100 & Single: The R&B/Hip-Hop Factor In The Music Business's Endless Slump

Wale feat. Miguel, "Lotus Flower Bomb"

Halfway into 2012, the steak of non-crossover continues—and it's getting worse: None of the half-dozen songs that have topped Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs so far this year have even made the Hot 100's Top Five. Only one of them, Drake's "Make Me Proud" featuring Nicki Minaj, spent even a single week in the pop Top 10 (it peaked at No. 9 before tumbling down the Hot 100).

For non-urban radio listeners, the songs that have topped the R&B/Hip-Hop list over the last couple of years are a parade of "Huh?" Wale's "Lotus Flower Bomb" featuring Miguel, an R&B/Hip-Hop No. 1 in December and January, barely scraped the pop Top 40 (No. 38). A pair of chart-toppers from early in 2011, Trey Songz's "Can't Be Friends" and Jamie Foxx's "Fall for Your Type," missed the Top 40 on the Hot 100 altogether.

Mind you, it's not bad at all for R&B and hip-hop radio to have hits to call its own. Even in the heyday of urban radio, in the '70s, '80s and '90s, the format produced stars like Parliament, Freddie Jackson and Jodeci that never made the pop Top 10.

What's unusual and downright bizarre about the last three years, however, is the utter paucity of black-music crossover. What exactly has happened to black music, and to Billboard's Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs, that has left these songs at the margins of centrist pop?

Essentially, the R&B/Hip-Hop chart is under attack. Its two pillars, airplay and sales, have been undermined in the last decade by technology.

On the airplay side, there is the scourge of the Portable People Meter, the audience-measuring device developed by radio ratings service Arbitron. After decades of tracking ratings through a primitive diary system, about five years ago Arbitron began outfitting respondents with a cellphone-size device that actually tracks their radio exposure by the minute. The result: a steady decline in ratings for urban radio, whose listenership was reportedly overstated by the diary system. Early findings of the system show that blacks are indeed heavier radio listeners than virtually any ethnic or socioeconomic group—but they don't listen to as much urban radio as previous Arbitron diaries claimed.

This PPM issue would seem rather technical, but it has begun to draw mainstream media attention and even political protest. Here in New York, PPM-decimated ratings for rival urban-contemporary stations Kiss-FM and WBLS led to a merger of the stations and the shuttering of the 30-year-old Kiss.

(As a chart nerd, I am a big fan of accurate data, and it's hard to argue that PPM isn't an improvement in radio-measuring technology. Much of the protest against the system has focused on Arbitron's under-recruiting of young listeners of color to wear the devices, a valid complaint. But the launch of Soundscan two decades ago was plagued with early glitches too, and even at Soundscan's inception in 1991 it was a massive improvement over the laughably fudgeable old system for compiling music charts.)

However unfortunate the effects of the PPM on urban radio, the technology is clearly here to stay. But as a result, core urban-radio hits are being heard by fewer people.

Radio is not only a vital service to the black community, it's also essential to the R&B/Hip-Hop chart. I mean really, really essential: According to Billboard's formula, airplay is supposed to account for roughly half of the results on Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs, but nowadays the proportion is closer to 100%. That's because sales of singles, the chart's other component, are largely dead.

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