“Let You Down” begins with plaintive minor-key piano chords and a trembling vocal run through that omnipresent chipmunk effect, the wildly popular pitched-up modulation that makes the human voice sound slightly alien. The singer intones, “All these voices in my head get loud/ I wish that I could shut them out/ I’m sorry that I let you down.” Then the beat drops — a loose, slow-rolling drum-set slap infused with digital programming that nods to trap music — and in comes NF, a rapper who’s here to unpack his guilt and regret in rapid-fire lyrical outbursts. It is produced like a state-of-the-art pop song but is unmistakably rap music, driven by breathless verbal contortions that guarantee even if Michigan-born MC Nathan Feuerstein’s demons aren’t exorcised, at least he’ll get some exercise.
This is the #1 song at pop radio this week. According to Billboard’s Pop Songs chart, “Let You Down” currently reigns as the most-played track at Mainstream Top 40 stations. Meanwhile, the same single is nowhere to be found on the R&B/Hip-Hop Airplay chart. What gives?
You probably already figured it out: NF is white. So is G-Eazy, whose duet with girlfriend Halsey “Him & I” is holding down the #2 spot on the Pop Songs chart this week. So is Macklemore, who ruled pop radio five years ago and is back in rotation with the Kesha partnership “Good Old Days,” #12 this week on that same chart. So is Post Malone, whose #1 smash “Rockstar” with 21 Savage was a pop-radio mainstay over the winter, peaking at #5 on Pop Songs. So is Machine Gun Kelly, the rapper-actor who went to #1 on Pop Songs a year ago with the Camila Cabello collab “Bad Things.” So is Iggy Azalea, who scored three Pop Songs #1s in 2014 with “Fancy,” “Black Widow,” and “Problem” alongside Ariana Grande.
Sorry to belabor this, but: So are Twenty One Pilots, who crossed over from alternative radio but whose breakthrough hit “Stressed Out” (#1 on Pop Songs two years ago) is defined by frontman Tyler Joseph’s rapping. So is Ed Sheeran, the world-conquering British balladeer (lingering at #3 on Pop Songs this week with the prom slow dance “Perfect”) who fancies himself a rapper and has been heard attempting to spit on the top-40 airwaves several times, most recently via Taylor Swift’s “End Game.” Logic, who scored a massive pop hit last year with the anti-suicide anthem “1-800-273-8255,” is the son of a black father and a white mother, but his appearance is such that he is often confused for a white rapper — perhaps also by pop radio programmers?
It’s no secret that there has always been a racial barrier between radio formats. In fact, throughout most of the ’80s, the chart now known as Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs was simply called Black Singles — which, despite sounding like something from a drop-down menu on a modern-day dating website, was a fairly accurate summation of what the chart professed to encompass: the listening habits of the black population. (Black Singles was also far less cringeworthy than Harlem Hit Parade and Race Records, some of the chart’s names in the early 20th century.)
With a hat tip to the complexity of the human experience and an acknowledgement of racism’s role in dividing us, it’s also not so weird that different racial or cultural groups would gravitate toward different kinds of music on average. Or that radio stations would emerge to serve these markets. Or that these stations would in turn become codified by certain stylistic parameters. Country, hip-hop/R&B, alternative rock, Latin pop, classic rock, retro soul, and contemporary Christian radio formats each can be understood as aesthetic expressions of a particular culture. The sound of each format evolves — even the throwback formats, as history moves on — but the demographics they serve largely stay the same.
Pop radio is ostensibly different because it purports to represent a cultural middle ground — the claim is right there in the “Mainstream Top 40″ terminology. This description is true to a point, especially at a time when the sound of pop radio has become a streamlined, often soulless composite of so many genres. Yet in an era when streaming has provided a more well-rounded (if still imperfect) picture of what constitutes the musical mainstream, pop radio’s essential whiteness has never been more glaring.
Top-40 stations are catered to white artists and listeners in a way that makes the barrier to entry higher for black performers in traditionally black genres. That bias has played out in different ways over the years. These days it means black R&B singers struggle to cross over to the same airwaves where white equivalents such as Justin Bieber and Charlie Puth thrive, or black rappers who do make a big splash on pop stations doing so by embracing hip-hop’s corny lowest common denominator á la Black Eyed Peas and Flo Rida.
