Even though hip-hop surpassed rock as the most popular genre in the United States two years ago, it hasn’t always felt like it. Regardless of the massive success of new artists like Cardi B, Lil Nas X, and Lizzo since then, it has seemed as though the establishments and institutions that work the levers of power in the entertainment industry have continued to shift those levers in favor of both burgeoning and established pop stars like Ariana Grande, Billie Eilish, Ed Sheeran, Harry Styles, and Taylor Swift.
Pop stars still more or less dominate awards shows and year-end lists, even hip-hop is often better represented in those arenas and on the Billboard Hot 100, especially within the last few, streaming-centric years. And while Lil Nas X’s meme-worthy “Old Town Road” blocked a number of more traditional hits from the top of the Hot 100 last year, it was the bizarre combination of hip-hop and country that made the song stand out — in fact, many argued that it didn’t have enough of the components of either genre to qualify as one or the other.
But this past week, a new artist appeared to challenge the effective status quo of pop music’s semi-dominance. Compton rapper Roddy Ricch, whose debut album, Please Excuse Me For Being Antisocial, dropped last November and debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200, reached No. 1 one on the latest Billboard Hot 100 with his sleeper hit “The Box,” the second song and unofficial single from the album. What makes this achievement notable isn’t just that it’s a rare straight-up hip-hop song to make it to the top spot, but also who it beat out to earn the distinction: Pop music poster boy Justin Bieber, whose “Yummy” landed at No. 2 on the chart.
That’s crazy, right? Five years ago, the Biebs would have been a certified lock to take the No. 1 spot no matter which song he found himself matched up against. But here we are, in 2020, where the rules are different and the status quo has undergone a seismic upheaval. Roddy’s victory over Justin is a sign that the dynamic has shifted, thanks in part to changes in Billboard’s counting formula, but also because fans want different things from their music now as well, and because the old promotional strategies and tricks that would have launched the Billboard mainstay to his sixth No. 1 no longer work, replaced by a new order that Roddy Ricch’s underground hit seems tailor-made to exploit.
One of the ways Roddy has achieved this pop culture dominance is through memes which have made “The Box” almost impossible to escape — you may have seen a few yourself. One imagines a fanciful scenario by which producer 30 Roc came up with the song’s distinctive, broken windshield wiper loop. Then there’s one that lays the song over a scene from the animated film Hotel Transylvania 3: Summer Vacation, in which the film’s lead Dracula dances his way across a cruise ship in surprising synchronization with the song. But the most effective meme in the past week may very well have been the “stream ‘The Box’” fan counter-campaign to Bieber’s seemingly shady promotional tactics for “Yummy.”
While stan streaming campaigns are established enough that fans view No. 1s with a sense of pride, like reverse helicopter parents sheltering their favorite artists to high achievements, it’s rare that an artist outright endorses those campaigns, outside of encouraging fans to stream and purchase their albums as usual. Justin also faced a dilemma: He was coming off a nearly five-year hiatus, nearly an eternity in pop music, and needed a win. However, Bieber misstepped by reposting a fan post promoting sneaky practices like telling fans to play “Yummy” on repeat on low volume throughout the night and encouraging international fans to download VPNs apps to spoof US IP addresses to add their numbers to the tally. It may have been a harmless mistake on Bieber’s part or it may have been intentional — the post was deleted within hours, although the original fan post remained — but fans took it as tacit agreement on the part of the pop behemoth anyway, determining that his punishment would be to watch “The Box” top “Yummy” on the Hot 100.
That’s exactly what happened on Monday, as Billboard rolled out its chart for the week dated January 18. With “The Box” sitting atop the Hot 100, it appears that hip-hop has well and truly asserted its dominance over the usual pop-centric forces that dominate the chart. The win signals a shift in the importance of organic organizing over traditional, label-moderated promotion strategies as well as solidifies the modern trend of hip-hop-based artists blocking more classically popular artists from the mountaintop via force of personality like Lizzo, unusual sounds like Roddy, and genre-bending risk-taking like Lil Nas X. And it’s also a lesson in social media savvy, which all three artists demonstrate, and which more established artists like the Ariana Grande, Taylor Swift, and Justin Bieber are playing catch-up. While none of those have to fear obscurity just yet, the changing of the guard means that if they want to remain relevant, they’ll have to start thinking outside the box.
Roddy Ricch is a Warner Music artist. Uproxx is an independent subsidiary of Warner Music Group.