Radio Hits One: Beyoncé, Nicki Minaj, Rihanna, And Other Urban Radio Staples Turn To Clappers
In 2007, Beyoncé's "Get Me Bodied," featuring a clap-happy groove by producer Swizz Beatz, peaked at No. 10 on the R&B chart; even though it was a moderate hit, it proved to be quietly influential. In 2008, Beyoncé scored a huge chart-topping smash with "Single Ladies," which was produced by Tricky Stewart and The-Dream and seemed to build off of the same rhythmic engine as "Get Me Bodied." The-Dream went on produce one of the biggest recent clappers, Rihanna's "Birthday Cake." And last year, first lady Michelle Obama drafted Beyoncé to re-record "Get Me Bodied" as the more kid-friendly "Move Your Body" for a campaign to combat child obesity. "Countdown" came out in 2011 as well.
But I would say the real seeds of the modern clapper were planted by another minor but influential hit. Soulja Boy's 2008 single "Donk" was one of several lesser hits that the rapper dropped in between his career-defining smashes "Crank That" and "Turn My Swag On." Though "Donk" only peaked at No. 37 on the R&B chart, its presence on urban radio always seemed larger. And if the word "donk" hadn't soon after been used to denote another hyperactive musical movement (by Blackout Crew's Brit dance novelty "Put A Donk On It"), I might be tempted to use that phrase to describe what I'm instead calling clappers.
A year after the Soulja Boy track hit, the ascendant Nicki Minaj used the "Donk" beat as the backdrop for one of her breakout mixtape tracks, "Itty Bitty Piggy." And in recent years, Minaj has become the queen of clappers: in addition to her scene-stealing appearance on Big Sean's "Dance (A$$)," two of the promotional singles from her upcoming second album ride hyperactive eighth note claps. "Stupid Hoe" peaked at No. 53 on the R&B chart, and "Roman Reloaded" peaked at No. 57. Even her deep-cut appearance on Drake's 2009 album Thank Me Later, "Up All Night," was something of a mellow variation on the clapper; it peaked at No. 59.
Along the way, several outliers in the eighth note clap sound have made waves on urban radio, blips that have no clear relation to the current bubble. "Bad Boy This, Bad Boy That," the sole hit by Da Band from MTV's Making The Band 2, peaked at No. 15 in 2004. Jamie Foxx's "Number One" featuring Lil Wayne only hit No. 7 on the Bubbling Under R&B chart in 2008, and its frantic Just Blaze-produced beat seems to have predicted current clappers even if it probably wasn't popular enough to influence them. And Kanye West's 2010 single "Power" (No. 22 R&B) was a widely heard song with eighth note claps, but it also has a much different and slower groove from subsequent clappers. Some of the four-on-the-floor European dance sounds recently flooding U.S. pop radio utilize quarter note claps, but Rihanna's "We Found Love" rides both a different groove and a distinctly different musical tradition than "Birthday Cake."
In December, I found myself looking back on the sound of pop in 2011 and having the strange realization that something as ordinary as whistling had quietly become ubiquitous on the chart that year. I joked then, "Perhaps by this time next year we'll be talking about a sudden flurry of chart hits driven by humming or animal sounds." But it turns out that my prediction was a little too fancy, and that something as banal as the sound of two hands clapping was already beginning to dominate the airwaves.