Poor Usher. Poor Jeremih. Poor Trey Songz. R&B’s workmanlike radio superstars churn out jam after jam, some of them truly transcendent, yet only rarely do they actually transcend. When they do, it’s often by hopping aboard whatever stylistic wave is reigning that year — think of Usher’s electronic dalliances like “OMG” — than by appealing to modern R&B sensibilities. It’s even worse for women such as Mary J. Blige, K. Michelle, and Sevyn Streeter: queens all, but mostly confined to their empires.
Invisible walls have always existed between the worlds of pop and R&B — a division largely determined by race — but pop radio feels especially resistant to R&B right now, at a time when the sound of the top 40 has evolved to exclude most of R&B’s mainstream. A quick scan of iHeartRadio’s most recent top 20 playlist reveals as much: Only Rihanna’s retro soul ballad “Love On The Brain,” Bruno Mars’ robo-funk throwback “24K Magic,” and the Weeknd’s dark, sleek Daft Punk collab “Starboy” could pass for R&B by today’s standards, and those songs only loosely. So it goes with Billboard’s essentially identical Pop Songs chart.
Per the current sonic gerrymandering, pop’s dominant sound is breezy, bouncy, easy listening hybrids of lightweight dancehall and electronic dance music’s softer side. It manifests in the work of producers like the Chainsmokers and Major Lazer and DJ Snake, but also singers from Sia to Ariana Grande to Kiiara. Even the rock bands that cross over into pop bear some of these traits, be it the manipulated vocal samples of X Ambassadors’ “Unsteady” or the reggae bounce that lifts many Twenty One Pilots songs or the tropical house undercurrents in Maroon 5’s “Don’t Wanna Know.” There is also moody rap music (most recently by gnash), folksy singer-songwriter fare (most recently by One Direction alum Niall Horan), and pure, sparkling, state-of-the-art pop music (most recently by prodigious actress Hailee Steinfeld).
As you can see, the field is blindingly white, with hits such as D.R.A.M. and Lil Yachty’s jubilant “Broccoli” proving to be rare exceptions. Drake, whose Views is the biggest album of 2016, had to make his own faux-dancehall song (“One Dance”) to maintain a foothold. Sing-songy rap duo Rae Sremmurd’s “Black Beatles,” the #1 song in the country (per Billboard’s all-inclusive Hot 100), is all the way down at #30 on the Pop Songs chart, indicating minimal top-40 radio airplay despite its viral popularity and unshakeable chorus melody. Even Beyoncé, who topped the Pop Songs chart five times between 2003-2009, could not climb any higher than #37 on the same chart in a year when she released the zeitgeist-seizing Lemonade. Rihanna’s computerized dancehall smash “Work,” a nine-week #1 on the Hot 100, presumably made it as high as #8 on Pop Songs because like “One Dance,” it was on-trend.
Some 10-15 years ago, the situation was a lot different. Usher’s Confessions, 2004’s biggest album, was fully pop and fully R&B all at once. Alicia Keys, Akon, Ciara, T-Pain, Ashanti, and many other performers straddled both worlds. But factors such as the EDM explosion and the rise of methodical Swedish superproducer Max Martin helped filter the sound of R&B out of the pop mainstream — and really the changes that removed R&B from the pop sphere had been brewing for decades beforehand. The radio deregulation of 1996 allowed ClearChannel (now IHeartRadio) to buy up a large percentage of the dial and create cleanly defined categories, making it easier for advertisers to target specific demographics. Instead of stations competing with each other, you had one company providing a number of specialized niches. If their pop station had a high percentage of black artists, they risked diluting both revenue streams: drawing listeners away from their R&B/hip-hop station, and making it harder to micro-target to their core demo.
Therefore this is where we stand: For a black singer working from a fundamentally R&B template, the odds of scoring a pop hit are against you. And it’s not like they’re even being squeezed out by white equivalents as per the usual pattern; Justin Bieber is the closest thing to a white R&B singer in today’s pop mainstream, and even he abandoned R&B these past two years in favor of fizzy lightweight dancehall-EDM. The genre itself has been phased out, which is why those R&B singers who do have a foothold in the pop world right now tend to have gotten there by altering their genre’s DNA.
