Radio Hits One: The Disappearing Urban Crossover Hit Says "Look At Me Now"

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Chris Brown's "Look At Me Now" has topped Billboard's R&B/Hip-hop Songs chart for seven weeks in a row, and it recently peaked at No. 6 on the Hot 100. In terms of Brown's career, it's notable for being the singer's first top 10 hit in the two years since that whole violent incident with then-girlfriend Rihanna that he's done such a terrible job of making anyone but the most diehard #teambreezy members forgive or forget. But on a broader scale, "Look At Me Now" is significant for becoming the first R&B chart-topper to crack the top 10 since Jay-Z's "Empire State of Mind" hit No. 1 on both charts back in late 2009. (Brown's first big comeback hit, "Deuces," as it happens, was the only R&B No. 1 to crack the top 20 of the pop charts last year.)

That may not seem especially unusual, but consider this. The Hot 100 has been absolutely dominated by urban radio hits for pretty much the entire past decade; rappers and R&B singers occupy the chart's No. 1 spot more often than pop singers, and certainly far more often than rock bands. And it sure doesn't feel like hip-hop's been any less ubiquitous or culturally relevant the last couple years than it'd been before that, does it? But the impact of hip-hop has reached a lot of places far outside the purview of urban radio lately, which kind of explains what's going on.

Of the current Hot 100 top 10, only "Look At Me Now" and Jeremih's "Down On Me" get much play on urban radio. But the influence of hip-hop and R&B is still present in its other eight songs: retro soul by Adele; R&B radio mainstay Rihanna skewing pop; the sometimes-rapping pop star Ke$ha; Bruno Mars doing cod reggae; pop singers getting the assist from rappers (Katy Perry with Kanye West; J.Lo with Pitbull; Britney Spears with Nicki Minaj); and the Black Eyed Peas, who long ago in a galaxy far away were once some kind of hip-hop group.

Meanwhile, the top spots of the Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart are relatively devoid of hits with enough pop radio crossover and/or iTunes sales momentum to make an a major impact on the Hot 100. Besides "Look At Me Now" and Lil Wayne's "6 Foot 7 Foot," no song on the current urban top 10 has peaked as high on the Hot 100. Wiz Khalifa's "Roll Up" and Kanye West's "All of the Lights," both of which reached the Hot 100's teens, are the closest. (My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy hasn't had the kind of chart-topping crossover hits that West's previous albums did; his Katy Perry collaboration is his biggest chart success of recent vintage.) Meanwhile, great slow jams like Miguel's "Sure Thing," Marsha Ambrosius' "Far Away," and Kelly Rowland's "Motivation" have all yet to crack even the Top 40; YC's southern rap anthem "Racks" hasn't yet reached those heights either.

The average Hot 100 peak of 2010's hip-hop/R&B chart-toppers was No. 39; in 2009 that average was No. 13. And for every year of the decade before that, the average was no lower than No. 8. So far in 2011, the average is up a little from last year--it's at No. 28 thanks to "Look At Me Now"--but that's still a far cry from 2004's high-water mark, when almost every R&B No. 1 was also a pop No. 1. (The two exceptions, both by Alicia Keys, were still in the top five.) Quite simply, urban hits no longer reach across demographics and radio formats the way "Lean Back" or "Drop It Like It's Hot" or "Goodies" did back then. What happened?

Although a number of superstar rappers still carry weight on both pop and urban radio--Kanye, Ludacris, Lil Wayne--the number of hip-hop acts that get airplay almost exclusively on pop radio has risen. The Black Eyed Peas are of course the reigning kings (and queen) of pop rap, but you also have Pitbull, B.o.B, Flo Rida, Travie McCoy, and Far East Movement, as well as the fratty party rap groups like LMFAO and 3OH!3 who've been established as frequent collaborators with and kindred spirits to wacky white girl superstars Ke$ha and Katy Perry. Some of these guys, like Pitbull and B.o.B, had some degree of street cred earlier in their careers, but for the most part these rappers get little respect from even the mainstream hip-hop fans who worship the Young Money roster. The big exception is Eminem, who despite being one of the most successful MCs of all time coming off of a major comeback, has always been kind of a minor presence on hip-hop stations--the only two times he's made much impact on urban radio in the last couple years, he had a lot of help from the likes of Rihanna ("Love The Way You Lie"), Drake, Kanye West and Lil Wayne ("Forever").

There's not nearly as large or as hotly discussed a division between "real" R&B and pop crossover variations thereof, but there is a gap, and it's been growing rapidly. Three or four years ago, there were countless R&B singers who were ubiquitous on both pop and urban radio--including Brown--but that field has narrowed considerably. Some (Ne-Yo, Mariah Carey, T-Pain, Ciara) have been in commercial slumps while others (Alicia Keys, R. Kelly, Mary J. Blige) have been steady presences on R&B radio but aren't making crossover hits like they used to. Artists who once straddled pop and urban radio pretty evenly, like Rihanna and Akon, have leaned more pop of late. And even the young, sexy new generation of R&B stars, like Trey Songz and Keri Hilson, haven't crossed over to pop the way their predecessors did. The modern R&B chart topper with the lowest Hot 100 peak was Robin Thicke's "Sex Therapy," which grazed the pop chart at No. 100 last year (a curious reversal of the racial dynamics usually at play in this situation).


