'Black Beatles' Is the No. 1 Song the Country Needs Right Now: Critic's Take

Rae Sremmurd photographed in 2016.
Diwang Valdez

Rae Sremmurd photographed in 2016.

Yes, it's true: The Chainsmokers and Halsey are no longer No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100. After a virtually unchallenged 12-week reign that had Billboard wondering if Mariah Carey and Boyz II Men should start sweating their all-time record for longest stay on top, "Closer" has been toppled by a song that was lurking underneath the whole time: Rae Sremmurd and Gucci Mane's "Black Beatles."

The track, which climbed into the top ten last week in its ninth frame on the Hot 100, rides a surge in downloads and streams to the chart's highest position, largely propelled by its association with the ultra-viral Mannequin Challenge phenomenon.

The chart topping is a major achievement for all involved. It's the relatively green hip-hop duo's first Hot 100 No. 1 -- Rae Sremmurd previously peaked at No. 16 with "No Type" in late 2014 -- and it's also long-esteemed ATLien Gucci Mane's first trip to the top, easily besting his previous No. 14 high as a guest rapper on Mario's 2009 single "Break Up." More surprisingly, it's the first time that superproducer Mike Will Made-It has reached the summit: Despite being one of the most seemingly Top 40-omnipresent producers of the '10s, the hip-hop innovator had never gotten past runner-up on the Hot 100, reaching No. 2 with Miley Cyrus' "We Can't Stop" in 2013.

But the moment of triumph shouldn't just be contained to those actually responsible for the song -- the rest of us should be pretty pumped, too. First and foremost, it's a great song: As Billboard's Jason Lipshutz wrote last week, "'Black Beatles' is a bizarre, alluring and absolutely inspired concoction, one that cleverly places itself within pop lore without being overly referential or irreverent. It's undoubtedly one of the singular pop singles of 2016, a song everyone engaged with pop culture will still associate with the year decades from now, and as deserving a Hot 100 No. 1 as any other song to assume pole position on the chart in the last ten months.

It's also a vital, quintessentially youthful song, which is extremely welcome in this oncoming era of social conservatism. Though both brothers Khalif "Swae Lee" Brown and Aaquil "Slim Jxmmi" Brown are now of legal voting age, as an entity Rae Sremmurd remains decidedly new-wave, part of Atlanta's bumper crop of young MCs who are less concerned with paying fealty to hip-hop history than they are with blowing out the genre's formalistic constraints to their own thrilling, individualistic ends. Which isn't to say that the Chainsmokers and Halsey were stodgy and back-to-basics, either -- "Closer" was, in some ways, a blockbusting song in its own right -- but after 12 weeks, any song becomes Establishment. Change was needed, and change was delivered.

What makes the change of the guard at the Hot 100's top particularly gratifying at the end of this election season, though, is that it really feels like chart democracy at work. "Black Beatles" would've been nobody's bet for The Chainsmokers' biggest threat back in October, when it was slowly scaling the chart's upper half, and all but ignored by radio. But in November, thanks to the unpredictable runaway success of the Mannequin Challenge -- which the song fits beautifully with the eerie, hypnotic sonics of its intro -- "Beatles" has been consumed by such a large part of the country that the fact that the song is still barely present on radio is mostly irrelevant. The people have voted with their YouTube, Spotify and iTunes accounts, and Rae Sremmurd is their rightfully selected chief. (Gucci for VP!)

And yet, despite this feeling of a coup d'etat on the pop charts, Rae Sremmurd doesn't totally disconnect from the other side. "Black Beatles" is all about finding common ground between the old and the new: "Young bull living like an old geezer," as Swae Lee expresses on the song's hook. Rae Sremmurd don't look to dismiss The Beatles (once the leading cultural voices of teenage rebellion, now as representative of the pop aristocracy as it gets) but rather to salute the band's legacy, and place themselves on the same musical continuum, another group of brazen young'ns capable of getting the kids screaming and the parents shaking their heads in disbelief. And as much as the duo have reached across the aisles of genre, race and generation, the former ruling class has reached back: Paul McCartney even performed his own Mannequin Challenge video, paying homage to the song's lyric "me and Paul McCartney related" and captioning it "Love those Black Beatles."

"Black Beatles" is certainly not an explicitly political song, and the duo might understandably roll their eyes at any reading of their now-signature hit that suggests that it is. But even if it's not a traditional protest song, it carries with it a lot of what makes protest music great: namely, the feeling of a new voice unafraid of poking at The Powers That Be, one capable of galvanizing the youth, and expressing and exemplifying the cultural elements that unite us, rather than tear us apart.