The Week In Pop

Why Do Country Hits Take So Long To Climb The Hot 100?

“I’mma take it slow just as fast as I can.” That was Sam Hunt on 2017’s “Body Like A Back Road,” his first and only top-10 hit on Billboard’s Hot 100 singles chart. Fittingly, the track rose to its #6 peak almost three months after its early February release — slow compared to your average modern pop smash, but about as fast as a country song could.

By comparison, Hunt’s breakthrough hit, the conveniently titled (for my purposes) “Take Your Time,” peaked at #20 in April of 2015, nearly six months after its release as an official single. “Take Your Time” — a flirtatious speak-sung ballad that framed Hunt as mainstream country’s first true Drake disciple — spent winter building momentum at country radio. It entered the Hot 100 at #93 in January and climbed steadily throughout early 2015. By the time it reached its Hot 100 peak, it was crossing over to Top 40 and Adult Contemporary stations too.

“Take Your Time” was typical of a tendency toward slow-rising country hits that runs counter toward prevailing trends in pop and rap. For the biggest names in the mainstream, the grand entrance is becoming the norm. Of the 14 songs to reach the top of the Hot 100 this year — all pop and rap songs, unless you really want to call Taylor Swift’s “Cardigan” alternative — eight entered the chart in that #1 spot. Beyond those tracks, singles from Drake, Billie Eilish, and Lil Baby have debuted in the top 10 this summer, as have popular album tracks from the late Juice WRLD and Pop Smoke. Meanwhile most of the biggest country songs on the chart tend to build slowly and steadily rather than making a big-splash debut.

That half-year timeframe for “Take Your Time” is typical. “Meant To Be,” pop singer Bebe Rexha’s collab with bro-country duo Florida Georgia Line, cracked the chart right away when it debuted in October 2017 but didn’t reach its #2 peak until late March. “Tequila,” a treacly country ballad from Dan + Shay, was released in January 2018, made it onto the bottom of the Hot 100 within a month, and didn’t reach its #21 peak until July. Although Thomas Rhett and Luke Combs have pushed singles to the upper reaches of the chart in three or four months, the genre has also seen some of the slowest germinating hits in recent memory. “The Bones” by Maren Morris peaked at #12 this past April, 11 months after it was released as a single and more than a year after Morris dropped its parent album, GIRL.

Country’s latest slow-climb success story traces an even longer path to ubiquity than “The Bones.” Former American Idol contestant Gabby Barrett (pictured above) released “I Hope,” a scathing kiss-off to an unfaithful partner and essentially a 75% less entertaining remake of Idol forebear Carrie Underwood’s “Before He Cheats,” way back in July 2019. Last week the song rose to #10 on the Hot 100, completing a 13-month climb. “I Hope” didn’t even chart on the Hot 100 until January, and then it spent 34 weeks rising to the top 10, reportedly the third-slowest climb in Hot 100 history behind Creed’s 36-week ascent with “Higher” and, fittingly, Underwood’s 38-week trip to the top 10 with “Before He Cheats.” Along the way, an alternate version of “I Hope” featuring pop singer-songwriter Charlie Puth was released, a common strategy for country artists hoping to boost their surging crossover hit.

“I Hope” is a gleaming example of the modern country hit’s crossover trajectory. But it’s not as if this kind of slow-build success is completely foreign to the realms of pop and rap. Doja Cat’s “Say So” first emerged on her album Hot Pink last November, was released as a single in late January after going viral on TikTok, and reached #1 in May with a final boost from a remix featuring Nicki Minaj. “Watermelon Sugar” took even longer to reach the summit: First released as an advance single from Harry Styles’ Fine Line last November, the track got a radio campaign and an official video in the spring, ultimately topping the chart this month thanks to a well-timed sales push. SAINt JHN’s lurching hip-hop track “Roses” famously climbed to the top 10 four years after its initial release, fueled by a late-breaking dance remix. There will always be songs in every genre that build steam gradually.

