Five Burning Questions: Billboard Staffers Discuss Lil Dicky's 'Earth' Top 20 Debut
You won't see their names on the chart listing, but Justin Bieber, Ariana Grande, Halsey and dozens of other hitmakers appear on a new debut in the Billboard Hot 100's top 20 this week. "Earth," a new charity single from rapper/comedian Lil Dicky, features an All-Star supporting cast of pop stars and other celebrities, and bows at No. 17 on Billboard's all-genre songs chart this week.
The ecologically themed single, co-produced by radio regulars Benny Blanco and Cashmere Cat, was released in advance of Earth Day, and will be donating proceeds to a variety of environmental charities. Despite its noble intentions, however, the song has drawn some highly negative reviews for its irreverent mix of juvenile humor with grave planetary concerns and charity single musical tropes.
Is the criticism justified? And how will the song be remembered in the years to come? Billboard staffers answer these queries and more in this week's Five Burning Questions.
1. Does the top 20 debut for "Earth" surprise you? What do you think it's most attributable to?
Nolan Feeney: I would have guessed top 50 instead of top 20, but overall this doesn’t come as a shock. “Earth” feels less like an actual song and more a like a raunchier musical twist on the kind of viral video that ends up getting covered on the TODAY show -- the kind of viral video your parents are going to email you about in two weeks. I’d chalk up all those clicks to the pitch alone -- wouldn’t you just be a little bit curious about dozens of musicians voicing animals in a spoof of charity singles? It’s a pitch that by nature is going to attract actual laugh-seekers and hate-watchers alike, both kinda genuine and totally trolling at the same time. But unlike "Freaky Friday," his Chris Brown collaboration from last year, I don't think it sneakily resembles an actual pop song enough to have a decent shot at sticking around.
Josh Glicksman: Not at all, especially considering that the Chris Brown-assisted “Freaky Friday” debuted at No. 9 and peaked one slot above that. Given the star power attached to this track -- albeit in extremely small doses -- this felt like a lock for the top third of the chart, at worst. The promo video that dropped a few days before the song’s release featured names like Justin Bieber, Ariana Grande and Halsey in enormous, caps lock, pastel letters for crying out loud.
Bianca Gracie: This feat honestly doesn’t surprise me. For one, there’s not many great contenders for the top of the charts out at the moment, which probably made it easy for Lil Dicky to land the No. 17 slot. But of course the single’s biggest attributing factor isn’t necessarily the rapper’s star quality, but the popularity of the onslaught of famous buddies he got for the track. Nearly all of the featured artists have enjoyed top 20 (and many even No. 1) success, and their diehard fans’ streams helped to boost “Earth” so high.
Andrew Unterberger: ...a little? Star power and inherent headline-catching virality aside, I just didn't expect this song to have legs for a whole week -- I thought it'd be 24 hours and out, for the most part. But Dicky & Co. hung around on Spotify, iTunes and particularly YouTube past Friday well into the next week, so kudos I guess. But yeah, you still have to figure that curiosity over the big names and its collective general ambition is the biggest factor in the initial popularity here.
Xander Zellner: It's not the least bit surprising. If "Freaky Friday" was any indication, all Lil Dicky needs to thrive is a mildly funny video to go viral, and, even if a controversial artist like Chris Brown is involved, it'll perform well. Add 30 other mega-stars to the mix and you have yourself a top 20 hit. But the video is unquestionably what we can attribute the song's success to: From a charts standpoint, 80 percent of its Hot 100 points can be attributed to streaming, and when you look at the original YouTube clip, which has over 68 million views, it's pretty clear what's resonating the most.
2. Pitchfork called "Earth" "about as bad as global warming." How fair do you think the critical response to the song has been?
Nolan Feeney: “Earth” is sort of like a music critic’s version of The Purge -- at a time when declining celebrity access has publications dancing around calling bad songs for what they are, I think a lot of people are jumping at the chance to just absolutely trash something. Because otherwise I find it unfathomable that “Earth” would inspire strong feelings of any kind from the press -- it’s a Lil Dicky video, what were you expecting? This is not the place for you if you were hoping for, I don’t know, a barrage of riotous one-liners (which has never really been what he’s about) or Max Martin-level songcraft (again, not his deal). Like any Lil Dicky project, you either appreciate the ridiculousness of the concept or you don’t.
In that sense, it reminds me of something you might find on The Other Two, the wonderful Comedy Central about the slacker siblings of a Justin Bieber-esque viral teen sensation who finds himself recording some over-the-top fake singles like “Marry U at Recess” and "My Brother's Gay" in pursuit of fame: “In the show it’s less that each lyric is a joke and more that premise itself was absurd,” co-creator Chris Kelly told Billboard earlier this year. “The song itself was earnest.”
