For those wondering if the top spot on the Billboard Hot 100 was going to end up being a nearly year-long relay of Drake handing off the baton to himself, Monday (May 14) brought with it resounding news of a new competitor surging ahead in the race: Childish Gambino, whose incendiary “This Is America” single debuts at No. 1 on the chart this week.
The debut is a huge achievement for Gambino — a.k.a. cross-platform phenom Donald Glover — and also a particularly telling one for where both the Hot 100 and pop music in general are at in 2018. Here are five lessons we can learn from Gambino’s remarkable No. 1 bow.
Both Donald Glover and Childish Gambino are now officially superstars. Glover’s stardom bonafides were solidified by last year’s awards season — where he cleaned up at the Emmys and Golden Globes for his acting and directing work on Atlanta‘s rapturously acclaimed first season — and will likely only grow with his introduction to the Star Wars universe as young Lando Calrissian in this month’s Solo. And he was on the precipice of getting to such status under his musical alter ego, too: His “Redbone” was a slow-burning crossover hit on the Hot 100 in 2017, and 2016’s Awaken, My Love! LP made him one of the most nominated artists at last year’s Grammys, even though his only win ended up being for best traditional R&B performance.
But this is still new ground for Gambino. As big as “Redbone” was, it tapped out at No. 12 on the Hot 100 — and that was still by far his biggest hit on the chart prior to “America,” with the singer-rapper never before getting higher than No. 64 (“V. 3005,” 2014) with his three previous entries. To get to No. 1 in its first week — an incomplete week, no less, since the song only debuted around midnight ET on Sunday morning (May 6), nearly two whole days into the tracking period — is a major level-up, the kind of feat only a handful of 2018 artists would be capable of pulling off. And now, Gambino is unquestionably in that class of pop’s elite performers.
SNL matters. Even while streaming continues to surge, it’s been a while since a Saturday Night Live performance helped launch a hit on anywhere near the same level as “This Is America,” and it likely couldn’t have done it alone, without the song and accompanying video also premiering on streaming around the same time that night. Still, “America” shows how a platform like SNL can be best utilized: Gambino made an event out of his new songs, not only debuting them with livewire performances, but also staging them artfully with visuals that tied into the official “America” video, and even getting star buds like Zoe Kravitz and Daniel Kaluuya to intro them, why not. With his anticipated SNL performance leading into his unanticipated official drop, Glover was able to own Saturday night, and eventually, the entire week to come.
Music videos matter. It was only last year we felt like we were at something of a low end for the relevance of the music video, with the relatively lackluster nominees at the 2017 MTV Video Music Awards almost serving as a tacit admission that the medium had just become a vessel for star artists to keep their faces out there, without adding much to either their own artistry or the format’s incredibly rich legacy. But the script has unquestionably flipped in 2018, and the last three Hot 100 No. 1s — Drake’s “God’s Plan” and “Nice for What,” and now Gambino’s “America” — all show the potential and enduring importance of the video, as all three were paired with much-discussed, much-memed clips whose visuals all became quickly inextricable from the songs they accompanied.
The case of “This Is America” is particularly striking, since the video quickly overwhelmed both Gambino’s SNL performance and the song itself as the flashpoint for “America” discussion. Many hailed the video as a necessary statement for the politically and socially muddy times of 2018, others decried the clip as inflammatory and asked if Glover even understood what statement he was really making with it. But all the debate just led to more views: In its first tracking week alone, the “America” video racked up 65.3 million U.S. streams in its first five days, with video accounting for an atypically whopping 68 percent of that sum, according to Nielsen Music. That’s incredible for any artist, let alone one not particularly known as an MTV icon — “Redbone,” previously Gambino’s biggest hit, never even received an official video — and it shows how much power the format still has in the star-making process.
Radio isn’t essential to hit No. 1 on the Hot 100 anymore. Stark when viewing the trends of the last three Hot 100 No. 1s is how relatively little an impact radio has played in their coronations. Forget “This Is America,” which debuts atop Billboard‘s Streaming Songs and Digital Song Sales charts this week but does not yet appear on Radio Songs, and hell, forget “Nice for What,” which finally enters the top 10 on Radio Songs in its fifth week. Even “God’s Plan” — which debuted nearly four months ago at this point — is still stuck at No. 3 on the chart (behind Zedd, Maren Morris and Grey’s “The Middle” and Bebe Rexha and Florida Georgia Line’s “Meant to Be”), having climbed there four weeks earlier, after having already given way to “Nice for What” atop the Hot 100.
This is hardly to say that radio doesn’t still have an enormous impact on the Hot 100: “The Middle” and “Meant to Be” were both able to reach the chart’s top five largely thanks to the format’s embrace, becoming the current and previous Radio Songs No. 1s, respectively. But Drake and Childish Gambino’s recent takeover is a pretty clear indicator of how radio’s relative slowness in catching up to the songs most popular on streaming services is making it increasingly marginalized as a factor in crowning the chart’s weekly champion. (Of course, many top-streaming songs lean hip-hop and are, thus, not in the wheelhouse of pop radio until they’ve proven mass appeal over multiple weeks.) By the time these songs become unavoidable on the airwaves, the Spotify and Apple consumers of the world have already moved on to the next sensation, or maybe even the one after that.
Pop music is finally getting topical in 2018. In the current politically divisive climate — to say the least — many have wondered where all the great protest songs are, the type that supposedly topped the charts non-stop amidst the unrest of the ’60s and early ’70s. The latter perception has always been an exaggeration — even Marvin Gaye’s definitive Vietnam War-era protest classic “What’s Going On” was held at No. 2 on the Hot 100, by two distincly less timely chart-toppers in The Temptations’ “Just My Imagination (Running Away With Me)” and Three Dog Night’s “Joy to the World” — but now, finally, this generation has a Hot 100 No. 1 of its own to point to as evidence of its musical wokeness.
“This Is America” isn’t explicitly a protest song, but its lyrics — from the “This is America/ Don’t catch you slippin’ now” refrain of the verses to the “Get your money, black man” chant of the chorus — bear the obvious weight of recent news headlines and social debates, on topics like gun violence and racially charged police confrontations. And if not obvious from the song, these themes were drawn out in shocking detail in the song’s video, which includes Gambino gunning down a black choir and ends with him seemingly running for his life.
Gambino’s handling of these themes has proven understandably controversial, but at the very least, it’s undeniable that he’s sparking conversation about them — which, with Kendrick Lamar’s “Humble.” standing as perhaps the lone arguable exception, is more than can be said for any of the other Hot 100 No. 1s of the Donald Trump era.