No one has been more successful at this endeavor than the Weeknd. It helps that Abel Tesfaye’s music never existed within strict genre parameters; from the beginning, he was pegged as alternative R&B. On the other hand, based on the dark, artsy, nihilist stylings of his early mixtape trilogy, it was surprising that he made the leap to R&B/hip-hop radio, let alone pop. Yet he completed that slow, steady rise to ubiquity last year with 2015’s Beauty Behind The Madness, an album that generated two #1 singles and successfully merged Tesfaye’s shadowy arthouse-meets-brothel aesthetic with big-budget ’80s pop out of the Michael Jackson playbook.
The rapid followup Starboy, which arrived last Friday, sees the Weeknd positioning his pop reign to continue unabated. The Daft Punk-assisted title track already climbed to #2 on the Hot 100 and infiltrated top-40 playlists. And considering the song’s bleak, dead-eyed chill, slotting on playlists between Shawn Mendes and Fifth Harmony may be an even more impressive achievement than when Tesfaye had all of America howling, “When I’m fucked up, that’s the real me!” to what could pass for an erotic horror movie soundtrack.
Reviews for Starboy have been mostly unenthused, and rightfully so. At 18 tracks it’s too long by half, with Tesfaye seemingly piling every song he recorded onto the tracklist in an effort to ensure the most possible Streaming Equivalent Units (thereby boosting his Billboard chart standing and shortening his path to platinum). But amongst the filler there are more than enough potential hits in there to keep the Weeknd on pop’s A-list, especially the New Wave-nicking disco-house monster jam “Secrets,” a second Daft Punk collab called “I Feel It Coming,” and the Max Martin-produced “Rockin’.” These are monumentally catchy songs, and although it’s obscured by today’s reigning electronic sounds, they contain traces of Marvin Gaye and Bobby Brown along with the usual MJ worship. So maybe Starboy won’t get the sound of today’s R&B on the radio, but it can at least be a Trojan horse for yesterday’s R&B.
Before the Weeknd’s big breakthrough, pop’s predominant R&B representative was John Legend, arguably Abel Tesfaye’s antithesis. Legend grew up in Middle America and emerged from Philly’s neo-soul scene, with ties to the Roots, Lauryn Hill, and Kanye West at a time when West’s signature sound involved pitched-up soul samples. There’s a lot of church in his R&B, which couldn’t be more different from the Weeknd’s roots in noirish strip-club backrooms. If the Weeknd is R&B’s self-styled supervillain, Legend is an everyman specializing in good, clean fun.
He’s approaching pop from an entirely different angle, then, but he’s managed to find his own way in. Specifically, Legend’s piano ballad “All Of Me” became an inescapable smash in 2014: #1 for three weeks, with an official music video now approaching 1 billion views on YouTube. “All Of Me” tapped into the same vein as Legend’s breakthrough hit “Ordinary People,” another soulful piano ballad with gospel overtones, morphing the style into something more saccharine and straightforwardly pop. It was beloved in many quarters, including the kind of white suburban churches where the worship songs sound quite similar.
Darkness And Light, the first Legend album since “All Of Me” went supernova, is out tomorrow. Thus far its lead single, the more uptempo but no less sentimental “Love Me Now,” has not been a runaway success, peaking at #41 on the Hot 100, #25 on Pop Songs, and #19 on Adult Pop Songs. But “All Of Me” took nine months to reach #1, so don’t rule “Love Me Now” out yet. Or maybe Legend will hit with the Chance The Rapper duet “Penthouse Floor” or album-opening ray of light “I Know Better,” or maybe even one of the songs the public hasn’t heard yet. He’s got time. In recent years Legend and Chrissy Teigen have graduated to tabloid celebrity status, and he has brand equity among both conservative and liberal listeners. Even if Darkness And Light doesn’t land a genuine pop hit, he’ll be back on pop radio at some point.
Tesfaye and Legend are from different worlds, but they exist in a lot of the same spaces now, from top-40 radio to awards show red carpets. So what do they have in common, musically speaking, besides a vague connection to “R&B”? Is there any shared trait that suggests the a way back into the pop market for other R&B singers?
