Let’s talk about Lil Tecca, and about Billie Eilish, and about Lil Nas X, and about Khalid, and about the youth movement on the Billboard singles chart. But first, let’s talk about sports.
One of many resonant critiques of the American men’s soccer infrastructure is that it develops young talent at snail speed, hindering young prospects’ progress by funneling them through college and into the competitive but hardly world-class MLS. Whereas in Europe, promising young players are identified at an early age and snatched up into academy systems run by the same clubs where these kids hope to one day be superstars. The best of them end up playing professionally as teenagers, hoping to level up to superclubs like Barcelona and Manchester City before they age out of adolescence. We can debate about whether this system is good for children’s personal development, but it definitely makes them better soccer players.
This is why more and more American soccer players are going overseas at a young age, and why US soccer organizations are investing big money in their own academy systems. At least in soccer, though, there’s a way for young prodigies to proceed directly to the big time. For various reasons of debatable merit, both the NFL and NBA prevent players from entering the league directly out of high school. American baseball and hockey players can go pro at age 18, but they’ll most likely be forced to spend several seasons toiling away in the minor leagues before getting called up to the majors. All of these regulations exist partially to allow young athletes to become seasoned, but also because that’s how it has always worked, and because powerful gatekeepers have decided it’s best for business.
These sorts of mechanisms exist within the music industry, too, though not usually by law. Local scenes, online platforms like SoundCloud and Bandcamp, independent record labels, what remains of college radio, blogs and message boards and such: They can all be ends to themselves, but historically they have also functioned as developmental tracks for future superstars. Even artists signed to major labels often find themselves in industry purgatory, hacking away in search of a hit. Even seeming overnight sensations have usually pushed their way past myriad barriers. I’m not personally privy to much of it, but we’ve all heard enough horror stories to realize rich influencers work hard to control who does and doesn’t become a star.
Lil Tecca skipped past the minor leagues and straight to the top 10. A few days shy of his 17th birthday, the Queens-born, Long Island-based rapper has a smash hit with “Ransom,” which reached a new #8 peak on the Hot 100 singles chart this week. Tyler-Justin Anthony Sharpe’s hip-hop origin story is remarkably similar to that of the YBN Crew, a trio who themselves bubbled up from the underground as teenagers two years ago: At age 9, he started rapping as a means of talking shit to his friends during gaming sessions on Xbox Live. By 14, his music was gaining an audience online. Last fall, at age 16, he released “Love Me,” which garnered 11 million SoundCloud streams and some burbling media attention. He caught the attention of Lyrical Lemonade tastemaker Cole Bennett, who premiered the “Ransom” video on his YouTube channel. “Ransom” blew up even bigger than “Love Me,” and before it even hit the top 10 Tecca had signed to Republic Records, making him label-mates with Taylor Swift, Drake, Post Malone, and Ariana Grande. He is still in braces.
Tecca, a sing-songy rapper under the influence of Drake, Young Thug, and hometown hero A Boogie Wit Da Hoodie, is so young that Juice WRLD, last year’s viral top 10 sing-rap gatecrasher, comes off like an elder statesman on the “Ransom” remix. He is now benefitting from widespread industry support, but he gained momentum the way so many young stars do now, by simply being a savvy online presence. Teenagers have always driven pop culture to an extent, but in a world of streaming and social media, actual teens now have the means to not just build an audience but crash the top of the charts. They don’t have to wait until some executive clears them to release new music, and they don’t have to lean on that executive’s marketing budget to get the word out.
The best example of this is, of course, Lil Nas X, who flipped a large social media following into an historic mega-hit with “Old Town Road,” a song that functioned like a meme and spread just as rapidly. He was 19 with no conventional industry footprint when he released “Old Town Road,” and it hit #1 on his 20th birthday, by which point he was signed to Columbia and stepping into more traditional modes of promotion like music festivals and primetime TV. His story has been told to death, partially because it’s indicative of a groundswell of teen artists charging up the charts.
Teens making pop hits is nothing new, of course. Six decades ago, the Hot 100’s very first #1 hit was by 18-year-old Ricky Nelson. Since then we’ve had the Jackson 5, Stevie Wonder, the Osmonds, Tiffany, Debbie Gibson, Britney Spears, Destiny’s Child, Avril Lavigne, Taylor Swift, Miley Cyrus, Justin Bieber, Lorde, Shawn Mendes, Fifth Harmony, and many other teenage superstars. But most of them were discovered by some industry person and thrust upon the public via the established machinery, their grassroots rise fertilized by piles of money.
It’s become customary to read about stars who got their start singing covers on YouTube or Vine, or who got signed off the strength of a viral SoundCloud hit, yet most of them weren’t racing to the top of the charts until they attracted the power brokers to their corner. That process seems to be accelerating. Khalid, a high school senior at the time, was already talking to RCA Records when “Location” blew up in 2016, partially thanks to Kylie Jenner streaming it from her Snapchat. But as RCA’s Tunji Balogun told El Paso Times, rather than subject Khalid to years of buildup, the label wasted no time letting him release a debut album: “We can see that there’s no reason to delay in putting out music, especially in 2017. He’s a millennial. He’s 18 years old. Kids his age don’t need (outside) validation to love an artist. They’ve bought in.”
By comparison, Billie Eilish’s rise feels positively old-fashioned. The 17-year-old phenom, whose “Bad Guy” just ended Lil Nas X’s 19-week run at #1, caught fire on SoundCloud with “Ocean Eyes” in 2016 and quickly signed to Interscope imprint Darkroom. From there she built steam through a more traditional major-label grind, releasing singles and an EP over the course of three years leading up to this year’s goth-trap-cabaret-synthpop blockbuster When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? Now she’s at the forefront of the new pantheon of teen pop deities.
