The Top 40 Charts Have Never Been Weirder, and That’s a Good Thing

The number-one single in the United States is “Bad and Boujee” by the Atlanta rap trio Migos. It rose to #1 on the heels of a seven-week reign by “Black Beatles,” a song by Mississippi-born, Atlanta-based hip-hop duo Rae Sremmurd. Earlier in 2016, Desiigner’s trap anthem “Panda” hit the top of the charts less than three months after Kanye West essentially introduced it to the world on The Life of Pablo.

Hip-hop has been hugely popular in America before, and has been critically acclaimed since it broke through in the ‘80s, so it’s easy to overlook how unprecedented this is. In contrast to hip-hop’s radio glory days in the early 2000s — when hip-hop ruled the charts because it ruled pop culture, generally — “Bad and Boujee” and “Black Beatles” started from the bottom. Now, propelled by YouTube’s meme culture, streaming services like Spotify, and shout-outs from celebrities like Donald Glover, they here. If 2016 was the year of the anti-establishment uprising, we might as well celebrate the only fun one.

If you’ve forgotten, or are too young to remember, the popular music landscape of fifteen years ago, it might come as a surprise that, for a time, hip-hop was the establishment. In 2002 and 2003, for example, literally the only #1 singles that weren’t hip-hop influenced were either by Nickelback (you’re welcome, America) or the winners of American Idol. Not all of these hit songs were great; I just listened to B2K for the first time in a decade, for research, and probably won’t ever again. But they were popular because they were everywhere. The era’s Billboard Radio Songs chart (which ranks singles by just radio play, not including sales) is full of names who, even if they’ve remained in the public eye, no longer dominate mass culture: Ja Rule, Ashanti, Nelly, 50 Cent.

Disclaimer: Chart rankings are, of course, no representation of quality or even, really, of cultural importance. Beyoncé, who shot to fame as a solo artist in the middle of hip-hop’s radio peak, is an illustrative example: She hasn’t had a #1 single since “Single Ladies” in 2008, but who cares? You’re probably never going to hear “Formation” at the grocery store, but she doesn’t need that kind of mass commercial adoption to be relevant anymore. She’s post-hit.

Until recently, I’d assumed hip-hop in general had entered its post-hit stage, too: influential, innovative, beloved by the hippest corners of the internet — but no longer #1. Even with a charitable definition of “hip-hop,” the only rap artists to score a top hit in the two years before “Panda” were Iggy Azalea and Wiz Khalifa. But then Desiigner, Rae Sremmurd, and Migos did what Beyoncé couldn’t, without pandering or censoring themselves. They also did it with a much smaller radio presence than Ja Rule or Nelly enjoyed 15 years ago. “Panda” never got higher than #10 on the Radio Songs chart. “Black Beatles” is currently at #8, but didn’t really take off until after it was already a hit. “Bad and Boujee” has yet to chart. (I don’t even know where you’d begin with a radio edit of “Bad and Boujee,” which is one of the things I love most about it.)

“Black Beatles” also happens to be a fantastic song — the bit that mimics The (white) Beatles’ “Day Tripper” is one of my favourite pop moments of the past year—and “Panda” and “Bad and Boujee” are a lot of fun. But their unlikely successes would be worth championing even if they were just OK. Hit songs are a big-money industry, without much tolerance for risk. Even when they’re good, like Rihanna and Drake’s pair of chart-toppers last year, they’re not often surprising.

But because “Black Beatles” and its peers made it to the top thanks largely to teens on the internet, without being market-tested to death, they feel loose, joyful, weird: “Black Beatle, bitch, me and Paul McCartney related!” If this is the start of a trend, it couldn’t have come at a better time. I have a feeling this kind of youthful, defiant silliness will be even more important to hear over the next four years, which are definitely going to be weird but probably not very loose or joyful. In Migos we trust.