These trends haven’t always prevailed, but in this decade they have been more or less gospel truth, complemented by one tendency you can depend on with all the certainty of death, taxes, and gravity: Pop radio loves white rappers. These mainstream top-40 stations simply cannot get enough caucasian MCs. Feed them all the melanin-deficient spitters available, particularly if they’re willing to rhyme over goofy wedding music or emotional Hallmark-card beats. If the pop programmers of the failing iHeartRadio empire have one rule regarding rap music crossovers, it is this: Pile on the corn starch.
Before we continue assessing the present, a further review of the past is in order. I was surprised to learn that Vanilla Ice’s 1990 mega-hit “Ice Ice Baby,” the first rap song to top the Hot 100, did so without much support from pop radio. In 1991, when Marky Mark & The Funky Bunch went to #1 with “Good Vibrations,” it too failed to crack the Pop Songs chart. So did House Of Pain’s #3-peaking “Jump Around” in 1992. By 1993, when Canadian reggae-rapper Snow spent seven weeks at #1 with “Informer,” top-40 stations were warming enough to white hip-hop that the song went to #12 on Pop Songs.
Still, in the mid to late ’90s, in the absence of many significant white rappers beyond the largely pop-averse Beastie Boys, mainstream top-40 radio treated monstrous, accessible rap hits by black artists about as warmly as they treated Snow. Hot 100 #1s “Gangsta’s Paradise,” “Crossroads,” “I’ll Be Missing You,” “Mo Money Mo Problems,” and “Doo Wop (That Thing)” all enjoyed some degree of pop airplay but never cracked the Pop Songs top 10. Fugees got to #1 on Pop Songs with “Killing Me Softly,” a song on which none of them rapped. And when Will Smith’s king-of-the-world era came along, pop stations embraced him wholeheartedly, saturating the airwaves with five Pop Songs top-10 singles between 1997 and 1999.
Surprisingly, Smith never got a song all the way to #1 at pop radio. Eminem did. On the heels of Smith’s wholesome, kid-friendly hits, radio was not as quick to embrace Marshall Mathers. (“Will Smith don’t gotta cuss on his raps to sell records/ Well, I do, so fuck him, and fuck you too!”) But from the beginning Em lingered on the margins of pop radio, with massive Y2K-era MTV hits like “My Name Is,” “Stan,” and the Dr. Dre collab “Forgot About Dre” making a dent at the lower end of the Pop Songs chart. “The Real Slim Shady” climbed all the way to #13 on Pop Songs in 2000. And as Em’s central place in pop culture became undeniable, so did his foothold at top-40 stations: In 2002, both “Without Me” and “Lose Yourself” hit #1 on Pop Songs, with many more top-10 entries on that chart following in their wake.
Even then, the mainstream top-40 universe was seeing an increasing number of #1s by black rappers — and that’s not even including the many chart-toppers that included a rapper in a featured role. In 2001, Eve’s Gwen Stefani-assisted “Let Me Blow Your Mind” was actually the first rap song to top Pop Songs. Nelly did it in 2002 with “Hot In Herre” and the Kelly Rowland duet “Dilemma,” again in 2003 with “Shake Ya Tailfeather” alongside Diddy and Murphy Lee, and again in 2004 with the Tim McGraw-featuring “Over And Over” — though that last one, if we’re being honest, is only a rap song by the most liberal definition.
Similarly, OutKast got their first Pop Songs #1 by forgoing rap (Andre 3000’s “Hey Ya!”), though they immediately followed it with one that featured plenty of rapping (Big Boi’s “The Way You Move”). Kanye West pulled it off with “Gold Digger” in 2005 and “Stronger” in 2007. As 2008 transitioned to 2009, T.I. and Rihanna’s “Live Your Life” made it to the Pop Songs summit. The aforementioned Black Eyed Peas and Flo Rida did it many times in the aughts, often with songs only loosely describable as hip-hop. Gym Class Heroes toed a similar line with “Cupid’s Chokehold,” their collaboration with Fall Out Boy’s Patrick Stump that became a Pop Songs #1 in 2006. Rappers including Lil Wayne and Jay-Z did it as a supporting artist.
As we moved on into the 2010s, pop radio became a lot less hospitable for rappers. EDM began to infiltrate mainstream pop, with 2011 seeing Pop Songs #1s involving Afrojack (Pitbull and Ne-Yo’s “Give Me Everything”), David Guetta (the Usher collab “Without You”), and Calvin Harris (Rihanna’s timeless “We Found Love”). Super-producers Max Martin and Dr. Luke gained massive success with tracks that bore little relation to hip-hop (think Katy Perry’s Teenage Dream) or crossbred it with the ascendent EDM sound (think Kesha’s “Tik Tok”). Lady Gaga happened. Adele happened. Mumford & Sons happened. Bruno Mars happened. Fun. happened. LMFAO happened. Taylor Swift happened.
