The Week In Pop

Bebe Rexha Is One More Hit Away From Becoming A Household Name

Do you recognize the name Elwood Edwards? What about Jessica Gomes? Jesse Frederick? If you’re an American pop culture consumer, you are probably intimately familiar with one or even all of their voices. Edwards is the voice actor responsible for AOL’s famous “You’ve got mail!” prompt. Gomes is a model who recorded the “Maybach Music” tags heard on songs by Rick Ross and associates. Frederick is a critically acclaimed but obscure ’70s singer-songwriter who went on to write and perform the theme songs for TGIF sitcoms Full House, Family Matters, and Step By Step among others. It goes to show your voice can be famous even if the rest of you isn’t.

Bebe Rexha is attempting to traverse that gap. The pop singer and songwriter sang the chorus on two of the biggest pop radio hits in recent memory: David Guetta’s “Hey Mama,” a gargantuan post-apocalyptic EDM hoedown also featuring Nicki Minaj and Afrojack, and the G-Eazy co-bill “Me, Myself & I,” a sleek and moody pop-rap hit that expertly triangulated the midpoint between Drake and Macklemore. Anyone who listens to top-40 radio with any regularity is familiar with these songs, both of which cracked the top 10 of Billboard’s Hot 100 singles chart.

Therefore they also know Rexha’s voice, a piercing, bluesy blast of neon that hits like spicy salsa. But they might not yet be familiar with her name and face. Radio DJs often just mention the lead artist on a given song for brevity’s sake, and even in the age of streaming and Shazam, which put every artist’s name right there in front of the listener, it’s possible to build a sizable silo of fans without breaking through to a more general audience. That seems to be where Rexha exists in the pop landscape right now. She’s got some big radio hits to her name and has done even better on streaming services, but she hasn’t quite crossed the threshold into that level of celebrity where everybody knows who you are. Just ask your parents if they know her, then try the same with Ariana Grande or Meghan Trainor.

In pop music, the middle class is small and fleeting. Players in the major label machine have a brief window to capitalize on their opportunities: You either become a too-big-to-fail behemoth — a sort of nation-state, as Steven Hyden once described it — or you disappear back into minor-league obscurity. Artists typically need hits of their own (and the attendant TV talk show and awards show performances that come with those hits, not to mention tabloid coverage of their personal lives) to fully establish themselves as household names. For Grande, that breakthrough hit was “Problem.” For Trainor, it was “All About That Bass.” For Rexha, it ought to have been “Me, Myself & I,” yet that intangible but unmistakable superstardom continues to elude her for now. She’s well into building her own nation-state, it just remains unrecognized by much of the watching world.

Consider the YouTube success of her Nicki Minaj-featuring “No Broken Hearts,” which currently sits at 161 million views and counting. That could mean she has a burgeoning fan base that’s ready to bubble over into actual celebrity, or it could just mean Minaj’s fans watched the video a lot, but either way the song didn’t even chart in America. An even bigger success story was the walloping EDM power ballad “In The Name Of Love,” on which Rexha shared co-billing with Martin Garrix. That one gave her ample chance to show off the full force of her voice — per Wiki, she’s a coloratura soprano, “a type of operatic soprano voice that specializes in music that is distinguished by agile runs, leaps and trills.” “In The Name Of Love” has racked up 281 million YouTube plays since July and made inroads at pop radio this winter, peaking at #16 on the Pop Songs chart and #24 on the Hot 100. That’s a massive success by most measures, but it still felt more like another maneuver on the chess board than the checkmate itself.

Enter All Your Fault: Pt. 1, the first half of Rexha’s debut studio album, out tomorrow on Warner Bros. Splitting your album up into EP-sized chunks is a weird strategy, but apparently it’s a thing now, and not just at Warner. John Mayer recently released the first four songs from his new Columbia LP The Search For Everything and nabbed a #2 debut on the albums chart before tumbling to #63 and #173 the next two weeks, so there are at least short-term buzz-building rewards to be had. Whether Rexha can make that kind of dent on the charts will determine how far she’s progressed toward pop’s A-list.

It may strike you as crass to consider Rexha primarily through the lens of popularity and fame, but she’s a product of an industry whose entire purpose is making hits. It’s not that she’s unconcerned with quality or even art, but ultimately her ethos is aimed at becoming a force at pop radio. She’s been building to it since childhood: A native New Yorker born to ethnic Albanians from Macedonia, she won a Best Teen Songwriter contest sponsored by the Grammys and enrolled in pro songwriting classes while attending high school on Staten Island. After meeting Fall Out Boy’s Pete Wentz at a recording studio, she became the vocalist for his experimental side project Black Cards in 2010. Two years later she left the group; a year later she signed with Warner as a solo artist.

