For 2017, I started this blog with a tagline: “The Year Rap Stole Pop’s Lunch Money”.
Turns out I was a year off; 2018 was that year. 51 of the Billboard Year-End Hot 100 were either directly by hip-hop artists, or included rap verses, which, discounting the latin, R&B, or alternative fields, gives you a staggeringly low amount of pure “pop” hits.
Of course, “pop” music is a shorthand that means nothing in 2019; “pop” is whatever happens to be popular, but what was just 2 years ago a landscape dominated by Justin Bieber, Rihanna, Adele, and Justin Timberlake, is now one owned by Drake, Post Malone, and Cardi B. Trap-influenced hip-hop is no longer background noise, relegated to SoundCloud and fringes of the internet: it’s now the face of popular music, for better or worse.
It’s easy to point the finger of blame at music streaming services, that their algorithms have resulted in a “Lucid Dreams” hanging around forerver. The argument stands that the younger, more technologically advanced generation pushes it, but that’s how it’s always been. Kids are (and were) the pop influencers, the ones demanding their parents take them to see Madonna, then Mariah Carey, then Britney Spears, then Beyonce, and now Ariana Grande, not the other way around.
Even the algorithms of Spotify and Apple Music are a symptom, not the disease. It’s the ease at which a lot of the trap-influenced hip-hop has been released and subsequently marketed that make your weekly Spotify Hot-50 go absolutely bonkers. The industry is churning out albums, EP’s, and features in hip-hop at a rate that is almost impossible for the average person to keep up with. Yet, it’s become the only means to remain relevant: you can’t be forgotten if your output never stops. It’s what makes Drake release back-to-back-to-back albums over 4 years with over 20 songs each, or what makes Future release 5 LP’s in a little under 19 months.
Does that necessarily mean the influence of hip-hop is bad? No. There have been some instances where things have slipped through the cracks as a result; namely, the death of a lot of alternative and EDM acts on the charts, and a lot of viably good, non-pop-angled hip-hop falling to the wayside. And yes, it has in the last several years created some rather unfortunate stars (and we’ll get to those later), but what’s good is still very, very good.
All of that to say…man, this was a weird year for popular music as a medium. And now, let’s break it down, based off the Billboard Year-End Hot 100 for 2018.
Best Overall Billboard Experience: The Entire Black Panther Soundtrack
Kendrick Lamar’s 2010’s are going to go down as some of the most prolific musical successes of all time, both critically and financially. So the most obvious thing to do was to, then, pair him with Marvel, whose 2010’s are going to go down as some of the most prolific cinematic successes of all time, both critically and financially.
When I started planning this year’s Billboard Blog, I dreaded talking about this because, really, what can I add to the discussion about the Black Panther soundtrack that hasn’t already been said or written? “All the Stars” is a lovely credit-spanning epic carried by SZA’s soaring chorus, “King’s Dead” (aside from Future deciding to rap like a squeak toy for no reason) is the best unintentional (or intentional?) Disney Villain song of all time, “Pray for Me” continues to prove the only thing that can hold The Weeknd back is bad production, and the rest of the soundtrack that didn’t touch the year-end charts (see “Big Shot”, “The Ways”, “X”, and pretty much everything else) was just…too good, too well curated by the TDE crew, for me to ramble about.
Consider the three that did hit the Billboard Charts, “All the Stars” (Billboard Rank: 47), “King’s Dead” (Billboard Rank: 79), and “Pray for Me” (Billboard Rank: 40) to be my actual top 3 year-end pop songs in no particular order. I won’t bore you on this any longer. If you haven’t had a chance to flip through the Black Panther soundtrack, just…go do it.
Top (Non Aforementioned) Billboard Ranking Song of 2018: “Sicko Mode” — Travis Scott (Billboard Rank: 42)
Hoooooo man, let’s talk about “The Trap Bohemian Rhapsody”, because there’s quite a bit to disseminate.
On one side of this track you have Drake, who Travis Scott doesn’t even list as a contributing artist. Now yes, most of the contributing artists were left off their respective songs on Travis Scott’s magnum opus ASTROWORLD due to the pure volume of contributors on some tracks. Yet in 2018, the 2018 where Drake was basically the lockstep of the entire pop landscape, the 2018 where Drake had a top 100 single whining about Pusha T and was then promptly curb-stomped by Pusha T for having a mystery illegitimate child, the 2018 where that happened but Drake still put out an obscenely successful album somehow, Travis Scott released this without even listing Drake as a main artist on streaming services. Let that sink in. That’s confidence I will forever lack.
Then, what is “Sicko Mode” about? Is it a grand statement, with a grand story, like the song it’s been almost obnoxiously compared to, “Bohemian Rhapsody”? Nope. It seems to be Travis waxing poetic about his come up, while Drake whinges about his problems falling asleep on long flights. That’s about it.
Yet, I cannot stop listening to this thing. Even those that don’t appreciate rap, it’s culture, or what it stands for, must understand just how much is jammed into this 5-minute-plus radio-played song, with numerous call-outs to other rappers, other songs, and three tempo and beat shifts. It’s almost hypnotic. I’m still not sure if “Sicko Mode” lives up to its own ambitions, but for now, I’ll stand up for it as the Billboard hit song of the year…that wasn’t on the Black Panther soundtrack.