Eilish’s music sounds like the future, and until her album dropped she was largely unknown among the adult population. Yet given all the promotional muscle behind her, Eilish’s chart triumph feels like some last vestige of an old system. You’ll really know the revolution’s on when some teenage Eilish fan vaults directly to the top 10 and spurns a label contract altogether, like Chance The Rapper with an “Old Town Road” in his pocket. The next step may be not just leaping straight to the majors but operating in another league entirely.
Alert! The horse has finally stopped galloping! After a record-shattering 19 weeks at #1, Lil Nas X and Billy Ray Cyrus’ “Old Town Road” slides all the way to #3 this week. Billie Eilish’s “Bad Guy,” which was on track to tie the record for most weeks at #2 by spending its 10th week directly beneath “Old Town Road,” instead rises to the top of the Hot 100 to become her first #1 hit. As Billboard points out, Eilish, 17, is the first person born in the 21st century to score a #1 hit and the youngest since Lorde did it with “Royals” at age 16.
Back to its #2 peak is Shawn Mendes and Camila Cabello’s “Señorita.” It’s one of a record six songs to be blocked from #1 by “Old Town Road,” a list that also includes Mendes’ “If I Can’t Have You,” Post Malone’s “Wow.,” Ed Sheeran and Justin Bieber’s “I Don’t Care,” and two Taylor Swift songs, the Brendon Urie collab “ME!” plus “You Need To Calm Down.” But maybe now that “Old Town Road” is finally descending, “Señorita” has a shot at hitting #1.
After “Old Town Road” at #3 comes Lizzo’s “Truth Hurts” at #4, Khalid’s “Talk” at #5, Chris Brown and Drake’s “No Guidance” at #6, and Sheeran and Bieber’s “I Don’t Care” at #7. Reaching a new #8 peak is Lil Tecca’s aforementioned “Ransom.” And rounding out the top 10 are Post Malone and Young Thug’s “Goodbyes” and Mendes’ “If I Can’t Have You.”
Over on the Billboard 200, Slipknot score their third #1 album with We Are Not Your Kind. According to Billboard, the album moved 118,000 equivalent album units and sold 102,000 copies. Slipknot previously hit #1 with 2014’s .5: The Gray Chapter and 2008’s All Hope Is Gone.
Debuting at #2 is Rick Ross with Port Of Miami 2 via 80,000 units, only 25,000 of them via sales. It’s his tenth top 10 album and best-charting release since Mastermind entered at #1 in 2014. Another debut follows at #3, with 51,000 units and a relatively paltry 7,000 in sales for ! by Trippie Redd, his third top 10 album. The rest of the top 10: Billie Eilish, Ed Sheeran, Chris Brown, Lizzo, Drake, Khalid, and Lil Nas X.
Normani – “Motivation”
A star is born.
Charlie Puth – “I Warned Myself”
First, two questions: 1. Who’s hungies for a new Charlie Puth era?! 2. Why are so many Ryan Tedder associates like Puth and 5 Seconds Of Summer gravitating toward this dark-tinged electro-pop sound? And now, two quasi-answers: 1. Sheepishly, I must admit I myself am hungies. 2. I actually have no idea, but “I Warned Myself” is way better than those new 5SOS songs.
Swae Lee – “Won’t Be Late” (Feat. Drake)
I can’t believe Swae Lee and Drake have never released a song together before. I can believe it is wispy and smooth. Before “Bad Guy” hit #1 I thought a Swae and Drake single might be the right formula to finally beat “Old Town Road,” and having heard “Won’t Be Late” now I still think it could go #1 just based on these guys’ collective magnetism right now. It’s not blowing my mind, but I like the callback to Drake’s international More Life sound.
Miley Cyrus – “Slide Away”
Not a bad song, but I find it hard to believe anyone would care if not for all the tabloid intrigue.
Taylor Swift – “Lover”
I hope by this time tomorrow this prediction has not aged well, but: Things are not looking great, fam.
NEWS IN BRIEF
- Justin Timberlake shared footage of himself in the studio with Lizzo. [Twitter]
- Drake told Instagram user @drake_wedding he would play the guy’s wedding if he got a million likes and 100,000 followers. The account met those goals, but was then revealed to be the work of a teenage prankster. [Complex]
- Demi Lovato joins Will Ferrell, Rachel McAdams, Pierce Brosnan, and Dan Stevens in the upcoming Netflix comedy Eurovision. Lovato plays “one of the best and most angelic singers in all of Iceland.” [E!]
- Taylor Swift performed from NYC’s Central Park on Good Morning America. [GMA]
- Clean Bandit remixed Swift’s “You Need To Calm Down.” [Taylor Swift]
- Mark Ronson released the first-ever interactive Instagram music video, for “Pieces Of Us” featuring King Princess. [Instagram]
- Nicki Minaj hopped on a remix of Pop Smoke’s “Welcome To The Party.” [YouTube]
- Big Sean opened a $100,000 studio at the Dick & Sandy Dauch Boys & Girls Club in Detroit. [Freep]
- G-Eazy added a couple of tracks to his B-Sides EP: “All Facts” featuring Ty Dolla $ign and “Got A Check” featuring T-Pain. [Billboard]
HOLD ON, WE’RE GOING HOME
"I just took a DNA test, turns out…"
— Hillary Clinton (@HillaryClinton) August 21, 2019