Like many other young rappers experiencing tremendous success in 2018, Juice WRLD found early acceptance posting his songs to SoundCloud. Since first debuting on the service in 2015, he’s gained enough fans and followers to cross over to the larger streaming world (including Spotify, where his “Lucid Dreams” currently has 445 million plays), and even to scale the Billboard Hot 100, where “Dreams” currently sits at a new peak of No. 2 (on the chart dated Oct. 6).
But the runner-up placement for Juice WRLD’s breakthrough hit comes in part due to the song finding itself someplace few other rappers with career arcs like his have: mainstream radio. After hitting the top 10 of Billboard‘s Radio Songs chart for the first time last week, “Lucid Dreams” moves up to No. 9 this week, above the most recent hits by proven radio favorites Ariana Grande (“God Is a Woman”) and Imagine Dragons (“Natural”). Even more striking is which radio format is powering its run up the chart — while “Lucid Dreams” sits at No. 13 on this week’s R&B/Hip-Hop Airplay chart, it moves into the top ten this week on Pop Songs, a higher peak than it’s yet achieved on R&B/Hip-Hop Airplay.
This is more unusual than you might realize. While SoundCloud-reared MCs have scored their fair share of major hits on the Hot 100 — XXXTentacion’s “Sad!,” 6ix9ine’s “FEFE,” Lil Uzi Vert’s “XO Tour Llif3” and Lil Pump’s “Gucci Gang,” just to name a handful which have reached the chart’s top ten — their success has been heavily driven by streaming, with sales and radio rarely making a huge impact. Of the four artists just mentioned, the Radio Songs chart has been grazed only by Uzi (“XO Tour Llif3,” No. 30 peak) and Pump (“Gucci Gang,” No. 49) as lead artists, and only Uzi has appeared on Pop Songs, as a guest on Migos’ “Bad and Boujee” (No. 31). Hitting the top 10 of both charts is fairly unprecedented for such a rapper.
Yet it’s radio that’s helping propel “Lucid Dreams” to new heights in its 20th week on the Hot 100, continuing to grow the song’s profile as it also remains a fixture on Billboard‘s Streaming Songs chart (where it returns to the apex this week for a second frame). The song’s success may represent a rare midpoint in the Venn diagram between top 40 radio and SoundCloud rap, and perhaps a suggestion of how the two worlds can compromise to better work in tandem.
Why was “Lucid Dreams” the song to make the leap, though? Well, it helps that the song is fundamentally rooted in a more crossover-familiar brand of pop/rock, particularly via its core sample of Sting’s 1993 single “Shape of My Heart.” Not that Sting is anything like a core artist for top 40 radio in 2018 — even in ’93, the song failed to reach the Billboard Hot 100 — but the sample still gives the song cross-genre appeal, while also establishing it in an impressively rich legacy of other popular songs that have deployed the melancholy guitar hook, including singles by Nas (“The Message”) Carl Thomas (“Emotional”) and Craig David (“Rise and Fall”).
And it also helps a great deal that the song is, essentially, PG-rated. There’s no censor-baiting language in the song, and though it at least alludes to heavy subjects like depression and suicide, it doesn’t talk about them as explicitly or disturbingly as songs like “Sad!” or “XO Tour Llif3,” instead coming from pop and rock’s long-established tradition of mopey teen heartbreak (“You were my everything/ Thoughts of a wedding ring/ Now I’m just better off dead”). It’s also probably worth noting that while rap peers like 6ix9ine and XXXTentacion have been accused of real-life incidents of violence and misconduct that make their often-aggressive lyrics unpalatable for many, there’s no such controversies surrounding Juice WRLD to compound the light misogyny of “Lucid Dreams” (“Who knew evil girls have the prettiest face?”) into something more problematic.
Perhaps most importantly, “Lucid Dreams” is just a highly effective pop song — one that makes particular sense for 2018, but at its core could work in any era. It hits you with its massive, relentless, insidious chorus right away, and repeats instantly — then holds off on repeating again until near the song’s end, keeping you waiting for it through verses that are just as melodic and nearly as catchy. The beat is booming but lush, the production accessible but dreamlike, and the lyrics unquestionably sad, but never quite upsetting. It’s part of the same universe of drug-addled anthems of angst and heartbreak that helped make Lil Uzi Vert and XXXTentacion defining artists for this generation, but a little bit cleaner, a little bit brighter, a little less dangerous — generally, a little more radio-friendly.
Does the radio success of “Lucid Dreams” portend an entire top 40 invasion from the SoundCloud set, or will it go down as a crossover fluke? Time will tell, but from the overall success “Dreams’ is experiencing, it’s clear that finding that sweet spot between the listener bases for pop radio and hip-hop streaming is highly beneficial to all involved.
“We think they’re both really symbiotic and work together,” Tom Poleman, chief programming officer for iHeartMedia tells Billboard of the relationship between the radio and streaming spheres. “Juice WRLD, for example — there was a great early indicator that we [at radio] needed to pay attention to what was happening in the streaming world [with that song]. And then when you add on the massive audience of radio, then it feeds it back to streaming. And it just continues to get bigger and bigger.”