrence brothers attempt to bring this song into their world by giving it some dance pep, but their efforts aren't entirely successful: "Hotline Bling" isn't well-suited to one of the duo's signature garage-revival beats. Smith also oversings here, which is his default mode. Drake figured out a long time ago that by pitching his voice slightly lower than you expect — as if he can't quite bother to get to the right note, because his emotions are too muted — he can communicate more guilt, pain and indecision.

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AUSTIN, TX - OCTOBER 10: Drake performs during Austin City Limits Music Festival at Zilker Park on October 10, 2015 in Austin, Texas. (Photo by Erika Goldring/FilmMagic)

Erika Goldring/FilmMagic/Getty

Alessia Cara (3 stars)

Cara gets points for being one of the first artists to put her own spin on the song, in this version recorded for Australian television. Working with her band, she reimagines "Hotline Bling" as a gently strummed ballad. But that approach turns Drake's unusual tune into something surprisingly — yet unsatisfyingly — conventional.

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AUSTIN, TX - OCTOBER 10: Drake performs during Austin City Limits Music Festival at Zilker Park on October 10, 2015 in Austin, Texas. (Photo by Erika Goldring/FilmMagic)

Erika Goldring/FilmMagic/Getty

Erykah Badu (4.5 stars)

Badu is probably the most unexpected artist to enter the "Hotline Bling" fray: Most of her competitors are young singers looking for an easy way to generate additional interest. Badu comes at "Hotline Bling" from her typically idiosyncratic perspective — "you used to call me on your cell-u-lar device at night." She then interpolates one of her first hits, "On and On," and sneaks in a reference to her ex-boyfriend Andre 3000's work in Outkast ("forever ever?").

And Badu is only getting started: She adds some flowery Seventies-sounding keyboards and a lengthy recording of her voice instructing listeners how to leave messages: "If you're trying to beg for some shit in general, press 4." The whole thing is completely over the top, but Badu somehow injects a dose of levity into the song, while nearly every other performer attempts to make it even more serious.

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AUSTIN, TX - OCTOBER 10: Drake performs during Austin City Limits Music Festival at Zilker Park on October 10, 2015 in Austin, Texas. (Photo by Erika Goldring/FilmMagic)

Erika Goldring/FilmMagic/Getty

Yuna (3 stars)

Yuna's rendition of Drake's track is a beatless whisper, a hushed afterthought full of pretty, multi-tracked vocals. But it's too lightweight: The angst that makes the song so relatable seems to have floated away along with the drums.

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AUSTIN, TX - OCTOBER 10: Drake performs during Austin City Limits Music Festival at Zilker Park on October 10, 2015 in Austin, Texas. (Photo by Erika Goldring/FilmMagic)

Erika Goldring/FilmMagic/Getty

Keyshia Cole (3.5 stars)

In Cole's version, she's upset that a former companion is hitting the town without her, but he also used to bring her down when they were together — "everybody knows you left me stressed out." These feelings are by no means mutually exclusive, but they make for a tougher sell: Drake's original kept things simple.

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AUSTIN, TX - OCTOBER 10: Drake performs during Austin City Limits Music Festival at Zilker Park on October 10, 2015 in Austin, Texas. (Photo by Erika Goldring/FilmMagic)

Erika Goldring/FilmMagic/Getty

Charlie Puth and Kehlani (4 stars)

Puth's voice has been ubiquitous this year on two heavy-handed tracks — his own artless duet with Meghan Trainor, "Marvin Gaye," and Wiz Khalifa's remarkably dull "See You Again." Surprisingly, Puth's duet with Kehlani is one of the best reworkings of Drake's original. It doesn't take much work to transform "Hotline Bling" into sad-sack cocktail-lounge fare, but the instant the two singers' voices blend, the effect is undeniable, giving both performers the chance to vent their frustrations — humanizing the song, since each side gets a say.

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