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10 comments
Charles Dixon
Charles Dixon

Al as a pioneering radio Mixshow DJ, A&R, Radio Promo exec, Manager, Producer, DJ crew founding member.. label and DJ equipment consultant..etc  since 1985... The real story is based on greed and systematically eliminating  the creative music executives that had as much talent as the artists they signed and developed.  Today the creative model has been replaced by the corporate model..and now the few truly gifted and talented artists have been replaced by artists that fit a more fixed timeline for producing disposable music that has no longevity..but sells temporarily because it sounds familiar... allowing labels to sell mass volumes of music that all sounds the same... the result.. the end of the music biz as we know it! WMG sold, EMI in label chop shop forclosue, UMG reconstructing and Sony playing musical chairs with UMG...  Napster existed because young kids were spending their allowance on $20 albums with 2 good songs on it.. Napster was a way around wasting money!  The music business today is a mess because they FIRED all the executives that were seasoned enough with work and life experience to develop talent and make great albums. The average age of senior music execs today is mid thirties... with no real track record of success. I don't blame the acts or the executives... I blame the senior level execs that hired and signed them.  I read these comments and realized we are in an era where everyone is an expert! I started in radio, when to indie labels to majors to indies back to majors then to my own label.  I am actually excited because the game is going to shift back..and artists like timothy bloom and V are super promising and Jonell finally has a real song..  keep in mind the most of the hottest records from 1984 to 1990 were on indie labels. How soon we forget ( Dance, House, Rap, freestyle, DC Go Go, Dance hall) ... History is gonna repeat itself.. BUT the Do-It-youself indie label execs will fail unless they call on us vets... and not the vets that time FORGOT!!  The ones that are active and up to date with a real track record of success... my 2 cents worth a million dollars http://www.facebook.com/group.......http://www.linkedin.com/in/sir... Dixon  

Michelle Travagline
Michelle Travagline

beautiful people wont make it in America.  The dance sound will still dominate this summer, Jason Derulo, gaga with edge of glory will be huge, but one hip hop artist is going to dominate pop, Wiz Khalifa.  Roll up will be big and so will no sleep.

Pop radio will always be music for the masses, they will tire of the dance sound soon and hip hop will have its chance at domination.  Anyway the reality is that the dance sound hip hop is going back to the roots, it should be embraced by urban radio.  You would  think that with the current mentality that hip hop was born in  1992, not 1979. 

Alain
Alain

Beautiful People by Chris Brown isn't a released single in the Americas, so you might want to delete that. Not his fault that it isn't on the Hot 100. It is a massive success in UK, other European countries & Australia, but that's because his label released that.

It's remarkable how he's has such a great comeback, despite all the haters, including some pop stations who were forced to play his songs because they were successful.

Shane
Shane

I think the charts have lost their credibility. The radio stations only play a very small portion of the music that is put out. I think what the charts show is that people are bored with the same music over and over again. Let the programmers do their job with no influence from the labels and radio might be able to survive.

shell517nj
shell517nj

I agree with al shipley the 10 songs or so that play in heavy rotation on urban radio, chart the best, and when heavy hitters like jay z and dre are behind the music it gets the most play. how lame.

Ellen W
Ellen W

I think the reason for the trends are base on what society likes now-a-days. I personally still live in the 90's music back when boy bands like n'synce, o-town still existed.

-Ellen W (baruch)

Chris Molanphy
Chris Molanphy

Mad props for a great debut column.

All I'll add to the exhaustive data you offer is a hobby-horse I've been riding for a couple of years now: the need for Billboard to finally add digital-sales data to the R&B/Hip-Hop chart.

They've been resisting for years, on the (implied, not overtly stated) premise that it would ruin the character of a chart that has a long history with black-owned and oriented retailers. But with that segment (along with all brick-and-mortar music retail) at death's door anyway, the sales portion of Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs has been near-nonexistent for years, making it essentially a radio chart a la the deadly, predigital Hot 100 of 2000–05.

That's led to a problem where there's no longer a radio programmer-to-consumer-back-to-programmer feedback loop that makes for great charts. I'm sure there's a one-way influence from radio to the teen urban-music buyer who then downloads a Trey Songz MP3. But with that sale not reflected on the R&B/Hip-Hop chart, the loop ends there; programmers aren't given clear enough signals of how to reflect their most avid audience members' tastes (especially young audience).

In my ideal fantasy world, you'd be able to segment iTunes/AmazonMP3 song sales to pockets of the country that have large black populations or high urban-radio listenership, but that's probably impossible, or at least fraught. But at the very least, I think it'd be trivial for Billboard to set up a rule whereby a song eligible for R&B/Hip-Hop Songs would have to hit some kind of urban-radio threshold before their iTunes sales would count toward the chart.

To get way, way back to the astute point of your column, I believe this would provide enough of a feedback loop and resulting promotional oomph for urban-radio records to make Top 40 programmers and pop buyers take notice, thus restoring some of urban music's luster on the Hot 100.

Al Shipley
Al Shipley

I've heard "Beautiful People" on American radio and seen the video on American television, and it reached #2 on the US Hot Dance Club Songs chart.

Al Shipley
Al Shipley

I get what you're saying, Chris, but I think the strength of the Hot R&B/Hip-Hop chart IS that it's so airplay-driven and communicates what urban radio formats are playing as opposed to what the most popular R&B and Hip-Hop songs are in the country. As this column was meant to demonstrate, those can be two very different things, and without former being accurately measured by the chart we might not even know the difference. If the chart started incoporating R&B/Hip-Hop Digital Songs info this week, Tinie Tempah would rocket up the chart despite zero urban radio airplay, unless they incorporated some of the fantasy filters you suggest but yourself admit are probably impossible to implement. And I'm not sure if the chart is lacking a feedback loop as much as you think -- urban radio thrives on request lines and listener participation probably more than any other radio format.

Misty Jean Moore
Misty Jean Moore

Alain is right, it has never been officially released in the US. Only in Europe and I think Australia. It just goes to show you how successful the song is. But that also saddens me. I'm not a fan of Euro-pop or dance-pop, etc... I wish Akon and Chris would go back to their  early days R&B days, but I guess the times have changed..for the worse.

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