Billboard is celebrating the 2010s with essays on the 100 songs that we feel most define the decade that was — the songs that both shaped and reflected the music and culture of the period — with help telling their stories from some of the artists, behind-the-scenes collaborators and industry insiders involved.
Behind every major hit are industry executives taking notes on how to reproduce it. There are countless metrics that factor into a song’s success, with strategic timing, keenly-placed sonic elements and handpicked collaborations all playing a role.
And while all three components contribute to the prosperity of Rae Sremmurd’s 2016 smash “Black Beatles,” sometimes the best thing a track can have going for it is that it’s simply fun as hell. Such is the case for the duo’s five-minute hypnotic jam turned viral sensation. Coated in juvenile rockstar nonchalance, the song is a masterclass in how to cater a sticky, hook-riddled track to the digital age.
“Beatles” came together past the buzzer — it was submitted five days after turning in the rest of sophomore LP SremmLife 2 to Interscope Records while making one last-ditch effort for a captivating hit. Rae Sremmurd, comprised of brothers Swae Lee and Slxm Jimmi, and producer Mike Will Made-It, whose résumé also includes hits with Beyoncé (“Formation”), Kendrick Lamar (“HUMBLE”) and Rihanna (“Pour It Up”), certainly found it with the bouncy, turn-on-a-dime-track that ended up as the third single on the studio album.
After debuting on the Hot 100 the first week of October 2016, it steadily scaled up the chart for the next two months, ultimately snagging the top slot in the last week of November 2016. It marked the first time atop the chart for Rae Sremmurd, Mike Will and featured artist Gucci Mane alike, and the surrounding company felt just as significant to the crew as the accomplishment did. It was a full circle moment: Guwop was the first major artist to rap on Mike Will’s beats, and the superproducer was the one to sign the Mississippi-originating rap duo.
“It was dope because we’re all a squad,” Swae Lee tells Billboard. “It was like bringing a win back to the home team.”
Of course, the song’s leap from popular hit to inescapable sensation can largely be attributed to the Mannequin Challenge. The viral craze, during which participants stand frozen (à la mannequins) as the camera pans around to capture the various poses, originated in October 2016 at a Jacksonville, Florida high school. Though “Black Beatles” wasn’t linked to the first Mannequin Challenge, it quickly became its unofficial soundtrack, with Rae Sremmurd jumping in on the trend at a Nov. 4 concert in Denver. The challenge subsequently blew up, spreading to celebrities, pro sports teams and presidential candidates. Even original Beatle Paul McCartney got in on the fun.
— Swae Lee Lee Swae (@SwaeLee) November 4, 2016
It hardly feels coincidental that “Black Beatles” profited as one of the first songs to become inseparably intertwined with the digital age and the world of social media — its youthful ebullience embodies an adolescent mixture of carefully measured rebelliousness and pure bliss. Sure, Baauer’s “Harlem Shake” experienced a similar explosion linked to virality in 2013, but “Black Beatles” stood taller on its own before the craze as a powerhouse of a song. It demonstrated the potential for genre-bending sonic elements in rap music, which ultimately spurred the genre’s dominance both on digital streaming platforms and subsequently the Hot 100 for the next few years to come.
“I really feel like it’s bridging the gap between hip-hop and people having this stigma on hip-hop,” Slxm Jimmi said in a 2016 Billboard interview. “I feel like it’s a certain way that a rap record has to be and I think we’re proving that there’s no rules.”
Before its time atop the Hot 100, Billboard wrote, “‘Black Beatles’ is a bizarre, alluring and absolutely inspired concoction, one that cleverly places itself within pop lore without being overly referential or irreverent.” More than three years later, the assessment rings true — save for a debatably-outdated nod to Rajon Rondo’s eurostepping aptitude, the song eludes any watermark of existing firmly in the time in which it was created. Instead, it packs an entire party’s worth of energy into a five-minute audio clip with one euphonious hook after the next. Even as song lengths have trimmed significantly in the years since its release, “Black Beatles” still wheels and deals as effectively and punchily as any track in 2019.
“Like, the energy is there — the melody, the beat is crazy,” Swae offers. “It’s actually a good song. People aren’t making good songs anymore. They just sounding like somebody else.”