Josh Glicksman: Few things are truly “about as bad as global warming” -- and Lil Dicky’s “Earth” certainly doesn’t fall in the category -- but it’s hard to argue against the wave of criticism washing over the track. For a song that LD refers to as his “life’s most important work,” and one that stakes its claim as raising awareness for problems with our environment, it certainly feels like Burd left too much of his tried-and-true anatomical and sexual references in there. For those playing along at home: “Earth” includes a combined eight references to baboon anuses, cow “tits,” skunk buttholes, horny rhinos, horny squirrels, the human penis and orgasms. It includes one mention of global warming and zero references to rising temperatures, greenhouse gas emissions or recycling. That’s, uh, not great.
Bianca Gracie: The critique has been pretty spot on in my opinion. “Earth” doesn’t have the catchiness nor the sincerity compared to other successful charity tunes. The artist features don’t impress me because it doesn’t seem like anyone is taking the cause seriously on the track. The song has this naive vibe about it that’s more suitable for a children’s animated show than an important message to impact the world. And the video, which looks straight out of 2005’s Madagascar, doesn’t help things either.
Andrew Unterberger: Basically. I just don't get who "Earth" is supposed to be for, aside from mischievous third graders tricking their teachers into showing it for its educational value before they notice all the orgasms and buttholes. It's dirty but not edgy, it's poppy but not all that catchy, it's humorous but not particularly funny. The good cause excuses a lot, but not everything.
Xander Zellner: The song has its flaws, but I'd argue that some of the criticism has been unfair. Has there ever been a charity single targeted towards young people, or with the intention of going viral? From "We Are The World" to "Just Stand Up," charity singles have historically, and perhaps understandably, been targeted towards adults (i.e. the people with money), and that may be why so many of them are largely forgettable. If this video is resonating with kids and getting them to actually buy the song, not just stream it, and also watch the climate change explainer videos on welovetheearth.com, then Lil Dicky may be on to something here. Whether he failed or succeeded, it's an interesting attempt at turning the idea of the charity single on its face.
3. Whose contributions to the song do you enjoy the most? Whose are you most disappointed in?
Nolan Feeney: To me, “Earth” is funniest if you have stan-level knowledge of pop music and think about the behind-the-scenes motives and antics of its participants: There’s fun to be had when you imagine Rita Ora showing up to the studio and earnestly doing her part because she does so many brand partnerships that it probably all blurs together -- voicing a wolf is probably not even the most ridiculous thing she’s done this year to up her Q score. It’s fun to imagine Katy Perry jumping at the chance to be a part of this of this because it’s probably the biggest hit she’s been a part of since “Chained to the Rhythm.” It’s fun (and a little sad) to think about how Meghan Trainor didn’t even get to have her own animal. But you’re not going to be able to enjoy any of that if you try and judge this like you would any other song.
Josh Glicksman: Lil Jon’s “What the fuck, I’m a clam?” is the best cameo of the entire song, and frankly, it’s not even close. The one-liner from the famed Atlanta rapper is gone before you even realize that it arrived, but leaves the jarring -- and I mean jarring; it immediately follows quick guest spots from well-established voices Adam Levine, Shawn Mendes, Charlie Puth, Sia and Miley Cyrus -- and attention-demanding bar in your head for the rest of the track. The Snoop bit doesn’t reinvent the wheel but lands as a reliable, safe joke nonetheless. Outside of that, most of the cameos are either too brief or forgettable to heap too much praise or criticism upon, although I surely wouldn’t have picked Meghan Trainor to deliver the “We love you, India” line.
Bianca Gracie: I liked Ariana Grande and Sia’s feature the most, simply because I love their voices. The ladies are a refreshing change from all the auto-tune and silliness found on the track. Leonardo DiCaprio’s appearance was also a favorite, as the actor has been a serious activist for years. The contribution I didn’t care for goes to Kevin Hart as Kanye West. It came off as too joke-y and unnecessary. If Lil Dicky couldn’t secure a Yeezy feature, then what’s the point really? Not to mention the “We forgive you Germany” and “We love you India” lyrics leaving a patronizing taste in my mouth. Also, the use of Bad Bunny and Tory Lanez was inconsistent compared to the other artists. Why weren’t they transformed into anthropomorphic characters like everyone else?
Andrew Unterberger: Justin Bieber's cameo might be the best, just because it's fairly clear he's waited his whole life to play-act as a baboon ("My anus is huge!") The most heartbreaking cameo to me personally is Philadelphia 76ers star Joel Embiid, who despite being the GOAT basketball player and human being, really might need a Questlove intervention about his taste in musical projects. But the biggest disappointment for me are co-producers Cashmere Cat and Benny Blanco, who make no effort to give "Earth" any kind of distinctive musical signature -- understandable, given the level of material they're working with, but still not particularly admirable.
