A Little Bit Country, A Whole Lot Of Streams: Bebe Rexha Has Cracked The Code
If it’s meant to be, it’ll be: Regarding Bebe Rexha’s unlikely takeover of the country charts, this is both the savvy execution and the only explanation.
A little over a year ago, I wrote that Rexha, a perennial pop B-lister with guest roles on a couple top-10 singles, was one hit away from becoming a household name. That hit is here, and surprisingly, it’s a country song — or at least half a country song. “Meant To Be,” her collaboration with Florida Georgia Line, made it all the way to #2 on Billboard’s Hot 100 singles chart last March. This week it spent its 35th straight week atop the Hot Country Songs chart, breaking Sam Hunt’s recently minted record for most consecutive weeks at #1. The song has straddled the worlds of pop and country more successfully than almost any brazen crossover attempt in recent memory.
Rexha is an odd fit for country stardom. At the outset of this decade the Albanian-American singer-songwriter-producer was writing the hook for Eminem and Rihanna’s “The Monster” and playing in Pete Wentz’s Fall Out Boy side project Black Cards. Since then she’s hit the top 10 with features on David Guetta’s “Hey Mama” and G-Eazy’s “Me, Myself & I.” Other guests on All Your Fault Pt. 2, the EP that originally yielded “Meant To Be” last year, included Gucci Mane, 2 Chainz, Lil Wayne, and Kranium. “Meant To Be” is also tacked on the end of Expectations, her freshly released official debut album, which features Quavo and Tory Lanez and hardly any other music that even approaches the Nashville sound.
Even “Meant To Be” plays fast and loose with its country bona fides. As The Ringer’s Rob Harvilla explained last week while examining the country music industry’s cognitive dissonance about the song’s success, even her collaborators Florida Georgia Line — the clown princes of bro-country, known for teaming with Nelly and bumping “a little Hank, little Drake” — aren’t considered authentically country by the genre’s more orthodox zealots. Despite its twangy hook, the song floats along on the same programmed kicks and hi-hats that carried every trap-influenced rap and pop song in recent memory.
So no wonder “Meant To Be” can chalk up much of its success to streaming, where pop and rap thrive and country falters, rather than radio play. For a while, “Meant To Be” was enjoying heavy rotation at both pop and country stations, which meant it could be a certified smash without truly dominating at either format. Now that it’s completely fallen off Billboard’s country airplay chart — not to mention the pop airplay chart — it’s still #1 on Hot Country Songs almost entirely thanks to streaming. According to Billboard’s formulas, “Meant To Be” is still technically the most popular country song in the country, even if it has ceased to exist within the world of country radio.
Don’t expect Rexha to be back on those airwaves any time soon, either, at least not with anything off Expectations. The album’s opening track, “Ferrari,” does begin with twangy string-bends and Rexha’s voice twisted into a melody that could be mistaken for country, but soon enough she’s belting out a chorus worthy of Lady Gaga that soars even further from Nashville than Joanne. She has, however, maintained a marginal presence on pop radio with the album’s next song, “I’m A Mess.” That’s the one that pulls from “Bitch,” the late-’90s Meredith Brooks hit: “I’m a mess, I’m a loser, I’m a hater, I’m a user.” It’s up to #64 on the Hot 100 and #23 on the Mainstream Top 40 chart — by no means a smash, but lingering at the edge of mainstream ubiquity.
Even when she doesn’t have a monster hit like “Meant To Be,” Rexha is usually in the air with not-quite-dominant hits such as Cash Cash’s “Take Me Home,” the Martin Garrix collab “In The Name Of Love,” or last year’s “I Got You,” which resurfaces on Expectations. She’s gifted at writing and producing pop songs too catchy to be denied, but they often have a generic, mercenary quality to them, as if predestined for circulation at the grocery store, mall, or chain restaurant of choice. Her voice is a firecracker, which helps to curb the anonymous quality of her work, but her songs never tend to be events. Rather, they’re the glue that holds pop radio together.
