“Smooth” was always an anomaly. When it came out in June 1999, Santana hadn’t logged a Hot 100 hit in 14 years, and hadn’t broken its top 10 since 1970. That’s kind of like a Phil Collins comeback song with a Shawn Mendes feature becoming a huge hit later this year -- vaguely possible, yet still… strange. Santana was loved by Boomers, but wasn’t a presence in the late-‘90s pop game until he released Supernatural, a feature-heavy Latin rock album that paired the legendary band with numerous contemporary artists: Thomas, Dave Matthews, Lauryn Hill, CeeLo Green, and Wyclef Jean, who co-produced its other No. 1 hit, “Maria Maria.” “Smooth,” the lead single, sailed to No. 1 on Oct. 23 and stayed at the summit for 12 consecutive weeks. It was the 1990s’ last No. 1 song, and the new millennium’s first.
Odd as it all was, there were some factors that at least guided "Smooth" towards success. It arrived at a time when -- much like today -- Latin pop was crossing over into Top 40 more frequently than usual. Ricky Martin's "Livin' La Vida Loca" was a Hot 100 No. 1 for five consecutive weeks in Spring 1999. Enrique Iglesias' "Bailamos" dropped in June and topped the Hot 100 for two weeks that September, about a month before "Smooth" did the same. And as awkward a pairing Santana and Rob Thomas were, it was sort of ingenious how they connected to fans of so many genres, young and old, without either being so unwelcome in the other's world they'd cancel them out. They were basically Sylvester Stallone and Michael B. Jordan in Creed.
In 2000, digital music consumption was nothing compared to the commercial force of radio. Napster was a year old and you could often listen to a whole album in the time it took to download one song. Alongside its Hot 100 journey, “Smooth” also topped Pop Songs, Adult Pop, and Triple A, while charting on Mainstream Rock and Alternative. Pop kids, rockers, their parents, and their parents’ parents got to hear Thomas croon in his raspy, white guy voice about his “Spanish Harlem Mona Lisa.” It wouldn’t have been improbable to hear “Smooth” three times in one trip across your radio dial. It was everywhere.
While “Smooth” reinvigorated Santana’s career, Thomas’ was already going strong. Matchbox Twenty’s 1996 debut Yourself or Someone Like You had produced three top-five Pop Songs hits, and the Florida-based lite-rock band was gearing up to release its follow-up in early 2000. “Smooth” kept Thomas’ voice on the radio in between cycles, during an era when this sort of feature-play was far less typical (and voila, Matchbox Twenty's "Bent," their next single, became their first Hot 100 No. 1). The strategy -- and the whole concept behind Supernatural -- actually has a lot in common with today’s pop songwriting game. Santana, the lead artist, made the music and paired songs off with hitmaker features, much the same way Calvin Harris or Kygo do today. The track listings of modern-day DJ Khaled albums are essentially Supernatural on steroids; Khaled's “Wild Thoughts” even takes it to another level and samples the main riff from “Maria Maria.”
So Santana kind of invented the features era. Three years after Supernatural, Santana repeated the process with Shaman, and gave us two more Top 40 hits: the Michelle Branch team-up “Game of Love,” and “Why Don’t You & I,” featuring Chad Kroeger. Somehow, the Santana single with the guy from Nickelback didn’t become the dominant meme, which speaks to the galaxy-brained levels of Thomas’ musings when it came to white-washed Latin romance and the moon’s gravitational force.
“Smooth” still generates about a million on-demand streams per week, according to Nielsen Music. It logs around a thousand sales every week, considerably more than other turn-of-the-century No. 1s. It inspired an iconic Onion article, and an also-pretty-funny (fake) GQ oral history that’s trying to be a Clickhole article. It’s Billboard’s second-biggest song of all-time. It is eternal.