Since then she’s spent nearly half a decade as a striver in the major-label system, not quite connecting with her own singles but often crafting hits for other artists as a writer and producer. Her biggest behind-the-scenes success was Eminem and Rihanna’s #1 smash “The Monster”; her best was probably Tinashe’s “All Hands On Deck.” She also sometimes jumps on her productions as a featured artist, which is how she ended up singing the hook on “Hey Mama” and nabbing a lead artist credit on “Me, Myself & I.” It feels like she’s been percolating on the fringe of the pop mainstream for so long that she’s bound to boil over into ubiquity.

It’s actually possible to imagine any of the tracks from All Your Fault Pt. 1 becoming The One for Rexha. The Ty Dolla $ign duet “Bad Bitch” doubles down on the “Me, Myself & I” sound, but with the qualitative advantage of genius R&B mercenary lothario Ty$ sliding in to replace cornball sad boy G-Eazy. “Atmosphere,” “Small Doses,” and “Gateway Drug” deliver various shades of digital drama with dazzling precision and even occasional flashes of humanity. And the serviceably catchy if somewhat faceless lead single “I Got You,” although far from blockbuster status, has become the first Rexha solo track to chart on the Hot 100, peaking at #53 and lingering around that vicinity for several weeks running.

The most likely candidate, though, is a simple inversion of the “Me, Myself & I” formula. “FFF,” the standout from All Your Fault Pt. 1, reunites Rexha with G-Eazy. It has that same action blockbuster-meets-club banger aesthetic as their last collaboration, and although Rexha’s chorus is more understated this time around, the lyrical content is unmissable: “FFF” stands for “Fuck Fake Friends.” That sentiment is attached to an unshakeable hook, too, one that’s easy to imagine catching on big-time wherever backstabbing remains a hallmark of social circles (i.e. almost everywhere). As long as somebody comes up with a passable radio edit, this could be the track that finally lifts Rexha through the industry plant glass ceiling. And if not, at least she’ll be the answer to a fantastic trivia question someday.

CHART WATCH

America, you decided to make Big Sean’s I Decided your #1 album this week. The Detroit rapper earned 151,000 equivalent units — but only 65,000 in pure album sales — to score his second chart-topping LP following 2015’s Dark Sky Paradise. It’s worth pointing out that the prior album’s actual sales figures (139,000) more than doubled I Decided’s figure. Up next is Lady Gaga’s Joanne, up all the way from #66 to #2 with 74,000 units/48,000 sales largely thanks to her Super Bowl halftime show. Gaga’s 2008 debut The Fame also zooms back up to #6 with 38,000 units/17,000 sales.

After Migos’ Culture at #3 with 68,000 units comes Reba McEntire’s Sing It Now: Songs Of Faith & Hope, debuting at #4 with 54,000. The Weeknd and Bruno Mars hold down #5 and #7 respectively, followed by the Broadway cast recording of Dear Evan Hansen. It starts at #8 with 29,000 units/25,000 sales, which, per Billboard, makes it the best-charting debut for a Broadway cast recording since the Camelot soundtrack premiered at #4 in 1961 and only the fourth cast recording to reach the top 10 in the past 50 years (the others were Hamilton, The Book Of Mormon, and Hair).

Post Malone’s Stoney holds steady at #9, and then comes an interesting case: The RCA-List, Vol. 4 compiles streams from 36 tracks on the RCA label, some of which don’t have an album home. Combined, they added up to 26,000 units, all based on streaming, good for a #10 debut. It’s a repeat of Epic’s success last year with Epic AF, a similar comp designed to exploit Billboard’s streaming-friendly chart rules.

Over on the Hot 100, Ed Sheeran’s “Shape Of You” holds onto #1 for a third nonconsecutive week. Numbers 2 and 3 hold steady as well: Migos and Lil Uzi Vert’s “Bad And Boujee” followed by Zayn and Taylor Swift’s “I Don’t Wanna Live Forever (Fifty Shades Darker).” After that comes another Gaga Super Bowl shakeup, with “Million Reasons” soaring to #4, a whopping 48 notches above its previous #52 peak. Billboard reports that it’s Gaga’s 10th top-5 hit and 14th top-10 hit.

Gaga’s surge bumps Machine Gun Kelly and Camila Cabello’s “Bad Things” down to #5. Then comes Big Sean’s “Bounce Back” at #6, tying his feature on Justin Bieber’s “As Long As You Love Me” to become Sean’s highest-charting single ever. It’s also four spots higher than the Nicki Minaj collab “Dance (A$$),” which topped out at #10 and was previously Sean’s biggest hit as a lead artist. After the Chainsmokers and Halsey’s “Closer” at #7 comes Alessia Cara’s “Scars To Your Beautiful,” rising to a new #8 peak. Maroon 5 and Kendrick Lamar’s “Don’t Wanna Know” is at #9, and the Chainsmokers’ “Closer” follow-up “Paris” climbs back to #10.