Drake happened too, softening rap in a way that should have made it more palatable to a pop audience — yet despite emerging as one of the most commercially dominant artists of the decade, he could rarely get his songs in top-40 rotation except by not rapping on them. His Young Money associate Nicki Minaj has had slightly better luck flexing her rap muscles on the pop airwaves, but usually as a guest star alongside the likes of Justin Bieber, Britney Spears, Ariana Grande, and Jessie J.
Eminem never had those problems. Around the same time all this was transpiring, he relaunched his career with “Love The Way You Lie,” a song that would become a template for nearly all of the white rappers rattled off at the top of this column. It also became Em’s biggest hit, selling 6 million copies and spending seven weeks at #1 on the Hot 100 (including a stint at #1 on Pop Songs, of course). With a backdrop of booming drums, airy acoustic strums, and mournful piano, Eminem aggressively emoted from the headspace of a domestic abuser, answered on the chorus by Rihanna from the perspective of a woman who can’t bring herself to leave a violent relationship (a role that unsettlingly paralleled her own experience with Chris Brown, partially fueling the song’s success).
It’s easy to hear echoes of “Love The Way You Lie” in “Let You Down,” the reigning Pop Songs champ — and in “Him & I,” the current #2, and especially in “Bad Things,” last year’s big pop-rap smash. Em and Rihanna even repeated it with “The Monster” in 2013. Not that the male rapper/female singer dynamic was new in pop-leaning rap music. Countless hits before and after “Love The Way You Lie” have employed the same formula. Concurrent to it, for instance, was “Airplanes,” a structurally similar hit by B.o.B and Paramore’s Hayley Williams. Yet it’s remarkable how many times Em and Rihanna’s prescription for sleek pop-rap melodrama has resurfaced on the pop airwaves with a white rapper in the lead.
Eminem redefined what a white rapper could be several times over, but pop radio’s relationship with rap music didn’t truly venture beyond the pale until Macklemore & Ryan Lewis strolled onto the airwaves. With “Thrift Shop,” “Can’t Hold Us,” and “Same Love,” they offered three distinct flavors of easily digestible pop-rap (funky-preachy, dancy-inspirational, and woke-sentimental, respectively), and the public gobbled them up. As the duo blew up, it became clear what a vast audience there was for distinctively white rap music, at which point these kinds of artists came flooding onto the pop airwaves en masse, threatening a whitewashing effect hip-hop had previously managed to avoid.
Jon Caramanica described this new path to stardom for white rappers as “a hip-hop side door” in a 2016 New York Times piece:
White rappers — especially in the wake of the success of Macklemore & Ryan Lewis and, to a lesser degree, Iggy Azalea — are now finding paths to success that have little if anything to do with black acceptance.
For decades, white rappers who have reached wide renown — and plenty who never did — have employed a handful of familiar strategies. Initially, a co-sign — an imprimatur of authenticity, or at least tolerance, given by an established black artist — was essential. Think of Dr. Dre shepherding Eminem, or Run-D.M.C. taking the Beastie Boys on tour. (By contrast, remember the struggles of the nonsponsored Vanilla Ice.) More recently, fealty to the genre’s black-built history has been essential, as evinced by nostalgists like Action Bronson and Your Old Droog.
But now we have arrived in the post-accountability era of white rap, when white artists are flourishing almost wholly outside the established hip-hop industry, evading black gatekeepers and going directly to overwhelmingly white consumers, resulting in what can feel like a parallel world, aware of hip-hop’s center but studiously avoiding it.
Macklemore took pains to show how troubled he was by his own role in this phenomenon: posting his guilty text message to Kendrick Lamar upon winning Best Rap Album at the Grammys, inviting foundational hip-hop figures to join him on “Downtown,” handwringing over the Grammys fiasco in an eight-minute(!) single called “White Privilege II.” The world collectively groaned, and now he’s back to the fun-dad shtick that put him on the map in the first place, which in turn has him back on pop radio.