That said, credit is due. Though it feels more like a product than a work of art, Expectations has some low-key jams on it. The aforementioned “Ferrari,” “I’m A Mess,” and “I Got You” all boast melodies strong enough to ensure Rexha will have a long career writing for other singers if her own pop stardom bottoms out. “2 Souls On Fire,” a duet with Quavo, is monogenre comfort food that stacks hooks on hooks; I expect to be hearing it once an hour on my local Top 40 station sometime within the next year. Ditto the flamenco-oriented “Shining Star” and the house-infused “Sad.” Ditto the Shakira-worthy “Self Control,” the SoundCloud-rap-influenced “Mine,” and the Drake/Weeknd pastiche “Steady” with Tory Lanez.
None of these are masterpieces. They’re utilitarian pop music — songs you consume because you can’t find a better option on the radio dial, or because some corporate behemoth has programmed them into the Muzak rotation, or because they’ve been stuck in your head for weeks. Not only has Rexha piled up a discography full of this stuff, she’s inspired a ton of people to stream that discography over and over. Country music doesn’t generally rack up streams, but Bebe Rexha songs sure do. She’s hacked into the DNA of MOR, and a silent majority is listening. Thus, we have a #1 country song that country radio has ceased to play and a savvy pop star chameleonic enough to ride just about any wave.
It’s becoming clear that Rexha doesn’t need to become a Beyoncé-level icon to sustain a healthy career. She specializes in no-alarms-and-no-surprises pop music, tunes that are expertly crafted despite their lack of personality, calculated but just vibrant enough to feel human. She has mastered the system to such an extent that she was able to pull off a pop-country crossover hit where so many others have tried and failed — this after pulling the same crossover trick with hip-hop and EDM. Give her a genre template, and at worst she’ll make a middling but annoyingly catchy single out of it. She may be throwing trends at the public and hoping they stick, but she’s really good at it, and sometimes they do. If it’s meant to be, it’ll be.
It’s another week of Drake domination on the Billboard charts, with Scorpion leading the Billboard 200 for a fourth consecutive week and “In My Feelings” leading the Hot 100 for a third.
Let’s start on the albums chart: According to Billboard, Scorpion sold only 15,000 copies, but its insane streaming popularity propelled it to an additional 154,000 equivalent album units. All told, it totaled 184,000, easily becoming the first four-week #1 of the year (and the first since Drake’s own Views in 2016).
It helps that this is the first week since January with no debuts in the top 10; the highest debuting record is the Internet’s Hive Mind at #26. However, there is one new addition to that region, with the Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again soundtrack hopping from #20 to #3 via 48,000 units and 34,000 in pure sales. (Post Malone’s Beerbongs & Bentleys remains steady at #2.) The rest of the top 10, from #4 to #10: XXXTentacion, Cardi B, Juice WRLD, Wiz Khalifa, The Greatest Showman, Taylor Swift (back in the top 10 with Reputation for the first time since February), and Lil Baby.
As for “In My Feelings,” it remains on top of the singles chart thanks in part to life-endangering viral video craze. As Billboard notes, this gives Drake 42 career weeks at #1, passing Rihanna on the all-time list, though the first 10 of those weeks were on Rihanna songs, so. He also surpasses Usher for most weeks at #1 by a male artist in one decade.
At #2 once again is Stereogum readers’ newly crowned Song Of The Summer, “I Like It” by Cardi B, Bad Bunny, and J Balvin. Maroon 5 and Cardi’s “Girls Like You” holds at #3. Debuting at #4 is 6ix9ine and Nicki Minaj’s “FeFe” — it’s his first top-10 hit (after last year’s “Gummo” peaked at #12) and her 17th. It’s also Minaj’s highest-debuting song, beating her #6 start for “Bang Bang” with Jessie J and Ariana Grande.
