“They lose it when the DJ drops the needle.” So goes the last line of the hook of Rae Sremmurd’s “Black Beatles,” which jumps 16-9 on this week’s Billboard Hot 100 chart. It’s the first Top 10 hit for the hip-hop duo as well as featured artist Gucci Mane, and its recent success has resulted from a bunch of people standing very, very still when the DJ drops the needle.
“Black Beatles” has become the unofficial soundtrack of the Mannequin Challenge, a new viral craze in which people remain motionless while being filmed in amusing and impressively unsustainable positions. The #MannequinChallenge hashtag has been used over 2 million times on Twitter; Rae Sremmurd performed the stunt themselves at a Denver concert on Nov. 3, and have been saluting schools, celebs and striking twists on the phenomenon via their social media feeds. Although “Black Beatles” was not used in what appears to be the first Mannequin Challenge video — filmed at Edward H. White High School in Jacksonville and posted on Oct. 26 — the single has since been linked to hundreds of the clips, and its streaming numbers have skyrocketed because of the connection.
So, yes, the biggest hit of both Rae Sremmurd and Gucci Mane’s careers is now (and likely forever) linked to the spiritual sequel of the Ice Bucket Challenge. That’s nothing to be ashamed of, and the Sremmlets and Gucci are clearly having a blast leaning into the online trend as the song continues rising on the charts. But the novelty of this “Harlem Shake”-esque explosion also shouldn’t overshadow the sonic risk of “Black Beatles”: this song is brash and unabashedly strange, an idiosyncratic hip-hop summit that was swiftly conquering the Hot 100 long before the first #MannequinChallenge dropped two weeks ago. Rae Sremmurd, Gucci Mane and producer Mike WiLL Made-It cooked up one of the most inspired singles of 2016, by adhering to their weirdest instincts; in a fall full of pop formula, we desperately needed “Black Beatles” disrupting the Top 10.
Mike WiLL has concocted some downright peculiar beats for Rae Sremmurd’s Swae Lee and Slim Jxmmi outside to “Black Beatles.” The sinister bleep-bloop of “Unlock The Swag” and sparse, groaning “No Type” beat helped make the duo’s 2015 debut SremmLife so compelling, while this year’s SremmLife 2 is highlighted by bizarre piano hooks (“By Chance”) and zonked-out synths (“Do Yoga”). Yet “Black Beatles” finds a way to sound even more outlandish: it pairs the duo’s main appeal, euphoric adolescence, with a psychedelic haze that’s surreal even for their standards. Compared to more muscular 2016 trap hits, the “Black Beatles” beat glides, with a ticking rhythm and synths that sound evil but somehow inviting. Listen closely, and you’ll find that “Black Beatles” is closer to the Stranger Things theme than anything released this year from Drake, Future or Kanye West.
The ebullient chants of Rae Sremmurd’s signature hits — “No flex! Zone!,” “Unlock! The swag!” — here melt into a wistful collection of observations from Swae Lee, who follows the melody on the hook and shrugs off lyrics like “Young bull living like an old geezer / Quick release the cash, watch it fall slowly.” The hint of incompletion in the chorus, with Swae ending each line on a down note and echoing his own words in singsong falsetto, is its most fascinating feature, and balances out the meme nods and money talk of the verses. On another Rae Sremmurd song, for instance, Swae’s line “New day, new money to be made” would likely sound completely different; here, he sings it with a tinge of sadness before puffing out his chest and rattling off his credentials as a new-school legend. “Black Beatles” is a celebration of wealth and fame, but Mike WiLL’s spaced-out strumming gives it a complexity that intrigues on its first, tenth and fiftieth listen.
Speaking of intrigue: how great would an extended Gucci Mane-Rae Sremmurd project be, based solely on “Black Beatles”? This is Gucci’s first collaboration with the duo and, sandwiched in between their verses, his tossed-off wit sounds fantastic after Swae’s gentle croon, and before’s Jxmmi intense spitting. “I eurostep past a hater like I’m Rondo” is an all-timer; “Black man, yellow Lamb’, real-life goals” is oddly inspiring. More importantly, however, Gucci’s mere presence gives the song a different weight than an unassisted Rae Sremmurd track: he is a nimble, highly quotable veteran with the ability to lend some of his singular personality and then cede the floor. Capping off a triumphant year from an artist who started it behind bars, “Black Beatles” has become an unexpected commercial high point for Gucci, who simply did what he does best — pursuing the stranger corners of hip-hop.
But really, we need to zoom out and consider the importance of a song called “Black Beatles” hitting the Top 10 of the Hot 100, over a half-century after the Fab Four first ruled the chart. Rae Sremmurd and Gucci Mane are hardly the first artists to compare themselves to the most hallowed of all rock bands — Run-DMC famously (if confusingly) declared “There’s three of us, but we’re not the Beatles” on “King of Rock” over 30 years earlier. Even the term “Black Beatle” popped up six years ago in a Kanye West verse. Yet the way the Beatles are utilized here by the rappers, who brandish guitars in the music video and perform in front of screaming girls like they’ve been transported to some alternate-universe Ed Sullivan Show, is powerful in its gleeful subversion of rock tradition.
Rae Sremmurd is not pissing on the Beatles’ legacy with a line like “Black Beatle, bitch, me and Paul McCartney related!”; they’re smarter than that. Instead, they honor what the Beatles represent within the confines of pop music, as stylish hook designers who often ruminated on sex, drugs and being famous. “She’s a good teaser,” Jxmmi begins his verse, a sly reference to the Beatles’ “Day Tripper”; Swae’s opening line “I sent flowers, but you said you didn’t receive them,” may be a nod to the little-known rarity “Hello Little Girl,” if he’s really digging in the crates (and who are we to doubt that he is?). On their biggest and biggest-sounding hit to date, Rae Sremmurd is using bits of Beatles lore to posit themselves as rock gods of a different race and for a new generation. Irreverent? Maybe. But so is all great rock music.
In 2014, a popular Internet meme declared that the Atlanta rap trio Migos were better than the Beatles; a silly firestorm ignited online between rock purists and trolls. “Black Beatles” does not suggest that the quartet of Rae Sremmurd, Gucci Mane and Mike WiLL Made-It are better than the greatest band ever, but that they are the 2010s continuation of their audacity, swagger and ability to get young listeners screaming, at least in the space of four minutes and 52 seconds. Another popular Internet meme has expanded the reach of “Black Beatles” over the past two weeks, and may help it become the biggest song in the country. That’s cute. But even with its official endorsement from the Fab Four’s reigning heartthrob, ‘Black Beatles’ is much more than just Cute.