And that’s the thing: Macklemore is legitimately popular — definitely a beneficiary of the white privilege, but also a genuine grassroots success story. Ditto G-Eazy, who emerged from the Bay Area hip-hop scene in part by grinding hard and building up a cult following. Ditto NF, who worked his way up through the Christian music scene, winning Dove Awards and collaborating with white-Christian-rapper forebear TobyMac of DC Talk along the way to mainstream stardom. Each of them commanded huge followings well before pop radio amplified their reach. It’s not like these figures are industry plants who coasted to success. No one’s saying they don’t deserve to be out there making music they love — well, some people are saying that, but this column is not going to delve into the complicated ethics of appropriation.
Instead, let’s focus on how pop radio continues to perpetuate this bizarre alternate universe where white rappers are the undisputed kings of hip-hop. Consider “Let Me Down.” It’s undoubtedly a big hit: #13 on the Hot 100 this week after peaking at #12 two weeks ago. Although it’s being ignored by rap radio — and who could blame those stations for carefully vetting white interlopers, given the circumstances — NF’s song is a solid #9 on the Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart, which factors in sales and streaming in addition to radio airplay. Yet the extent to which “Let You Down” is saturating top-40 is disproportionate to its popularity anywhere else.
Meanwhile Drake’s “God’s Plan” has been putting up historic streaming numbers for well over a month and is objectively the most popular song in the country by far, yet it dawdles well behind NF, G-Eazy, and Macklemore at #18 on Pop Songs. The Black Panther soundtrack has two immensely poppy Kendrick Lamar singles in the Hot 100 top 10 right now, but on Pop Songs they’re charting at #16 (“Pray For Me” with the Weeknd) and all the way down at #34 (“All The Stars” with SZA). These are deeply accessible hits that would fit right in on a pop playlist, but top-40 radio is downplaying them severely compared to their standing outside the top-40 bubble. The inversion of priorities is maddening.
Or what about Cardi B? “Bodak Yellow (Money Moves)” was one of the most massive songs of 2017, riding a tidal wave of popular support to spend three weeks at #1. Cardi went on to land three singles in the Hot 100 top 10 simultaneously, yet none of these came close to the Pop Songs top 10 — even the one with G-Eazy! At one point this year the woman owned half the top 10 on Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs. She’s one of the surest bets in music right now, but she had to jump on a Bruno Mars remix to achieve ubiquity at what passes for mainstream radio. Which again raises the questions: What kind of populist mainstream can comfortably relegate dominant superstars like Drake, Kendrick, and Cardi to the periphery? How populist can an environment like that really be? Whose mainstream are we talking about, exactly?
A weird thing happened on the Billboard 200 this week: A 15-month-old Bon Jovi album returned to #1. The reason, as usual, was one of those trendy album/ticket bundle promotions. Fans who bought tickets for Bon Jovi’s upcoming tour were gifted a download of This House Is Not For Sale, the band’s #1 LP from late 2016. Those downloads constituted almost all of the 120,000 equivalent album units that easily lifted Bon Jovi’s project back to #1 for a second week, more than a year after its release. The 15-month gap between stints at #1 is the longest in the chart’s history.
After the Black Panther soundtrack at #2 and Migos at #3 comes rapper and alleged sex criminal 6ix9ine, whose debut album Day69 accrued 55,000 units to debut at #4. Spots 5-9: The Greatest Showman, Ed Sheeran, Post Malone, Imagine Dragons, Kendrick Lamar. And debuting at #10 is Nation Of Two, the first career top-10 album from “Riptide” singer Vance Joy, courtesy of 28,000 units.
As mentioned above, Drake’s “God’s Plan” easily holds onto #1 on the Hot 100 for a sixth straight week, becoming the first song by a male solo artist to spend its first six weeks atop the chart since Elton John did it with “Candle In The Wind 1997″/”Something About The Way You Look Tonight.” Drake also maintains two tracks in the top 10 thanks to his feature on BlocBoy JB’s “Look Alive,” which slides to #6 this week.