Up to a new #5 peak is Post Malone’s “Better Now.” Drake’s “Nice For What” is at #6, while Ella Mai’s “Boo’d Up” is at #7. At #8 is Juice WRLD’s “Lucid Dreams,” followed by Post Malone and Ty Dolla $ign’s “Psycho” at #9. And rounding out the top 10 is a newly peaking “Taste” by Tyga and Offset. It’s Tyga’s third top-10 hit (following “Rack City” and Chris Brown’s “Loyal”) and the first solo top-10 hit for Offset, who has been to the region four times before with Migos.
DJ Khaled – “No Brainer” (Feat. Justin Bieber, Chance The Rapper, & Quavo)
I thought “No Brainer” just referred to Khaled’s decision to reunite the “I’m The One” team (minus poor Lil Wayne), but then I heard this actual Quavo lyric: “I blow the brains out of your mind/ And I ain’t talkin’ ’bout physically/ I’m talkin’ ’bout mentally.” Who is expecting profundity or even coherence from a DJ Khaled song, though? The buoyant production plus Bieber’s hook is pure pleasure.
The Chainsmokers – “Side Effects” (Feat. Emily Warren)
Warren is a pro songwriter whose credits include Dua Lipa’s “New Rules,” Charli XCX’s “Boys,” and the Chainsmokers’ own “Don’t Let Me Down.” She works with them a lot and has sung on their tracks before. It’s nice to see them continue to give her reps. Then again, it’s nice of her to continue supplying them with songs as enjoyable as this one.
Logic – “One Day” (Feat. Ryan Tedder)
Logic misses being on the radio.
Bazzi – “Beautiful” (Feat. Camila Cabello)
Our latest evidence that pop-R&B cheeseball Bazzi is taking over the world: He got Camila Cabello to drop a verse on this, and it feels mutually beneficial. The song itself feels pretty disposable until Bazzi intones, “The way that Gucci look on you amazing/ But nothing can compare to when you’re naked,” at which point I have to laugh and admit dude knows exactly what he’s doing.
Zayn – “Too Much” (Feat. Timbaland) & “Sour Diesel”
Last week I spaced on Zayn’s funky ’80s pop masterclass “Sour Diesel.” This week he’s back with another good one. “Too Much” is misty 808-powered pop-R&B that strikes me as the best thing Timbaland’s done in a long time. If he wants to start a relationship with Zayn like the one he used to enjoy with Justin Timberlake, I am very interested in hearing what they come up with.
NEWS IN BRIEF
- Demi Lovato remains hospitalized more than a week after a reported overdose. [CNN]
- For what may be her final issue at Vogue, Anna Wintour is giving Beyoncé total editorial control. [HuffPo]
- The Weeknd and Bella Hadid are officially back together, so maybe that happy album he scrapped can come out after all? [E!]
- Nick Jonas and Priyanka Chopra are engaged. [E!]
- Jermaine Dupri’s So So Def Records announced its Cultural Curren$y Tour with Xscape, Da Brat, Jagged Edge, Anthony Hamilton, and more. [The Fader]
- DJ Khaled gets played by his son Asahd in a new Apple commercial. [Rap-Up]
- Missy Elliott and Fatman Scoop contribute to a remix of Ciara’s “Level Up.” [Spotify]
- A documentary about Kesha’s Rainbow is coming to Apple Music next week. [Noisey]
- Noah Cyrus is dating Lil Xan. [HNHH]
- 5 Seconds Of Summer covered Post Malone’s “Stay” for their Spotify Singles. [Twitter]
- Why do women love Rihanna so much? “I don’t know, maybe it’s because I’m thicc now,” the pop star tells British Vogue. [People]
HOLD ON, WE’RE GOING HOME
Lady Gaga congratulating other people by posting photos of herself pic.twitter.com/4z6yuCpg7d
— Gaga Doing Things (@LGDoingThings) July 27, 2018