How Maroon 5’s ‘Red Pill Blues’ Trojan-Horse’d Its Way To 2018 Pop Dominance

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It’s hard to tell if there is a more savvy pop entity in 2018 than Maroon 5 — well, namely, Maroon 5’s Adam Levine. As the frontman of a 17-year-old (!), Grammy award-winning and multi-platinum selling pop group, a seven-year founding judge on the wildly successful singing competition show The Voice (which began in 2011, an eternity ago), and the founder of his own label, 222 Records, Levine is as firmly entrenched as a defining force in pop music over the last couple of decades as a synth or a backbeat.

And now that they’re such a pop fixture, it’s easy to forget that Maroon 5’s breakout album, 2002’s Songs About Jane, definitely leaned more rock than anything they do now. Jane is a stone-cold classic (fight me) and recognized as an indelible commercial force — it spawned five ultra successful singles, including “This Love” which won a Grammy and arguably helped the group win the Best New Artist Grammy and VMA. While plenty of bands have a huge, successful breakout like that, most end up spending the rest of their careers trying to achieve that initial impact without much luck.

Instead, over the course of the next two decades Maroon 5 have gone on to surpass their original momentum, hitting the top of the Billboard charts three separate times (“Makes Me Wonder,” 2007, “Moves Like Jagger,” 2010, “One More Night,” 2012) and skillfully pivoting with each stylistic wave. The staying power the group maintained as a traditional pop-rock band in an increasingly rap-focused world is pretty astonishing. Their early ability to use their established sound to usher other artists into the spotlight is fascinating as a mutually beneficial move for both the band and their collaborators.

Currently, the band is hovering around that No. 1 spot once again as their Cardi B collaboration “Girls Like You” climbed up to No. 2 spot last week and stayed there. In case you’re questioning the way rap has come to dominate the charts, when/if “Girls” hits No. 1, it will only be the band’s fourth time doing so — and it will already be Cardi’s third. (Lately she is truly competing with herself, as her other hit “I Like It” was recently at the No. 1 slot and is now sitting at No. 3) Of course, Cardi is practically unstoppable in 2018, and if you take a look at Maroon 5’s career, this isn’t the first time the band have utilized high-profile cameos to their advantage. On their most recent album, Red Pill Blues, however, they leaned into current stars more than ever before.

The result of that strategy was a well-received pop album that’s still resonating almost a year later. Amid their staple, sparkling pop production and Levine’s signature voice, this album cuts that saccharine with a rougher dose of hip-hop braggadocio from guests and more rap-leaning production. Aside from their latest collab with Cardi, the band’s radio hits in the last year are rounded out by Kendrick Lamar, Future, and SZA (A$AP Rocky, Lunchmoney Lewis and Julia Michaels are also guests on the album). “Don’t Wanna Know,” featuring Kendrick Lamar, peaked at No. 6 in February last year during the album’s early roll-out, and the independent single “Cold” featuring Future (and Gucci Mane on the remix) came in April, hitting No. 16 on the Billboard chart, and earning a slot on the deluxe version of the album.

Perhaps most telling, though, is their SZA collab, “What Lovers Do,” which went to No. 9 last November just a few weeks after the album dropped, earning Solana her highest-charting song to date in the process. Despite the massive, unprecedented success of SZA’s CTRL last summer, she struggled a bit to break into the Billboard top 20 as such a new artist, and it wasn’t until her collab with Maroon 5 that the Top Dawg star scored a coveted top 10 hit, a high-water mark that set the table for her Kendrick Lamar Black Panther collab “All The Stars” to hit No. 7 this March.