This week, Atlantic Records celebrated two significant hip-hop arrivals on the charts, from two artists at different points in their career.
Pooh Shiesty, the young upstart from Memphis, landed his first No. 1 on the Top Rap Albums chart with his debut, Shiesty Season, while the project’s lead single “Back In Blood” feat. Lil Durk climbed into the top 20 of the Hot 100, at No. 17. Meanwhile, one of the label’s resident superstars, Cardi B — who at this point is almost a slam dunk on the charts with each release — roared back with her first solo single in nearly two years, and first since last summer’s earth-shaking Megan Thee Stallion collab “WAP,” as her latest song “Up” debuted at No. 2 on the Hot 100 while topping a slew of other charts.
Each release represents a triumph of a different kind for Atlantic, which has a strong recent track record of developing young rappers into established hit-makers. And the twin successes help Atlantic’s GM and senior vp A&R Lanre Gaba earn the title of Billboard’s Executive of the Week.
“There’s so much faceless music that’s out right now — songs that come in and out of playlists and people have no idea what the artists even look like,” says Gaba, who also stresses that “to truly break a career artist, you need A&R, marketing and artist development.”
Here, the longtime exec — who was also honored as part of Billboard’s 2020 Hip-Hop/R&B Power Players in November and as a Change Agent stepping forward to help lead the music industry during a year of turmoil in January — talks the success of Cardi and Pooh Shiesty, the importance of timing and space in music releases and the “amazing boss women” who make up Atlantic’s brain trust.
Pooh Shiesty landed his first No. 1 on the Rap Albums chart with his debut, Shiesty Season. What key decisions did you make to help him achieve that?
A major key decision was not rushing to put out the mixtape. Gucci signed Pooh to the New 1017/Atlantic in April 2020. There were definitely moments last year where we thought about putting out a tape. Once we started to see the momentum, we made a conscious decision to keep building up the anticipation for Shiesty Season. Most importantly, we wanted to have a real plan. From the moment he signed, we kept consistently dropping music and videos. While all of this music was dropping, Carla Pagano in marketing did an amazing job connecting all the dots — Pooh’s trajectory is a testament to real marketing and artist development. Gucci dropped two compilation projects last year — So Icy Summer and So Icy Gang Vol. 1 — that we used as launching pads for Pooh and all of the other artists on the New 1017. Gucci being involved opened up a lot of doors and we were able to leverage looks we wouldn’t have otherwise gotten for a newer artist. The best part was that Pooh and his manager Mob Boss trusted us and the process.
Pooh also has his first top 20 single on the Hot 100, with “Back In Blood” climbing steadily over the past six weeks to reach No. 17. What has been the strategy there?
So Icy Gang Vol. 1 dropped in October and our original plan was to drop Pooh’s tape around his birthday in November. We decided to push it to top of the year and take our time setting the project up. We dropped “Back In Blood” instead. There was so much about that record that really connected right away — that hook, those “blrrds” in the ad libs, the piano chords in the beat plus where Durk’s trajectory was at the time. It all came together in the right way at the right time. The song was bubbling over the holiday and by the time we dropped the video Jan. 2, it just took to the song to another level. This song was a great entry point for all of the new people who were starting to pay attention to Pooh.
Cardi B’s latest single “Up” — her first song since “WAP” in the summer — just debuted at No. 2 on the Hot 100. Was the gap between singles a conscious strategy from the beginning or one that was determined along the way?
“WAP” had such commercial and cultural impact. Those types records stay in the conversation for a really long time. We knew from the beginning that we could take our time to get to the next record.
“Up” came in at No. 1 on both Digital Song Sales and Streaming Songs charts, plus cracked the Radio Songs chart in its first week. How did you set up the rollout to achieve such a huge debut?
Marsha St. Hubert, our head of marketing, runs that show. You have to get her Black girl magic secrets from her… LOL. When Cardi is rolling something out, she, Julie [Greenwald] and [Mike] Kyser get the entire company — in the States and around the world — behind it.
Cardi is the first woman with consecutive No. 1 debuts on the Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart in its 20-plus year history. How significant is that achievement for you guys?
We are so proud of Cardi! She has worked so hard for everything she’s ever accomplished. We are a company led by a lot of amazing boss women and we couldn’t be more excited to be a part of that legacy.
Pooh Shiesty is a new artist, and Cardi now has at least one top 10 single in each of the last five years. What are the keys to taking an artist with a strong beginning in their career and helping them achieve an extended run of success?
There’s so much faceless music that’s out right now — songs that come in and out of playlists and people have no idea what the artists even look like. To truly break a career artist, you need A&R, marketing and artist development. Without great music, you can’t compete in the long term. But once you have music, you need to make people care about the artist. It requires vision, creativity and a constant investment towards helping an artist be best of class.