Xander Zellner: It was nice that PSY, Bad Bunny and Kris Wu each contributed with a lyric in Korean, Spanish and Mandarin, respectively. Lil Dicky's lines about absolving Germany (for what I can only assume is the Holocaust and Nazis) and Russia (for, I guess, communism, the Cold War, the Vietnam War, Vladimir Putin, interfering with the 2016 United States presidential election leading to the ultimate election of Donald J. Trump resulting in political and social discord, and so on) were particularly disappointing.
4. Aside from being generally well-intentioned, what's something that Lil Dicky does well on "Earth"?
Nolan Feeney: This is maybe a weird observation, but he really captures the vibe of Disney World -- some of the animated sequences evoke the Epcot ride Soarin’ or the Avatar Flight of Passage ride in Animal Kingdom, and some parts of the beat sound like what you’d hear playing in the parks as you wander from attraction to attraction. But think too hard about any one part of "Earth" and your brain will break. Like, I spent a good five minutes wondering if vocalists shouting out country names and continent names interchangeably (“Hey Russia! We’re cool! Hey Asia, all of you, come on!”) was a genuine blunder or poking fun at people who write lyrics that read like the bridge of “Born This Way” (e.g. “You’re Lebanese, you’re Orient”).
Josh Glicksman: LD (a.k.a. Firm Handshake) told Sway Calloway that every artist he reached out to agreed to partake in the song. Given the guest list, that’s mighty impressive, regardless of the cause or the connections that he’s been able to create at this point. Say what you want about the song or about Lil Dicky himself, but gathering many of the top artist names in the industry to work together on a Cashmere Cat and Benny Blanco-produced track is nothing to scoff at. Would it have been nice to get lyricism more on par with his Tim Westwood freestyle rather than something closer to a second-rate Sausage Party and Kidz Bop lovechild? Sure. But give the man his credit for raising money for various important charities.
Bianca Gracie: The amount of popular singers and rappers that Lil Dicky was able to secure for “Earth” is pretty impressive. I honestly didn’t know he had connections with all these people, so I have to commend him for pulling that off. I can only imagine how long the process took to make sure that these artists were able to get on the track.
Andrew Unterberger: I do kinda like Dicky's out-of-nowhere swerve into darkness at the end of the song, when Baboon Bieber's panicked "Are we really gonna die?" question is met with a none-too-comforting, "You know what, Bieber? We might die, I'm not gonna lie to you." It's the only moment in the song that approaches legitimate gravity, and it's pretty jarring.
Xander Zellner: Not only do a portion of the sales towards "Earth" go towards various environmental charities, notably the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation, but he actually cites the specific foundation in the song's lyrics -- rare for a charity single. The We Love the Earth website also features various explainer videos featuring Lil Dicky about climate change and how to help, which is nice.
5. Will "Earth" end up being better- or worse-remembered than the more straight-faced All-Star charity singles of the 21st century ("Just Stand Up," "We Are the World 25," Broadway for Orlando's "What the World Needs Now," etc.)?
Nolan Feeney: I think it will be just a blip on Internet history compared to those -- it's more like “Where Is the Love” with more dick jokes and less Fergie.
Josh Glicksman: Maybe this is a cop out response, but it doesn’t really feel fair to compare something like “Earth” to the rest of these. I guess it’ll be both better- and worse-remembered than the other tracks? Though the lyricism of “Earth” is definitely worse -- or at the very least, less important -- the animation adds a nice novelty to the whole thing. Also, it’s certainly the most memorable -- had any of these other singles rapped about baboon butts, they would’ve been both extremely inappropriate and more discussed. The objectives in all four of the charity singles may ultimately be the same (raise money and promote awareness), but Lil Dicky’s is unquestionably the one that’s most focused on remaining true to an artist’s brand.
Bianca Gracie: The straightforward charity singles will always prevail. Time and time again they have proven that the less fussy you are, the better. And they’re just more genuine — you can hear the passion and care these artists have for those causes. “Earth” ends up being too clunky and relies too much on silliness rather than getting an important message across to people that we have to take care of our planet. I keep saying this, but even with the weight of the features, the song still doesn’t come across as being earnest. I mean, this is the same guy that brought us “Freaky Friday” just a year prior. He hasn’t done anything that personally shows me he should be taken seriously.
Andrew Unterberger: I mean, for better or worse, I'll probably remember "My anus is huge" and "We forgive you, Germany" until the day I die. If I could single-handedly cure cancer by accurately singing any one line from "Just Stand Up!" my best bet would be to just sing the title phrase in some rousing manner and hope I was close enough.
Xander Zellner: At the most, it will be remembered as an innovative way to market charity singles towards young people and get them to care about serious issues and donate money. At the very least, it will be remembered when the next sta-studded single for a good cause is inevitably released, and it gets featured on a news-pegged Buzzfeed list titled “Our Top 10 Favorite All-Star Charity Singles.”