But the big news continues to be “God’s Plan.” It recorded another whopping 92.8 million streams last week, the fourth-best streaming week in Hot 100 history, so as Billboard notes, the song is now responsible for six of the nine biggest streaming weeks ever:
103.1 million U.S. streams, “Harlem Shake,” Baauer (driven heavily by viral videos incorporating the song’s official audio), chart dated March 2, 2013
101.7 million, “God’s Plan,” Drake, March 3, 2018
97.6 million, “Harlem Shake,” Baauer, March 9, 2013
92.8 million, “God’s Plan,” Drake, March 10, 2018
84.5 million, “Look What You Made Me Do,” Taylor Swift, Sept. 16, 2017
83.3 million, “God’s Plan,” Drake, Feb. 10, 2018
82.4 million, “God’s Plan,” Drake, Feb. 3, 2018
79.6 million, “God’s Plan,” Drake, Feb. 17, 2018
75.5 million, “God’s Plan,” Drake, Feb. 24, 2018
As we predicted last week, “God’s Plan” does have a new challenger approaching. Post Malone — whose #1 hit “Rockstar,” featuring 21 Savage, is still in the top 10 at #8 this week — debuts at #2 with his Ty Dolla $ign collab “Psycho.” It’s Post’s third top-10 hit (also including the #8-peaking “Congratulations” with Quavo). It’s also Ty$’s best-charting hit ever and second top-10 single following the #4-peaking Fifth Harmony collab “Work From Home.” Notably, “Psycho,” not “God’s Plan,” sold more downloads than any other song this week.
So there you have it: Drake and Post Malone each have two songs in the top 10, and the biggest of those look set to square off for #1 for several weeks going forward. The rest of the top 10: Ed Sheeran’s “Perfect” (#3), Bruno Mars and Cardi B’s “Finesse” (#4), Camila Cabello and Young Thug’s “Havana” (#5), Bebe Rexha and Florida Georgia Line’s “Meant To Be” (#7), rounded out by two Kendrick Lamar songs from Black Panther: “Pray For Me” with the Weeknd at #9 and “All The Stars” with SZA at #10.
DJ Khaled & Demi Lovato – “I Believe”
This is from the A Wrinkle In Time soundtrack. At least they got Sade!
Years & Years – “Sanctify”
“You don’t have to be straight with me, I see what’s underneath” is a hell of a lyric from one of the most brazenly queer pop stars in the game. “Sanctify my body with pain” is a hell of a lyric coming from anybody. And any time your song makes me wonder what Michael Jackson tracks would sound like if he was young and in his prime in 2018, you’re doing something right.
James Bay – “Pink Lemonade”
Hard to get mad at a new pop single that sounds deeply indebted to the Strokes. (Bay is playing SNL this weekend with host Sterling K. Brown, by the way.)
Cheat Codes – “Put Me Back Together” (Feat. Kiiara)
Cheat Codes had a sizable hit with the dancy, Demi Lovato-starring synth-pop delight “No Promises,” and I see no reason “Put Me Back Together” can’t repeat that success. Also, I’m glad to see Kiiara continuing down this path rather than trying to become the next Iggy Azalea.
Steve Aoki – “Been Ballin” (Feat. Lil Uzi Vert)
Uzi is a polarizing artist, one who I respond to in wildly different ways depending on the context. As it turns out, one way to turn me against him with ferocious passion is to put him on a Steve Aoki song.
NEWS IN BRIEF
- New Weeknd LP? Travis Scott tweeted, “Abel new album is scray. It’s like when I first heard him for the first time. Fuckkkkkk !!!!!” [Twitter]
- Taylor Swift’s “Delicate” video will premiere at the iHeartRadio Music Awards on Sunday. [Taylor Swift]
- Hailee Steinfeld sang at the vigil for a 16-year-old fan killed in a go-kart crash. [EW]
- As mentioned in this week’s column, iHeart Media is close to bankruptcy. [Billboard]
- Niall Horan released a video for “On The Loose.” [YouTube]
- Also, PRETTYMUCH released a video for “10,000 Hours.” [YouTube]
- And Camila Cabello released her long-teased “Never Be The Same” video. [YouTube]
- Lil Yachty tapped Migos, 2 Chainz, Lil Pump, and others for Lil Boat 2. [Miss Info]
- Migos are facing lawsuits for allegedly inciting a violent riot at a 2015 concert. [Spin]
- T-Pain remixed Cardi B’s “Bartier Cardi.” [SoundCloud]
- Ariana Grande will play a witch in Broadway’s Wicked according to The Sun. [The Sun]
- Nick Jonas, Usher, Pink, the Lumineers, Fall Out Boy, Adam Levine, Niall Horan, Meghan Trainor read mean tweets for Jimmy Kimmel. [YouTube]
- Big Sean plans to build a movie theater in Detroit by 2020. [Detroit News]
- Rick And Morty announced Logic’s new Bobby Tarantino II, out tomorrow. [Twitter]
- DJ Khaled launched a Weight Watchers food truck tour. [Weight Watchers]
HOLD ON, WE’RE GOING HOME
— congress-edits (@congressedits) March 6, 2018