On this week’s Billboard Hot 100 chart, Ariana Grande debuts in the top spot with “7 Rings,” the springy, Rodgers & Hammerstein-indebted latest single from her upcoming thank u, next album. It’s her second No. 1 single, following “Thank U, Next,” and once again demonstrates Grande’s current enormity as one of only three artists (joining Mariah Carey and Drake) ever to debut multiple singles at No. 1 off the same album.
When “Thank U, Next” debuted atop the Hot 100 last November, the song snapped a 10-month streak of No. 1 singles either led by or featuring hip-hop artists, including Drake, Cardi B, Post Malone and Childish Gambino. In essence, rap has become the new pop music — R&B/hip-hop accounted for 30 percent of all on-demand streams in 2018, more than double any other genre — and the current top 10 of the Hot 100 reflects that fact, with songs by Travis Scott, Lil Baby & Gunna and multiple Post Malone tracks still in the top tier.
Yet the No. 1 success of “7 Rings” also arrives at a surprisingly fertile moment for traditional pop music — or, at the very least, music by traditional pop artists (more on that in a second) — at the top of the Hot 100. In between Grande’s “7 Rings” chart bow and “Thank U, Next” spending seven non-consecutive weeks in the penthouse, Halsey’s “Without Me” became her first solo chart-topper, and has spent two weeks at No. 1 thus far. The top half of the current Hot 100 includes songs by early to mid-2010s pop mainstays like Lady Gaga, Ellie Goulding and Sam Smith, and others featuring Selena Gomez, Normani and Bruno Mars. It makes sense that not every song in the upper reaches of the chart could fit snugly onto Rap Caviar, but there also appears to be more balance between pop artists and hip-hop artists at the top of the Hot 100 than at any point in the past 18 months.
There could be a simple explanation for this, of course: nearly every aforementioned pop artist is succeeding with songs that incorporate hip-hop and/or R&B elements. Upon its release earlier this month, “7 Rings” was immediately met with copycat claims: rapper Princess Nokia accused Grande of stealing her flow from her song “Mine” in a now-deleted video, while Soulja Boy called the singer a “thief” for the resemblance between “7 Rings” and his 2010 song “Pretty Boy Swag.” The specific degree of the song’s vibe-jacking rests in a disputable gray area — it’s the difference between appropriation and “appreciation,” as Lauren Michele Jackson deftly put it in her “7 Rings” deep dive for Vulture, and it’s an undestandably sensitive discussion, given its implications of race representation in popular music (and how the industry, and radio in particular, too often assigns genre by race).
Yet the hip-hop influence coursing through the song, from the trap-inspired percussion to the “woo” ad-libs to Grande’s flow in the chorus, remains undeniable. Grande has straddled the line between R&B and pop throughout her musical career, while seamlessly incorporating artists like Childish Gambino, Nicki Minaj and Future into her albums. “7 Rings” has raised eyebrows (and a few accusations) as Grande’s most brazen solo stab at hip-hop to date — but with a No. 1 debut, a gigantic first week on streaming services and a quick bow on the Radio Songs chart, it’s already well on its way to being one of the biggest hits of her career.
Meanwhile, Halsey’s “Without Me” and “Eastside,” her concurrent hit with Benny Blanco and Khalid, have both slowly accrued huge numbers on radio and streaming — becoming hits the old-fashioned way, in a sense — and both employ the crackling programmed beats that have become a hallmark of the singer’s sound, and fit comfortably on Top 40 radio alongside Drake and Post Malone. Goulding’s “Close To Me” boasts ad-libs and a verse from Rae Sremmurd’s Swae Lee; Smith gets a sultry assist from Normani on the rhythmic “Dancing with a Stranger”; and Gomez and Mars are parts of collaborations that include Cardi B and Gucci Mane, respectively. Gaga and Bradley Cooper’s “Shallow” represents one exception here, although sometimes you’re part of a pop culture phenomenon and become an outlier.
A more telling outlier? Ava Max’s “Sweet But Psycho,” which bumps up to No. 35 on this week’s Hot 100. The single from the little-known 24-year-old Milwaukee native became a smash overseas before slowly creeping up the U.S. charts over the past three months, and after one listen to its pristine, instantly repeatable chorus — “Oh, she’s sweet but a psycho, a little bit psycho/ At night she’s screamin’ ‘I’m-ma-ma-ma out my mind’” — it’s easy to understand why.
Yet “Sweet But Psycho” is a fascinating anomaly within modern pop music: there’s nothing else on the charts right now that sounds anything like it. With showy synths, campy lyrics and a bridge that lets Max belt a bit, the song’s a slice of danceable electro-pop straight out of 2010, a time when artists like Kesha, Katy Perry, Taio Cruz and Flo Rida were defining the sound of Top 40.
“Psycho” is a relic of a sonic style that hasn’t played a major factor in pop music in nearly a half-decade, which makes its burgeoning success in the States all the more jarring. The song is produced by Cirkut, a dominant studio force at the beginning of the 2010s, and Max has even drawn several comparisons to a young Lady Gaga both in sound and aesthetic (that “I’m-ma-ma-ma” contains at least a whiff of “Bad Romance,” right?). Pop radio, which has been slow and somewhat clumsy in its addition of hip-hop to its rotation in the age of streaming, is already embracing Max as a more traditional mainstream sound (“Psycho” moves to No. 23 on this week’s Pop Songs chart).
“Sweet But Psycho” could prove to be a harbinger of an electro-pop revival, or a total fluke that never rises to inescapability in America; either way, it will be interesting to monitor how ubiquitous, or inconsequential, it becomes over the next few months. As “7 Rings” marks the continuation of pop’s adoption and fusion of hip-hop and R&B sonics as a path forward in a time of rap domination, “Sweet But Psycho” exists farther down the chart as a potential case for more straightforward pop to coexist with and thrive alongside hip-hop. If “7 Rings” finds a classic star fashioning her sound into pop’s present, “Sweet But Psycho” mines its past to offer a surprising vision of its future.