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).
The biggest development contributing to this lack of crossover is the emerging middleground of vaguely R&B-leaning male pop singers–representing a pretty wide spectrum of races and nationalities–who have little to no presence on urban radio: Bruno Mars, Taio Cruz, Jason DeRulo, Mike Posner, Iyaz, Jay Sean, even the resurgent Enrique Iglesias. If you want a scapegoat to blame for The-Dream or Lloyd getting pushed off of the pop radar, it’s one of those guys.
Usher, Beyoncé, and Justin Timberlake are among the few remaining superstars who can be counted on to unite pop and urban radio:. After a few rocky years, Usher came back big on both formats in 2010, but generally with different songs aimed at each market; housey dance smashes “OMG” and “DJ Got Us Fallin’ In Love” dominated top 40, while more overtly R&B fare like “Hey Daddy” and “There Goes My Baby” stayed in heavy rotation on urban radio. Chris Brown himself followed suit with a similar approach to his latest album’s singles campaign, but the dance-pop tunes “Yeah 3X” and “Beautiful People” haven’t scaled the Hot 100 heights of the hip-hop posse cut “Look At Me Now.”
The other two aforementioned icons, Beyoncé and Justin Timberlake, have been on hiatus between albums lately. Beyoncé may close the gap with her upcoming album, although its lead single “Run The World (Girls),” as Chris Molanphy noted in this space last week, has faced a tepid commercial reception across the board. It’s hard to imagine she doesn’t have another multi-format chart-topper like “Single Ladies” or “Irreplaceable” up her sleeve. But would that song’s success reverse a temporary trend, or just slow down the growing division between pop and urban radio?
Newer stars like frequent Beyoncé collaborator Lady Gaga have been generating more excitement about capital-P pop music than there’s been in quite some time, and they’ve been doing it with sonics that owe more to European dance music than hip-hop or R&B. For the first time ever, urban radio seems to be chasing pop trends more than vice versa, and major-label rappers and R&B singers are increasingly faced with a tough choice: get in the studio with a European hitmaker like David Guetta (or Max Martin, or Stargate), or risk becoming commercially irrelevant.