Drake's 'God's Plan' Was a Pop Classic All Along - Just One Specifically for 2018
When "God's Plan" originally debuted atop the Billboard Hot 100 with record streaming numbers, it seemed to many observers to be an achievement based more on Drake's unparalleled career momentum -- seven consecutive No. 1 albums on the Billboard 200 chart, more Hot 100 entries (both total and simultaneously) than any solo artist in history, including eight straight years on the chart -- than about the song's own specific merits.
"It’s hardly his best, even of the more straightforwardly pop Drake hits like 'Hotline Bling,' 'Hold On, We’re Going Home,' and 'One Dance,'" wrote Lindsay Zoladz of The Ringer in a not unrepresentative critical take on the song's chart success. "Something about the smash-hit status of 'God’s Plan' feels … by default." Complex's Alphonse Pierre, in a story about how the reception to "God's Plan" proves that Drake is "easily the most popular rapper in the game," was even more succinct in his dismissal, claiming the single "sounds like a throwaway next to his biggest hits."
Indeed, at first blush "God's Plan" didn't sound like the sort of song that traditionally demands multiple weeks atop Billboard's all-encompassing songs chart. But at this point, "God's Plan" isn't just a two- or three-week chart-topper, it's an 11-week champion -- one of only 24 such hits in Hot 100 history, and still with a sizable edge over the runner-up. It's now Drake's own longest-running No. 1 (of four), trumping all those other previously mentioned pop classics of his.
At this point, its success demands a much better explanation than Drake-because-Drake. And really, that explanation never totally held water in the first place, since it's not like Drake had a long-established pattern of debuting atop the Hot 100: Lest we forget, before "God's Plan," only one Drake entry as a lead artist even hit No. 1 on the Hot 100 -- "One Dance," a 10-week champ in 2016 -- while no other song off 2016's Views or its 2017 follow-up More Life even peaked in the listing's top five. (Drake's two other visits to the Hot 100's summit came as a featured performer on two singles by longtime collaborator Rihanna, "What's My Name?" in 2010 and "Work" in 2016.)
True, "God's Plan" undoubtedly benefited from a strong release strategy. The song dropped as the A-side of the two-song Scary Hours release on a Saturday in January after an extended period of (relative) Drake inactivity since More Life the March before, feeding off a thirst in Drake's fanbase that, by his standards, had gone largely unquenched. It instantly got a full promotional push across all streaming services, where Drake had long proven to reign supreme, and as the clear focus track of Scary Hours -- without, say, around 20 other surrounding tracks dropping at the same time, as happened with Views and More Life -- it was able to put up virtually unprecedented numbers.
That would've been sufficient to explain a couple weeks' worth of chart dominance, sure. But 11 weeks is longer than any artist can coast at No. 1 on name, rep and business acumen alone; at that point, it's a special song they're working with. And that's what "God's Plan" is -- a song that might've been tossed off as album filler in years past, but is essentially a perfect pop single for 2018.
When most people compare "Plan" unfavorably to the likes of "Hotline Bling" and "Hold On, We're Going Home" in pop terms, it's understandable, because the latter two songs fit much more neatly into what we traditionally consider pop music to be. They have instantly memorable choruses and instrumental hooks, their titles are catchphrases on their own, and their structures could be neatly diagrammed in mathematical terms that the likes of Max Martin and Steve Mac would nod at in recognition. They made sense everywhere on pop radio this decade, and with minor lyrical and instrumental tweaks, they could've made as much sense on top 40 in the '90s or '70s. ("Hotline Bling" even built its musical backbone from a sample of a major '70s crossover hit.)
"God's Plan" doesn't make sense as a timeless pop classic in those terms. It has no traditional chorus. It lacks an instrumental hook as infectious as the skanking organs to "Hotline Bling" or the whispering synths of "Hold On." Its structure is knotty and unconventional. Its title pops up at two points in the song, uttered twice each, with no real surrounding context made available. It runs 3:18, but feels a lot shorter, because once the song starts there are no real breaks from Drake's vocals -- until the 2:40 mark, where Drake's vocals exit entirely and the instrumental rides out for the track's remainder. That doesn't sound like pop music in 1978 or 1998, certainly.