POP FIVE

Katy Perry – “Chained To The Rhythm” (Feat. Skip Marley)
With some reservation, I offer my opinion on this song: It is good. It sure doesn’t need Skip Marley’s guest verse, though I assume that was an attempt to include someone of Caribbean origin on her dancehall-informed pop song á la Sean Paul on Sia’s “Cheap Thrills.” And its vaporwave aesthetic doesn’t necessarily help it stand out in a field of melancholy beach songs apparently designed to lull listeners into a daze. But that chorus is irresistible to me, and the #woke message about getting outside of your bubble feels extremely timely.

Kygo – “It Ain’t Me” (Feat. Selena Gomez)
Now here is a hit pop song! This seems like Gomez’s answer to Justin Bieber’s “Love Yourself,” a jubilant nostalgia bomb about rowdy nights on the town that flips into a fuck-you at the end of the chorus. That chorus, by the way, is exactly the kind of bar singalong perfect for one of those rowdy nights on the town. And although it’s still a Kygo song and therefore still rooted in tropical house, the lite-electronic stuff never overwhelms the pop-rock elements that make “It Ain’t Me” so winsome. I love it.

Incubus – “Nimble Bastard”
“Has it come to this?” asks Brandon Boyd, and I am wondering the same thing. The batshit creativity that made Incubus the most exciting band in the Family Values Tour universe has been rapidly draining from the band since even before Y2K, but it’s disheartening to hear that their comeback single is such a simple and straightforward rock song. It’s fine for what it is, but I miss the band that made S.C.I.E.N.C.E., or even “I Wish You Were Here.”

Linkin Park – “Heavy” (Feat. Kiiara)
Speaking of nu-metal bands attempting a comeback, here’s Linkin Park’s bid for a return to pop radio. It is really poppy — and, unfortunately, really bad.

Keith Urban – “The Fighter” (Feat. Carrie Underwood)
This is an entirely different flavor of cheese than I’d expect from a Keith Urban/Carrie Underwood duet, and I’m not ashamed to say it’s delicious.

NEWS IN BRIEF

  • Lorde’s new single is apparently out 3/7. [Twitter]
  • Here’s *NSYNC singing “Happy Birthday” to Britney Spears in a clip from the Lifetime original movie Britney Ever After, premiering Saturday. [E!]
  • Columbia Records CEO Rob Stringer says the “authentic” Harry Styles solo LP is not far away. [Billboard]
  • Shakira wrote an essay for Time about President Trump’s travel ban. [Time]
  • Adam Levine received a star on the Hollywood Walk Of Fame. [People]
  • Kesha showed up at a pre-Grammy tribute to Loretta Lynn to cover “Hello Darlin’.” [Billboard]
  • Here’s Lana Del Rey, the Last Shadow Puppets, and Tame Impala’s Cam Avery doing karaoke, as captured by Father John Misty’s wife’s Instagram Story. [Twitter]
  • Nick Cannon announced he’s leaving America’s Got Talent after producers objected to his jokes about the show in his new standup special. [Rap-Up]
  • Justin Bieber stopped by an Orange County Starbucks and bunch of cops were there so he paid for everyone’s coffee. [TMZ]
  • Bieber also shaded his ex Selena Gomez’s new boyfriend the Weeknd … again. [Daily Mail]
  • Apple Music released a promo for their Shark Tank ripoff Planet Of The Apps on which Will.i.am is a judge. [YouTube]
  • To promote the arrival of Golden Girls on Hulu, Elle King dressed up as an elderly lady and covered the theme song. [Instagram]
  • Lady Gaga, Britney Spears, and Alicia Keys are among the artists who’ve signed a letter condemning Texas’ “bathroom bill” targeting transgender people. [Yahoo]
  • Noah Cyrus covered Vance Joy’s “Riptide” for Sirius XM. [YouTube]
  • Sia tweeted at Kanye West, asking him to stop wearing fur. [Twitter]
  • Mike Posner announced his first book of poetry Tear Drops And Balloons, out next month. [Mike Posner]
  • Adele referred to her longtime partner (and father of her son) Simon Konecki as her “husband” in her Grammys acceptance speech, confirming the rumor that they got married around Christmastime. [AP]
  • A dog named after Adele’s ‘Rumor Has It’ won the Westminister Dog Competition. Big week for Adele music. [Today]

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