Perhaps it’s the distinctly retro-leaning nature of their respective sounds. As we’ve seen with Bruno Mars and countless other hitmakers from Pharrell to CeeLo Green to um, Meghan Trainor, white America has a voracious appetite for vintage black music. Today’s R&B is walled off in its own world, but music that hearkens to a time when the genre had a place in the pop mainstream has a chance of catching fire on a much broader scale. The situation suggests a weird conundrum for R&B stars aspiring to expand their domain: If you want to go forward, you have to go back.
Alexx Mack – “Whatever I Want” Video (The Week In Pop Premiere)
Alexx Mack is a pop singer-songwriter from LA who recently followed up her Like We’re Famous EP with the fizzy yet melancholy single “Whatever I Want.” There’s an air-light bounce in the song’s synth-powered foundation, and Mack’s breathy vocals lend real pathos to her story about the extreme ups and downs of romance. Today we’re premiering the song’s video, which shows her acting chops are just as convincing. Some background from Mack:
While I was writing “Whatever I Want” I had this visual in my head of a couple fighting in their bathroom. The song sounds so hopeful, but I really wanted the video to decrypt the meaning behind the lyrics. Love can go from something so beautiful to something so toxic in an instant. Sometimes what we want isn’t what’s right for us, and that’s truly what the song is about. I am so excited that Noel my director shared the same vision as me. Everyone that was a part of the video wanted to create something so genuine and honest for our audience.
This is a very busy frame for the Billboard 200, with three albums debuting that all would have ostensibly topped the chart on a normal week. At #1 are Metallica, whose double album Hardwired… To Self-Destruct becomes their sixth chart-topper (and first since 2008’s Death Magnetic) with 291,000 equivalent units, 282,000 of which came from traditional album sales. Per Billboard, that’s the third biggest debut of the year (behind Drake’s Views and Beyoncé’s Lemonade) and the best sales week for a rock album since Coldplay’s Ghost Stories moved 382,000 copies in June 2014.
Up next at #2 is Bruno Mars with 231,000 units/194,000 sales for 24K Magic. It was his biggest sales week ever, and had he padded out the album with a zillion deep cuts to juice his streaming numbers, he very well might have surpassed Metallica to debut on top. He made the right choice, though, because at nine tracks the album is pretty much unassailable. If it follows the pattern of 2012’s Unorthodox Jukebox, which also debuted at #2, it will get to #1 eventually. Notably, this is the first time all year two albums have recorded more than 200K in sales in the same week.
Resulting in a similar feat — the first time three albums have notched above 100K sales in a week this year — Miranda Lambert’s double album The Weight Of These Wings enters at #3 with 133,000 units/122,000 sales. Nothing else debuts in the top 10 this week, though Garth Brooks and Trisha Yearwood rise from #11 to #7 with 39,000 units for Christmas Together. Otherwise it’s a lot of familiar names in the top 10: Pentatonix, A Tribe Called Quest (who debuted at #1 last week when there was no Week In Pop column due to Thanksgiving), Trolls, Rae Sremmurd, Hamilton, and Drake.
Speaking of Rae Sremmurd, they and Gucci Mane remain atop the Hot 100 for a third consecutive week with “Black Beatles.” Billboard says the song enjoyed its best streaming week ever, so it seems this train isn’t slowing down yet, even if the Mannequin Challenge (which helped bring “Black Beatles” to prominence) is super stale by now, pop culturally speaking. 55.9 million US streams last week is the highest figure since Adele’s “Hello” debuted, which is seriously impressive.
After “Closer” at #2 and “Starboy” at #3 comes Bruno Mars’ “24K Magic,” reaching a new #4 peak, up from #6. Also at a new high is Zay Hilfigerrr & Zayion McCall’s “Juju On That Beat (TZ Anthem),” which rises from #8 to #5. Ariana Grande and Nicki Minaj’s “Side To Side” peaked at #4 last week but is down to #6 now. The rest of the list comprises hits on their way down: “Heathens,” “Let Me Love You,” “Broccoli,” and “Don’t Wanna Know.”