Top 10 Billboard Year-End Hits (That Weren’t On The Black Panther Soundtrack):
Ah yes, 2018: where either you’re just creating something so enthralling I can’t hate it, or you’re being so effectively socially conscious I can’t help but respect it.
“This is America” is likely going to top too many lists to count. The functional issue for me comes with how Childish Gambino came out with this track; it is accompanied by a video that propelled it to it’s status, and the video, inherently, makes the song, on it’s own, irrelevant. Todd in the Shadows, among others, has pointed out how the song loses all meaning without the video’s gunshots and other beats, and that’s to its ultimate detriment…kind of. It’s still a wildly ambitious tune, much like Sicko Mode, but I can’t really buy into it without the visuals at hand.
Elsewhere, hats off to Bruno Mars for not only realizing the late 80's/early 90’s are a perfect next decade to begin riffing on, but that throwing in the hottest rapper on the planet not named Drake (that would be one Cardi B) is a very, very good decision. And Cardi B’s post-“Bodak Yellow” singles era has started fairly strong; “I Like It” is a solidly produced take on Pete Rodriguez’s “Oh! That’s Nice” from 1967. Expectations for Cardi are going to be obscene for the next LP thanks to a glut of solid production and improving verses.
On an aisde, I really hope Ella Mai can continue to grow as a performer this upcoming decade. Yes, “Trip” is carried by the DJ Mustard earworm beat, but there’s some real potential in there. And also that the Migos can take a break in 2019; “Stir Fry” is a massive, unabashed guilty pleasure, but I could do with a few months sans Offset, Quavo, and the other one.
Some Billboard Honorable Mentions
More evidence that this year’s pop landscape was bananas; Beyonce and Jay-Z released a joint LP, and they didn’t even finish on the year end Hot 100. “APESH*T” is a Beyonce propelled, Pharrell produced, firestorm of a tune and it was barely a blip. Shameful.
Further, Janelle Monae and SZA both missed the cut, because…I have no idea. Monae’s album (conflicted as I may be in my opinion on it) is still one of the best pop spectacles of the year, and it’s lack of traction with the charts has been mind-boggling.
And of course, I’ve thrown in several tracks from popular acts that already did get their Billboard clout, but had better songs that just traipsed into the charts during the year. Mad respect to Ariana Grande for doing a riff on Imogen Heap’s “Goodnight and Go”, a song that always deserves praise.
Lastly in the “What?!” category, Drake released a song with Michael freaking Jackson, and that was the one that didn’t catch on. Yes, the songs are re-purposed from sessions in 1983, so this was nothing completely new, but it’s the King of Pop and the King of Spotify, on an admittedly quite good track, and that’s the song that got tabled for “I’m Upset”? Really, kids?
Let’s Talk About Drake
I feel too much of this blog is going to be about Drake, but there was just too much to talk about.
As Drake’s output has gotten more bloated, perhaps so has his ego…and thereby, his success. That was proven when he took Meek Mill to task in 2015 with two back-to-back singles, taking a very significant victories against the Philadelphia rapper. Since then, however, he’s released at least 100 songs spanning individual singles and LP’s, not counting a number of features and guest spots. He’s become synonymous with the “summer LP” thanks to three straight years of late spring-early summer drops.
But 2018, the glut got to it’s highest. He released a double album, his largest overall effort to date, and consumed nearly a tenth of the year-end Hot 100 with 9 songs or singles charting. Some of them good…some of them being the above “I’m Upset”.
It’s almost admirable how easy Drake is, in equal parts, easy to pile on for something as abysmally whiny like “I’m Upset”, or for probably missing the point on “In My Feelings”, or the slyly disingenuous music video for “God’s Plan”, or the demons he unleashed on himself thanks to Pusha T, but also so easy to praise for “Nice for What”, or “Don’t Matter to Me”, or even the quick flows of “Nonstop”, or even making nice with Meek Mill after his release from prison.
The dichotomy of Drake, balancing being the biggest streaming artist of the moment (and with all likelihood, of this decade) while trying to maintain severe rap cred has become it’s own attraction in pop, at a time where there just isn’t that much interesting going on. Drake is simultaneously calculated and whimsy, and he’s likely starting 2019 with a Hot 100-lock in his feature for Bad Bunny on “M.I.A.” already.
It’s so easy to want someone like Drake to take a year or two away and build something better for their return, but that’s just not the way the system works anymore. Drake is likely the artist that has defined the last 10 years and the start of the next 10, for better and worse, and watching him deal with all that implies is becoming unintentionally fascinating.
Where Did All The Pop Stars Go?
While rap and hip-hop dominated the pop landscape, the “usual” pop stars of yesteryear were nowhere to be seen.
The closest 2018 had to a proper “pop star” was Ariana Grande, who had an…interesting year, to say the least. While her personal life was more on display than ever before, she did unleash a quite good album with Sweetener, but even that only resulted in two Billboard splashes (the above “God is a woman” at 62, and “No Tears Left to Cry” at 20) that didn’t crack the top 10, while other singles (like the clumsy “the light is coming”) simply never caught on.
