What is this video: goodhearted charity, pop promotional spectacle, or both? Both, making it part of a long history. The word “humanitainment” has been used to describe splashy celebrity-generosity efforts ranging from the Live 8 concert to David Beckham’s UNICEF work, and that term certainly seems to fit “God’s Plan.” It’s an act of grace, and it’s a show—one perfectly calibrated to currently popular attitudes around giving, stardom, and society.
The supremely influential and prolific Drake defines the term “love him or hate him.” Yet as the “God’s Plan” clip earned nearly 30 million plays over a few days, a common response has been to note the lack of backlash. “It seemed like an easy target,” wrote Eric Skelton at Pigeons and Planes about the video. “I was wrong. Every tweet and YouTube comment I've come across so far has been positive.” The most prominent criticism isn’t criticism at all, but rather praise that acknowledges the obvious criticism. One typical example came when Adult Swim’s Jason DeMarco tweeted, “The Drake video is good. Insanely rich ppl giving money away is good, I don’t care if it’s self-serving.”
It is good—both in the moral sense and the aesthetic sense. Director Karena Evans strikingly juxtaposes colorful and worn-down homes with the sleekness of high-end department stores and post-modern campus architecture. Steadicam gives a feeling of vérité, while overhead crowd shots—involving, we see, a cherrypicker that Drake perches in—add grandeur. Absent are clichés of yachts and strippers that have made Miami the ultimate music-video setting. In fact, Drake may be slyly addressing a seven-year-old callout by 2 Live Crew’s Uncle Luke against rappers who exploit Miami’s glam and ignore its average resident.
Those residents, now, are all over the “God’s Plan” video. To start, we hear one man talk about being the same age as Denzel Washington, not having Denzel’s money, and still looking good and feeling fine. The monologue offers a taste of Miami personality, but it also hints at a message about money, race, and dignity. From there, the video casts its sanctifying gaze on a wide range of folks, mostly of color, including both men and women, children and the elderly. Evans pays special attention to emotion: the shock and the weeping as Drake plays Santa, yes, but also the joys of dance, sing-alongs, and shopping.
Still, there’s a tension inherent in the video’s premise. Celebrity do-goodery is an American tradition; resenting stars who use public service for public relations is also a tradition. “He has bought fame and paid cash for it,” Mark Twain once quipped about Andrew Carnegie’s libraries, part of the industrialist’s transformative philanthropic career. Today, when Taylor Swift helps pay her fans’ student loans, it’s seen, by her harshest critics, as a sign of smugness.