There Has Never Been a No. 1 Hit Like Travis Scott's 'Sicko Mode' (Except Maybe Once in 1974)

Jenny Regan 
Travis Scott onstage at Madison Square Garden on Nov. 28, 2018.

Cross Travis Scott's name off the list of the biggest stars without a Hot 100 No. 1 hit. This week, the ascendant hip-hop A-lister plugs one of the few remaining holes on his resume with his Astroworld single "Sicko Mode" climbing to No. 1.

It's a hard earned Hot 100-topper: "Sicko" reaches No. 1 in its 17th week on the chart, having debuted at No. 4 back in August and spending four non-consecutive weeks at No. 2. In the past week, Scott also released a new Skrillex-helmed remix version of the smash hit, and even pleaded with audiences during a recent sold-out show at New York's Madison Square Garden that they had to help get the song to pole position. (With the imminent debut of the music video for Ariana Grande's "Thank U, Next" -- the previous three-week-reigning No. 1 -- last Friday, Nov. 30, competition was about to get much tougher at the chart's top.)   

The song's journey to No. 1 has been long-winding enough that it may have overshadowed just how unlikely it remains that it was even in range in the first place. Despite Scott's recent graduation to superstar status with the blockbuster numbers posted by Astroworld, which debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 albums chart in August with 537,000 in equivalent album units earned -- before 2018, he'd never even scraped the Hot 100's top ten as a lead artist, coming closest with the No. 16-peaking "Antidote" in 2015, and with his sole appearance in the chart's top tier coming via a guest spot on Drake's "Portland" (No. 9, 2017). But "Sicko Mode" is one of four such hits Scott has launched to the region this year alone -- also including his own No. 8-debuting "Stargazing," and feature credits on Kodak Black's "ZEZE" (No. 2) and Lil Wayne's "Let It Fly" (No. 10). 

And as big as it's gotten, there's no disguising how weird "Sicko Mode" is as a pop song. It's a five minute, three-part odyssey, one which short-circuits its own opening (courtesy of Drake, currently the most successful rapper in the world, whose name does not even appear on the song's official listing) just as it starts to gain momentum. The song's three segments are almost entirely discreet from one another, with little obvious connective tissue melodically, rhythmically or even thematically -- though both sections featuring verses from Scott do include a Jamba Juice reference, for whatever that's worth -- and the transitions between the three are jarring by design, making the song every bit the rollercoaster ride you'd expect from Astroworld's marquee attraction. It should be virtually impossible to play on radio.

Yet not only is it now topping the Hot 100 -- largely thanks to its prowess on streaming (returning to its No. 2 peak on the Streaming Songs chart this week) and sales (reaching a new peak of No. 2 on Digital Song Sales) -- it's catching on with radio, too, recently climbing into the Radio Songs top 10, and even entering the Pop Songs top 20. It says something both about Scott's influence as a trendsetter, and about the currently free-form state of mainstream hip-hop at the moment, that such an unconventional single could reach such pop omnipresence. (It should also be noted that hip-hop's trending towards shorter songs in general -- as well as rap radio's tendency to transition in and out of songs at a faster churn than other genres -- may also play a part here, since radio DJs can avoid the bumpier parts of "Sicko Mode" by playing just one of its three segments at a time.) 

Regardless, as unusual as "Sicko Mode" is as a No. 1, it's not totally without precedent in Hot 100 history -- even going outside of this century, or the hip-hop world at large. In 1974, Paul McCartney and Wings scored a one-week Hot 100-topper with "Band on the Run," opening theme to their '73 album of the same name: again, a five-minute, three-part mini-epic whose sections smash into each other without much warning about the sharp turns ahead. The different segments of "Band" may be a little more thematically connected, roughly telling the story of the titular group of law-evading bandits, but listening to it provides the same sort of sidewinding rush as "Sicko Mode," an unpredictable journey that's as exhilarating as it is confusing.

Of course, 44 years after its chart peak, endless classic rock replay has normalized "Band on the Run" to the point where it's almost hard to imagine a time when the song might've been considered daring or unorthodox. But it's possible to imagine a world in which decades from now, the same becomes true of "Sicko Mode" -- where hundreds of listens into the song, neither Drake's early-song exit, nor the dramatic beat switches or mid-song dissolves feel at all extraordinary, and it just starts to feel like, well, classic rap. Even if so, following the path of longevity set out by arguably rock's greatest living legend -- and one of its most inventive architects -- would be a pretty impressive standard for Travis and "Sicko Mode" to set. 

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