So why have pop and rap songs started parachuting directly into the top 10 so often, but not country songs? Much of it has to do with streaming. Rap fans were early adopters to the streaming world; a 2015 Buzzfeed feature suggested this might be due to a younger, more tech-savvy listener base that was more active on social media, as well as a relatively seamless transition from mixtape culture to streaming services. (In 2015, it was a big deal that Drake released his “mixtape” If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late to digital retailers and subscription streaming services rather than putting it on SoundCloud or making it a free download on Datpiff.) As for pop, platforms like Spotify and Apple Music are constantly promoting big new releases in the genre on their front pages and in playlists, and stans often organize streaming campaigns to help secure high chart placement for their faves. Sometimes pop and rap artists sell their singles as part of merch bundles, too, a means of gaming the system that hasn’t become as sophisticated among country acts.

In the 2010s, country fans were more likely to buy CDs and listen to the radio, where hits tend to have extremely long shelf lives. Sometimes those longstanding hits catch on outside the country radio ecosystem, often by crossing over to pop radio, at which point the support of multiple radio formats powers a Hot 100 rise. “Meant To Be” also benefitted from streaming due to Rexha’s foothold in the pop universe. But country fans’ aversion to streaming finally seems to be ending. Luke Combs’ blockbuster What You See Is What You Get smashed the genre’s one-week streaming record upon its release last November. Nielsen reported a surge in country streaming this past spring, attributed partially to people staying home on lockdown during the pandemic. And then there’s Morgan Wallen, who also landed a country song in the top 10 last week.

Wallen, 27, is one of country’s fastest rising stars. He’s no stranger to the slow-burn crossover hit: “Chasin’ You,” from his 2018 debut album If I Knew Me, first got a video on YouTube a few days into 2019, was officially released as a single in late July, and peaked at #16 on the Hot 100 this past June, more than two years after its parent album dropped. He’s had other hits trickle up gradually, many of them bolstered by streaming. He fully looks the part of the country boy but has also worked with Diplo. Speaking to Billboard last week, Wallen’s label head Seth England said Wallen’s next album rollout “needs to look like Garth Brooks in Target and Wal-Mart, and Drake on the streaming apps.”

Wallen’s new song “7 Summers” bypassed the usual country crossover process. It didn’t spend months and months ascending to the top 10; it debuted at #6, on a tier country songs rarely reach even after a year of heavy promotion. Some of that can be chalked up to the song’s accessible sound: Wallen penned “7 Summers” with Shane McAnally and Josh Osborne, veteran songwriters who specialize in country hits that extend beyond the country bubble. They also worked together on Hunt’s “Body Like A Backroad” and Kacey Musgraves’ “Merry Go ‘Round” among other singles. But far more overtly poppy country songs than this have failed to scrape such astounding chart heights. There’s another factor to consider here.

The engine for Wallen’s viral success was, of course, TikTok. Back in April, Wallen responded to fellow country superstar Jake Owen’s demo challenge, which asked country acts to post a snippet from an unreleased song online. Wallen shared a verse and chorus for the dreamy, ’80s-inspired “7 Summers” along with a note reading, “I’m somewhat on the fence about putting this one on my next record. Y’all let me know what you think.” To call the response positive would be an understatement. “7 Summers” quickly found its way to TikTok, where clips featuring the song began tallying millions of views. That enthusiasm carried over to the song’s official release this month, resulting in Wallen’s highest-charting hit and a rare country debut in the top 10. Perhaps it marks the beginning of a sea change, in which country stars jockey with the likes of Cardi B and Ariana Grande for #1 debuts — a change that would turn the battle for the Hot 100 into a whole new rodeo.

CHART WATCH

Without catering to English-speaking audiences, BTS made huge inroads on the American charts. However, their first all-English single has become their first #1. “Dynamite” debuts atop the Billboard Hot 100 this week, making BTS the first all-South Korean act to top the chart. “Dynamite” is BTS’ fourth top-10 hit following 2018’s “Fake Love” (#10), 2019’s Halsey collab “Boy With Luv” (#8), and this year’s “On” (#4). It’s the 43rd song to debut at #1 in the history of the Hot 100 and the whopping eighth this year already.

Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion’s “WAP,” another one of those #1 debuts, falls to #2 this week after two weeks at the summit. From #3 to #9 we have your usual summer 2020 mainstays: Drake and Lil Durk’s “Laugh Now, Cry Later” at #3, DaBaby and Roddy Ricch’s “Rockstar,” at #4, the Weeknd’s “Blinding Lights” at #5, Jack Harlow’s “What’s Poppin” remix with DaBaby, Lil Wayne, and Tory Lanez at #6, Harry Styles’ “Watermelon Sugar” at #7, SAINt JHN’s “Roses” at #8, and Jawsh 685 and Jason Derulo’s “Savage Love” at #9. Closing out the top 10, returning to its #10 peak, is Lewis Capaldi’s “Before You Go.”

Meanwhile, Taylor Swift’s Folklore spends its fifth straight week at #1 on the Billboard 200 albums chart, tying Lil Baby’s My Turn for most weeks atop the chart this year. The album posted 98,000 equivalent album units, including 52,000 in sales. According to Billboard, the last album to spend five consecutive weeks at #1 was Drake’s Scorpion in 2018, and the last time Swift herself pulled it off was with her first #1 album, Fearless, in 2008.

After Pop Smoke, Juice WRLD, and Hamilton comes a #5 debut for Nas. King’s Disease becomes his 14th top-10 album with a first-week total of 47,000 units and 18,000 in sales. Lil Baby and Rod Wave are up next, and then a #8 debut for the Killers’ Imploding The Mirage via 37,000 units and 30,000 in sales. It’s their sixth top-10 release. Rounding out the top 10 are DaBaby and Post Malone.

POP FIVE

Calvin Harris & The Weeknd – “Over Now”
I didn’t think the Abel Tesfaye aesthetic could be successfully shoehorned into the Funk Wav Bounces zone, but the result is one of the more enjoyably soft and chintzy R&B singles since “Hotline Bling.”

BLACKPINK – “Ice Cream” (Feat. Selena Gomez)
We already knew BLACKPINK don’t miss when big collabs like these come along. The real pleasant surprise here is how much fun Selena Gomez seems to be having. Would love to hear more carefree party music from her.

Jaden – “Falling For You” (Feat. Justin Bieber)
Would’ve been cool to hear Bieber exploring more unexpected sounds like this on Changes rather than the same syrupy, dreamy R&B production on every song.

Little Mix – “Holiday”
This is how you put a modern spin on fizzy girl-group disco-pop.

Dua Lipa & The Blessed Madonna – Club Future Nostalgia
Most of us can’t actually hear it in the club right now, but stream this whole remix album at work and see if your productivity doesn’t increase.

NEWS IN BRIEF

  • Katy Perry and Orlando Bloom welcomed their daughter, Daisy Dove Bloom. [CNN]
  • Cardi B’s new “WAP”-themed merch includes rain ponchos and umbrellas. [Cardi B]
  • Post Malone is now part owner of an esports franchise. [Twitter]
  • Jennifer Lopez and Alex Rodriguez withdrew their bid to buy the Mets. [Instagram]
  • American Dad writer the Weeknd is working on two screenplays. [Esquire]
  • Justin and Hailey Bieber threw a big celebrity-filled birthday party for Justine Skye and no one wore masks. [The Daily Mail]
  • Tekashi 6ix9ine announced a new album, Tattle Tales, out Friday. [XXL]
  • Britney Spears’ sister Jamie Lynn Spears is seeking more control over the pop star’s estate. [LA Times]
  • A stir-crazy fan created an insanely detailed miniature Taylor Swift theme park called Wonderand. [A.V. Club]

HOLD ON, WE’RE GOING HOME