John Mayer – “Love On The Weekend”
It is crazy how much this John Mayer song sounds like the War On Drugs.
Robin Schulz & David Guetta – “Shed A Light” (Feat. Cheat Codes)
Remember when EDM seemed so angry? This could not be more placid or unmemorable, but I guess when that drop kicks in it’s good for what it does.
Macklemore – “Wednesday Morning”
Never thought I’d hear an AutoTuned Macklemore, but here we are. It’s actually pretty endearing!
Train – “Play That Song”
These fucking guys, again?!
Dwayne Johnson – “You’re Welcome”
My colleague Tom Breihan was disappointed that this week’s column isn’t about the Moana soundtrack, so here’s Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson crooning about his own excellence and cracking a “two thumbs” joke in the process. You’re welcome.
NEWS IN BRIEF
- As was prophesied in ancient days, Bruno Mars filmed a Carpool Karaoke with James Corden. [Instagram]
- Justin Timberlake relaunched his clothing line William Rast with Gilt. [THR]
- Black Eyed Peas’ Taboo revealed that he is battling testicular cancer. [USA Today]
- Fifth Harmony’s Lauren Jauregui called out hypocritical Trump voters in an open letter: “Your words are worthless, because your actions have led to the single-handed destruction of all the progress we’ve made socially as a nation.” [Billboard]
- Jauregui is also working on some solo music. [Josep]
- Jauregui and Fifth Harmony bandmate Camila Cabello celebrated Fidel Castro’s death on social media. [Direct Lyrics]
- At the AMAs Selena Gomez made her first public appearance since taking a hiatus for health reasons in August. She won Favorite Female Artist – Pop/Rock and gave a heartfelt speech. [Twitter]
- Gomez also had the most followers of any celebrity (103 million) and almost all the most-liked celebrity posts on Instagram in 2016. [CNBC]
- Speaking of which, Gomez is back on Instagram! [Instagram]
- Demi Lovato is the new JBL Brand Ambassador. [Harman]
- Kesha will receive Billboard’s Women In Music Trailblazer Award on 12/9 in NYC. [Billboard]
- Lindsay Lohan commented “too much makeup” on an Instagram photo of Ariana Grande and the Arianators were not having it. [Cosmo]
- Adele ended her North American tour in Phoenix by telling fans she’s “off to have a baby.” [E!]
- On the AMAs red carpet Major Lazer said their new single with Nicki Minaj and PartyNextDoor is out 1/6. [Twitter]
- Iggy Azalea shared a birthday message to the plastic surgeon responsible for her new “fabulous nose and breasts.” [Instagram]
- Mike WiLL Made-It was involved in a hit-and-run on Saturday night, but was not hurt. [Instagram]
- The Grammys are expected to return to NYC in 2018. [NYT]
- Desiigner was cleared of all charges in drug and gun arrest from September. [The Boombox]
- The Weeknd set a new record for most Spotify streams by an artist in a single day. [Contact]
- One Direction’s Liam Payne and former Girls Aloud member Cheryl Cole are reportedly expecting a baby. [Just Jared]
- Hillary Clinton presented Katy Perry with the Audrey Hepburn Humanitarian Award at UNICEF’s annual Snowflake Ball in NYC. [The Daily Beast]
- ABC’s Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve With Ryan Seacrest has lined up Mariah Carey, DNCE, Thomas Rhett, and Gloria Estefan for the Times Square broadcast. [US News]
- At a charity show in London last night, Ed Sheeran played “Love Yourself,” the song he co-wrote for Justin Bieber. Afterwards he said “I’ll probably never play it again, but I just want to play it once.” [Twitter]
HOLD ON, WE’RE GOING HOME
in 200 years this kind of sentence is going to be the equivalent of the canterbury tales where you need 4 years of grad school to read it pic.twitter.com/JRP5SF7vrg
— Patrick C. (@tragicgay) November 20, 2016
HOLD ON, WE’RE STILL GOING HOME
side to side but everytime ariana says "side to side" it gets faster pic.twitter.com/oXVU3cBT8N
— ㅤ (@wigsnatch) November 25, 2016