One reader wonders if, during hip-hop’s moment of prominence, rappers will stop being plucked solely for pop chart success.
We’ve all seen it before, when rising pop stars decide to undergo a major musical transformation as a sign of maturity. They will trade in Disney-approved, family-friendly lyrics for more risqué topics like one-night stands and long party benders. The production of their songs shifts from clean bubblegum-pop synths to rap-inspired grimy 808s. And the hemlines of their skirts rise higher as their newfound love for twerking becomes central to the overall new persona.
This move is nothing new in pop music, as artists like Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, and Justin Timberlake utilized the post-New Millennium era to shed their pop-centric skin. They quickly connected with producers and rappers favored amongst the black community, including Ying Yang Twins, R. Kelly, Redman, Pharrell, and Timbaland, respectively. There are many examples of predominantly white mainstream artists using the “urban” sound to boost their chart positions to the point where it’s become embarrassingly predictable. But with rap music officially becoming the most popular genre of 2017, this new year should diminish the trend of using rappers as bait for chart smashes. Now more than ever, especially in this post-Trump society, it is time to actively preserve the genre’s integrity.
For the first time in history, the combined genres of hip-hop and R&B dethroned rock as the biggest music genre in the U.S., according to Nielsen Music’s 2017 year-end report. The statistics are courtesy of total music consumption, a metric that combines album sales with digital streams and song downloads. The Nielsen report states R&B and hip-hop are now responsible for 25.1 percent of all music consumption in the U.S., while rock comes in at 23 percent. There was also a 72 percent increase in streaming last year, with artists like Drake (who pushed 4.8 million album equivalent units) and Kendrick Lamar (3.7 million units) cited in the Top 10 most-listened of the year. It makes sense, as fans of rap music (especially the younger audience growing up in the SoundCloud era) are more likely to stream songs and albums instead of purchasing a physical copy.
Lil Uzi’s “XO Tour Llif3,” Future’s “Mask Off,” Migos’ “Bad and Boujee,” Post Malone’s “Congratulations” and Cardi B’s “Bodak Yellow” are just some of the rap singles that soared on the Billboard Hot 100 and became hit radio staples. The 2017 Grammy Awards were also a reflection of rap’s popularity, with JAY-Z and Kendrick Lamar among the most nominated artists of the night. So as the genre continues to prove itself as a mainstream necessity, mainly white pop singers who are craving a taste of that chart success have begun to latch onto its popularity for their singles.
The latest resurgence in this longtime trend can arguably be attributed to albums like Ariana Grande’s 2016 Dangerous Woman. The Platinum-selling record featured four guest artists, all of whom just happened to be black: Future (“Everyday”), Macy Gray (“Leave Me Lonely”), Nicki Minaj (“Side to Side,” which peaked at No. 4) and Lil Wayne (“Let Me Love You”). Pulling so-called “urban” artists soon became the norm for the new generation of pop stars, both male and female, as they witnessed these singles and others like them climb their way up the Hot 100. Following Gucci Mane’s prison release in 2016, the Atlanta star was plucked for pop songs sung by massive artists. He already earned respect in the local hip-hop communities, but who would want to stumble through a mainstream comeback when fresh out of jail?
Instead, Gucci utilized his signature warbled tone for songs like Fifth Harmony’s “Down” (which debuted and peaked at No. 42) and Selena Gomez’s “Fetish” (which peaked at No. 27). He also gave a boost to Blackbear’s “Do Re Mi” remix, which was entering the Top 40 before Gucci’s presence. Following their appearances on Dangerous Woman, Future and Lil Wayne later teamed up with more pop acts whose new era was marketed as “edgier.” Weezy dropped an unnecessary verse on Demi Lovato’s explicit Tell Me You Love Me cut “Lonely,” while Taylor Swift’s latest Reputation single “End Game” (which is currently in the Top 40) finds Future and Ed Sheeran sharing the spotlight.
But the main target of this trend is no doubt Migos, whose dominance in mainstream music has been unmatched. Their most recent album Culture II recently shot to No. 1 and they now share a legendary statistic with the Beatles for the most simultaneous entries on the Billboard Hot 100 songs chart among groups. Specifically, Quavo has made the most pop-friendly appearances compared to Takeoff and Offset. His appeal most likely comes from an innate ability to craft radio-friendly hooks and easily digestible rap verses that can be shouted at any music festival across the country.
The group appeared on Calvin Harris’ 2x Platinum-selling “Slide” hit alongside Frank Ocean, as well as Katy Perry’s attempt at an urban single (she called it a “sexual liberation”)—Witness’ Gold-certified “Bon Appétit.” As for Quavo? He’s been busy hopping on Liam Payne’s debut solo track “Strip That Down,” a song that found the former One Directioner trading his safe boy band aesthetic for a style that was more raunchy. It later peaked at No. 10 on the Billboard Hot 100. Quavo also appeared on Major Lazer’s “Know No Better” with Camila Cabello and Travis Scott, which may have led to Cabello’s “OMG” collaboration with the Migos star. The song didn’t fare well on the charts or radio, so it was later scrapped from her debut solo album. Quavo’s feature was forgotten as Cabello’s “Havana” dominated all streaming platforms and charts. But this time around, the smash single featured Young Thug.
“Havana” slowly caught the attention of the masses, gaining radio airplay traction as the former Fifth Harmony singer performed it at almost every late-night and morning talk show. “Havana” is now certified a whopping 3x Platinum only five months after its release and peaked at No. 1. In total, it spent 24 weeks on the Billboard Hot 100 and is currently sitting at the chart’s third slot. Many were quick to congratulate Cabello for acquiring the first hit single of her solo career. Yet what they’ve (including Cabello herself) failed to acknowledge is that Young Thug should be congratulated for his success as well, featured artist or otherwise. He has yet to perform “Havana” with the singer at a televised event and unfortunately will be pushed further out of its blinding spotlight as the song grows even bigger.
Most recently, Maroon 5 tapped rising Bronx rapper A Boogie wit da Hoodie for the remix of their latest single “Wait.” The move calls for a raised eyebrow, as the strictly pop band has mainly black guest features on their new album Red Pill Blues… just like Ariana Grande. This time around, SZA, Kendrick Lamar, LunchMoney Lewis and A$AP Rocky all appear. Julia Michaels, the other guest artist, is of Mexican and Puerto Rican descent. This trend is becoming too much of a blatant decision to be regarded as just a coincidence.
The popularity of rap music is only going to flourish even more this year as its influence trickles from a mainstream U.S. audience into international markets. As 2018 continues on, hip-hop needs to be treated with more respect. These rappers should realize their worth in an industry that is ready to latch onto them because they’ve become such hot commodities. They should also choose features to be invested in, not because a label executive is forcing it or because a singer has decided to try out a new era on for size. “I also love that new Kendrick song: ‘Show me somethin’ natural like a** with some stretch marks.’ I love that because it’s not ‘Come sit on my d**k, suck on my c**k.’ I can’t listen to that anymore,” Miley Cyrus casually revealed in an interview last spring. “That’s what pushed me out of the hip-hop scene a little. It was too much ‘Lamborghini, got my Rolex, got a girl on my c**k’ — I am so not that.”
With acts like Cyrus making it clear that they are using the genre for a quick hit come-up, it is crucial that rap music does its part—artists and producers, this means you, too—to make sure it doesn’t get sucked dry by cultural leeches only to be tossed out like a dirty 23 jersey.