There’s no denying the cultural and social impact of Beyoncé’s Lemonade, but the collection also yielded an unexpected side effect: less rhythm and pop radio airplay for a superstar accustomed to locking in No. 1 singles. The last time a Beyoncé-led track hit the top spot on a non-R&B/Hip-Hop airplay chart or the Rhythmic Songs tally? “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)” on the Pop Songs chart in 2009.
In contrast, radio still loves recurrents by Beyoncé. “Drunk in Love” and “Love on Top” logged 203 and 181 plays, respectively, at R&B/hip-hop radio in the week ending Feb. 12, according to Nielsen Music. During that same period, “Single Ladies” racked up 178 plays at pop radio, followed by “Crazy in Love” at 160 plays.
So far, Lemonade’s biggest hit has been the track “Sorry,” which peaked at No. 33 on Pop Songs; it reached No. 3 on R&B/Hip-Hop Airplay in July 2016. Label Columbia Records, meanwhile, is five singles in on the album and currently working the more pop-friendly “All Night.” It sits at No. 23 on R&B/Hip-Hop Airplay but is absent from Pop Songs. At this point, Lemonade is on track to become the first Beyoncé album without a No. 1 single on a Billboard airplay chart — even the R&B/Hip-Hop rankings (despite its three top 10s on R&B/Hip-Hop Airplay).
What’s radio’s reluctance to play new Beyoncé about? And did it have anything to do with her Grammy miss in the marquee race for album of the year?
“Beyoncé sells a ton of albums, which is the hardest thing to do,” says Columbia chairman/CEO Rob Stringer of Lemonade, which has sold 1.6 million copies to date, per Nielsen Music. “The fact is that pop is sung by young teen-based artists and Beyoncé did all that 15 years ago with Destiny’s Child. Do I think radio should be playing her more? Of course, I do. Does that make her less of an artist? Of course, it doesn’t.”
When asked about the disconnect, one major label urban promotion VP theorizes that Beyoncé’s outward expression of her feelings from the African-American perspective was a little too strong for pop radio to embrace. After the release of the “Formation” video and the singer’s 2016 Super Bowl performance paying tribute to the Black Lives Matter movement, police officers across the country called for a boycott of her tour. Then the singer received more backlash when she performed on the Country Music Awards with the Dixie Chicks.
“There are a litany of things that took place with this project,” says one major-market R&B/hip-hop program director. “As a result, some pop music directors and program directors were probably like, ‘Well, she’s on #BlackLivesMatter and other things, so why am I going to put her on my radio station?’”
Pointing to the “great divide” between what’s considered rhythm and pop and what’s considered urban, a major label promotion VP adds, “When you think about a star of her caliber, you would think those lines would go away.”
R&B/hip-hop radio, however, “supported her wholeheartedly on this project,” emphasizes the program director. “Her records do extremely well for us. And there really was no pop record to jump on.” (As it is, “All Night” only logged one play on Top 40 radio this week, versus the 1,701 spins it got at R&B/Hip-Hop.)
Does pop radio airplay matter, ultimately, when, as a touring artist, Beyonce’s latest domestic trek, Formation, earned $256 million (according to Billboard Boxscore) and when her critically acclaimed Lemonade became Beyonce’s sixth consecutive studio LP to bow at No. 1 on the Billboard 200?
Says Stringer: “At the end of the day, the penetration of her music and vision is everywhere. If pop radio’s not on that then more fool them because they’re wrong.”