For this year’s update of our ongoing Greatest Pop Star by Year project, Billboard is counting down our staff picks for the top 10 pop stars of 2021 all this week and next. First, a salute to the artist who made the most impressive comeback this year: resurgent (and reinvented) pop star Sam Smith.
By 2015, Sam Smith’s name was synonymous with global success. The U.K. singer-songwriter achieved hits and acclaim in Britain as early as 2013 — and in 2014, that acclaim built to stateside recognition, after they released a career-defining single in “Stay With Me” and unveiled their debut album In the Lonely Hour. Capping the year off with their first U.S. tour, the star would go on to win four Grammys in ‘15, including a near-sweep the Big Four categories.
While Smith never lost the cultural capital they’d accrued at the outset of their career, the next half-decade saw diminishing returns for the singer. With hits becoming more sporadic and album sales trending in the wrong direction, it seemed as though Sam Smith’s star was dimming.
Yet 2022 proved the opposite — not only is Smith back, but they are reinventing their own fame. With the release of their first Hot 100 No. 1 single – one which reinvented their tried-and-true sound — and even more new music to come, 2022 may well be as important a year for Smith as their breakthrough year in the mid-‘10s.
Billboard’s Greatest Pop Stars of 2022:
Introduction & Honorable Mentions | Rookie of the Year: Steve Lacy | No. 10: Nicki Minaj | No. 9: Future | No. 8: Jack Harlow | No. 7: Doja Cat | No. 6: Lizzo | No. 5: Drake | No. 4: Beyoncé | No. 3: Taylor Swift | No. 2: Harry Styles | No. 1: Bad Bunny
Public transformation is perhaps something of a theme for Smith; in 2019, the singer publicly came out as non-binary. Changing their pronouns to “they/them,” Smith quickly captured the attention of the world as the most publicly recognized artist to identify as such.
Their first album after coming out, 2020’s Love Goes, didn’t appear to benefit much from that increased awareness — debuting at No. 5 on the Billboard 200 (compared to No. 2 and No. 1 debuts, respectively, for Lonely Hour and The Thrill of It All) and moving a mere 41,000 equivalent album units in its first week, the project was not the triumph that some had hoped it could be.
By the time 2022 had rolled around, the British singer understood that it was time for a change. In April, they unveiled their single “Love Me More,” a self-love anthem that appeared to safely straddle the two musical worlds that Smith has always inhabited — euphoric dance-pop (as in their breakthrough release “Latch” with Disclosure) and brooding ballads (“Stay With Me, “I’m Not the Only One,” etc). The lyrics and vocals of the single sounded like they could have been deep cuts off of their debut album, with Smith’s signature croon placed front and center. But in the background, a groovier, bass-and-drum-focused production hinted at something more.
Smith made it clear what their intention was when speaking to their fans about the song. In an Instagram post for the video — which celebrates chosen family, as Smith and a group of queer friends go out clubbing in London — Smith said the song marked “the beginning and the end of something.” The rest of their year would prove that sentiment right; gone was “the old Sam Smith,” now replaced by a newer, truer self with more confidence, a keener eye for trends, and the ability to follow-through with major results.
“Love Me More” performed largely the same way that their last few singles had — it reached a peak of No. 73 on the Hot 100 almost three months after its release, while growing a steady Top 40 radio audience, peaking at No. 34 on Billboard’s Radio Songs chart. It wasn’t the smash hit success that they may have hoped for, but “Love Me More” managed to put Smith’s name back in the pop conversation.
Speaking to Billboard for our August cover story, Smith revealed that the slow-burn, transitional appeal of “Love Me More” was, in fact, the point. “People sometimes come out the gate in such a big way,” they said, revealing that their fourth studio album was on its way. “This album, for me, is the best album I’ve ever made, and it’s the most excited I’ve ever been about [my work]. So, I really wanted to start things off in a kind way, because there’s some big messages on the record.”
Smith would go on to reveal that they had gotten involved on the production side of their new album, working with a team of producers to tweak their sound to create what they would go on to call their “first non-heartbreak album.” The defining theme of their upcoming work, they said, was “me doing exactly what I want to do,” and having a ball while doing it. “I think joy for me, and for a lot of queer people, is quite a dangerous place. We’re all masters of pain, and I think it’s actually a very courageous act to step into the queer joy of it all.”
It didn’t take long for them to follow through on their promise of “queer joy.” In a TikTok post midway through August, Smith showed themself in the studio with rising pop singer Kim Petras, playing a snippet of something new; a clanking industrial beat punctuated their voice as they wailed, “Mummy don’t know Daddy’s getting hot/ At the body shop/ Doin’ something unholy.”
For the first time in their career, Sam Smith went viral. In a matter of days, the chorus of their single “Unholy” was circulating TikTok, as users soundtracked their videos of everything from glow-ups to cosplay to thirst traps with it. In the four months since it was first shared, the sound has been used over 500,000 times.
“Unholy” naturally caught fans off guard — while dabbling in dance-pop was not necessarily new for Smith, the implicit eroticism of the lyrics signaled a complete tonal shift from the superstar. The innuendo and subtlety of past dance-adjacent hits like “Dancing With A Stranger” or “How Do You Sleep?” were gone, replaced by brazen sexuality and unbridled confidence.
Enjoying more buzz than they had ever experienced around an unreleased track, Smith finally unveiled “Unholy” in its entirety in September, complete with a gloriously queer, cabaret-inspired music video. The result of reinventing their image and sound was suddenly clear as day — “Unholy” debuted at No. 3 on the Hot 100, eventually overtaking Steve Lacy’s “Bad Habit” for the No. 1 position on the chart dated Oct. 29. The song even earned Smith their first Grammy nomination since their big night in 2015, for best pop duo/group performance.
Not only was this moment monumental for both Smith and Petras’ personally — the song marked both artists’ first No. 1 single — but it demonstrated a key milestone for queer performers; “Unholy” was the first song by publicly transgender or non-binary solo artists to go No. 1.
Breaking that record with “Unholy” also meant more than personal victory for Smith; by having the biggest hit of their career released after they’d been publicly out as non-binary for over three years, Smith effectively dispelled any dormant ideas of the “marketability” of queerness from label boardrooms of ages past. The song definitively proved that audiences aren’t turning away from LGBTQ art – if anything, they’re interested in hearing from voices that have often been left out of our pop milieu.
With a sudden burst of career momentum from a surprise smash-hit, Smith finally announced their new album Gloria in mid-October. Citing “emotional, sexual and spiritual liberation” as the album’s primary inspiration, Smith set a Jan. 27 release date for the LP. The project has already garnered plenty of attention, thanks in large part to Smith capitalizing on the viral success of “Unholy” by sharing short teasers of songs off the project in a series of TikTok clips.
It’s no small feat to become a near-overnight success at the outset of your music career; to replicate that success nearly a decade after your debut is practically unheard of. Yet Sam Smith proved that they are more than just the heartbroken balladeer persona that was pushed onto them after smash hits like “Stay With Me.” They are a preeminent voice of pop stardom, one who isn’t going anywhere any time soon