It does, however, sound increasingly like pop in 2018. With the Hot 100's biggest metric, on average, now being streaming, and consumers favoring Spotify's most-played, the top of the chart is no longer solely the province of the radio-saturating Classic Pop Song -- and arguably hasn't been for five years, since streaming-friendly rule changes to the Hot 100's formulation allowed a grimy, underground trap instrumental to debut atop the chart. In the last year, such songs as Lil Pump's "Gucci Gang," Lil Uzi Vert's "XO Tour Llif3," XXXTentacion's "Sad!" and Cardi B's "Bodak Yellow (Money Moves)" have ascended to the chart's top 10, the latter a three-week No. 1 -- all streaming-friendly songs, some with sub-three-minute runtimes, some with decentralized or hidden-in-plain-sight choruses, most not needing significant assistance from radio on their way to becoming massive hits.
Like these songs, "God's Plan" might be lacking in some conventional pop hallmarks, but it has others that are quickly proving to be just as important. Its whooshing synth opening, which echoes throughout the track, guarantees that the song is instantly recognizable and exhilarating from its first seconds. The term "God's Plan" doesn't anchor a larger chorus, but it still proves a valuable mid-song mini-refrain in its own right. It's perhaps not a song designed for radio play, but it's an absolute dream for club or festival DJs, since the song's even momentum allows you to enter or exit it neatly at any moment -- and of course, the beat-free singalong break ("She said, 'Do you love me?'/ I tell her, 'Only partly...") ensures at least one floor-wide singalong, as exemplified even in the song's own music video. (It's a lesson possibly learned from Kendrick Lamar's similarly Hot 100-topping "Humble.," whose stickiest refrain isn't its relatively monotonous chorus, but Kendrick's opening-verse "My left stroke just went VYYYY-RALLLL!!!" a cappella callout.)
And about that music video: It'd be naive to downplay its significance in extending the reign of "God's Plan" from a multi-week Hot 100 No. 1 to a multi-month No. 1. Dropping a little less than a month into the song's run, the charity-themed clip lent its accompanying single a valuable narrative hook -- "Drake gives away a million dollars!" -- and inspired a series of carved-out memes and .gifs, as most Drake videos are wont to do. But most importantly, it drew out a feel-good vibe within what is otherwise a largely melancholy song ("It's a lot of bad things that they wishin' on me"), allowing it to sound as exultant on a Saturday night as it is comforting the morning afterwards.
Unlike 20 years ago, when an unavoidable MTV clip like Jamiroquai's "Virtual Insanity" could still fail to send the song to the Hot 100 if pop radio (and sales, pre-streaming) didn't follow suit, "God's Plan" becoming a runaway YouTube hit can reinforce its own chart success as a single -- but again, that usually lasts for just a couple weeks of virality. It only maintains for this long if the video helps bring out and reinforce what people might not have even realized they loved about the song in the first place. Eleven weeks in, with the song's presence on top 40 radio now growing in light of its presence in streaming, as well as sales -- the song reaches a new peak of No. 8 of Billboard's Pop Songs chart this week, while holding at No. 4 on the all-genre Radio Songs chart -- it's fair to say the clip is having that effect.
And it might not be the only one. Drake has provided a challenge to his own Hot 100 supremacy with the late-Friday (April 6) release of "Nice for What," another unconventional, circuitous pop song with an eye- and headline-catching music video -- one that, in its own feminist way, is nearly as triumphal as "God's Plan." This time, he released the clip simultaneously with the song itself, making the blinding star power and overwhelming glamour of the visual instantly inextricable from the joyousness of the music, feeding one into another and ensuring that the anthem is already getting Song of the Summer buzz barely a couple weeks into spring.
It's the ultimate compliment to "God's Plan" that even 11 weeks from its debut atop the Hot 100, Drake couldn't afford a similarly languid rollout with his follow-up if he hopes to overtake that song, and it's the ultimate compliment to "Nice" that it might actually succeed in doing that -- the song is currently No. 1 on both the iTunes real-time charts and the Spotify US Top 50, while the music video has already racked up 12 million views on YouTube (with the song having drawn over 20 million total U.S. clicks in just its first three days). But even if Drake manages to replace himself at No. 1 on the Hot 100, it won't just be because of brand-name recognition: It's because Drake understands better than any other artist in 2018 what music listeners want and how to give it to them, and because he has the songs with with which to execute his plan.