Perhaps Taylor Swift could count, but the post-Reputation album blitz was completely tanked by the time 2018 came around; only the dull and demure “Delicate” charted, a song I feel I’ve heard at least 200 times but can’t remember once.
So if Ariana was successful but not a world beater, and Taylor’s hype train finally derailed, who are the pop idols that are left at this stage? Dua Lipa had a fairly successful year, but what does anyone know about Dua Lipa as a person? Camila Cabello continued to ride “Havana”, but has produced nothing groundbreaking since. Is she the next pop megastar? Could it be Bebe Rexha, who is even more charisma-deft than Dua Lipa? Is Post Malone a pop star? Can we even exist in a cultural void that can call this dude a pop star? Is Khalid pop? What about Shawn Mendes, or Charlie Puth? Are we just waiting out the next round from the Demi Lovato’s, the Rihanna’s, or the Lady Gaga’s of the world?
We already saw Beyonce and Justin Timberlake aim for ambition in 2018, and fail (or in Beyonce’s case, get unjustly ignored), while their contemporaries basically just floated by. The age of the pop star is in severe flux as of 2019, and who knows if anyone is here to change that?
Honorable Dismention: XXXTENTACION and 6ix9ine
With all that hip-hop brought and advanced in 2018, that doesn’t mean there were no failings.
I can’t fault kids for liking what they like, okay? It’s not in me to yell at the clouds about people liking trap music, or emo music, or a mix of both. What I can fault kids for, however, is falling into obscene cults of personality that don’t deserve to exist.
It’s not as though other artists haven’t committed career suicide (Hi, “Freaky Friday”, thanks for keeping lovely Chris Brown relevant as always), but typically, there was a real drop-off to their production or a massive hit to their public image. They didn’t have time to continue to persist in the musical lexicon, or to even remain popular, fair or not.
Meanwhile, as this era of trap rap has persisted, XXXTENTACION (who I already talked about last year) has become its poster child, in spite of having dealt with horrifying abuse allegations. Perhaps it’s because of his untimely death earlier this year, or perhaps its because of record executives taking blunt advantage of the popularity after his death. Of course, it couldn’t in any way be the latter, and there have certainly been no disingenuous cash grabs as a result of X’s passing since. Nope, none.
Or perhaps it’s all because his music is manipulative “sad” that’s aimed directly to teens without any focus. Is his artistry inherently bad? Maybe not, but the longer time has let it go on, and let it succeed (he did end up with 3 Year End Hot 100 singles), the grosser it seems. That’s all to say nothing of his fanbase’s ardent defenses of his character and ability.
That success has also allowed not only imitators, but…eerily similar scum to persist.
This is 6ix9ine, and…hooooooo, I don’t get it. He’s apparently part of the same vein as X, with “emo” rap and grimey, trap imagery. And, much like X, he’s got a very troubled past; in 2015 he pled guilty to sex with a 13 year old, and in 2018, he was found on racketeering charges. Yet, he gets to claim two Year End singles of his own, and unlike XXXTENTACION, who, at the very, very least, I can justify the artistry for, 6ix9ine offers absolutely nothing new. He, too, has a rampant fanbase, willing to justify his every action.
So why are we dying on the hill for them?
Look, if you like this music, the emotionally-tinged hip-hop, who cares? It has its appeal, fine. Can’t we do better than these two? You have “Lucid Dreams”, and as of yet, Juice WRLD seems to be a better overall artist and far less scummy human. Last year’s admittedly far-too-overplayed “XO TOUR Lif3” from Lil Uzi Vert has aged fairly. Even if Post Malone may be an idiot savant, he’s not an actively dangerous idiot savant. This genre is far more expansive than just two artists who probably shouldn’t be sniffing the limelight.
Emo Rap probably isn’t dying in 2019, but can it at least move on without these two?
Worst Billboard Song of 2018: “Girls Like You” — Maroon 5 ft. Cardi B (Billboard Rank: 10)
I’m tired of Maroon 5.
If you’re playing at home, try to sing their last 3 singles that weren’t this. I’d bet one guess is “Maps”. If so, sorry, that’s from 2014, but it’s not like you lose points, because Maroon 5 in the 2010’s has been a constant, blended stream of droning, leading them to this nondescript snoozefest.
“Girls Like You” isn’t worth a full explanation to its futility. This is a song that recruits Cardi B and squanders it immediately. A song where Adam Levine is desperately trying to sound like Benny Blanco, which even he can’t pull off. It’s boring, it’s needless, and it of course hit number 1. Why?
Maroon 5 is constant in the face of change. Every year they’ll come out from hiding with a dull, easy listening Top 40 single that’s just enough tethered to the prior era of pop and just enough sleepwalking into the next era that anyone afraid of change in pop will keep listening to it, whether they want to or not. They’re making music for everybody, and thereby making music for nobody.
I’m just really done trying to pontificate on the point that Adam Levine and Maroon 5 are not good. This band has been in the cultural lexicon since 2003, 16 years in pop consciousness. Isn’t that enough?