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SZA Leads RCA Records to Historic Top Four Takeover on Rhythmic Airplay Chart

The singer claims her first No. 1 as a lead act, while RCA completes the first top-four shutout in a decade.

SZA conquers the No. 1 spot on Billboard’s Rhythmic Airplay chart for the first time as a lead artist as “I Hate U” ascents from No. 3 to lead the list March 19. The new champ is just one achievement for the RCA record label, which matches a historic feat by occupying the chart’s top four positions.

“I Hate U” rallies thanks to a 16% increase in plays in the week ending March 13 compared with the prior week, according to Luminate, formerly  MRC Data. The new leader is SZA’s second time in the summit, following her featured spot on Doja Cat’s “Kiss Me More,” which led for two weeks in 2021.

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SZA’s single trades places with Latto’s “Big Energy,” which slides 1-3 after it banked seven nonconsecutive weeks in charge. Between the two, Doja Cat climbs 4-2 with “Woman,” the result of a 13% gain in weekly plays. Below that, Chris Brown’s “Iffy” lifts 5-4 in its eighth week on the list, with a 4% improvement in plays for the week.

As all four titles belong to RCA Records, the label completes the first lockdown of the chart’s top four in more than a decade. The only previous instance of a top-four domination came from Republic Records on the chart dated Nov. 5, 2011, thanks to Drake’s “Headlines,” Dev’s “In the Dark,” and two Lil Wayne tunes: “She Will,” featuring Drake, and “How to Love.”

“This is a really special and rare occasion,” Keith Rothschild, RCA’s Co-Head Promotion, tells Billboard in an emailed statement. “A label hasn’t occupied the top four spots at Rhythm radio in over 10 years. To strategize, maneuver and execute was incredible to be a part of.”

The quartet of Rhythmic hits combines artists in different stages of their careers – SZA, whose latest records, including “I Hate U,” have emerged first as major streaming successes before their move to radio, and veteran Brown, who has found new radio resurgence across all formats in the past three years. Newcomer Latto is enjoying the biggest hit of her young career, while Doja Cat is riding a wave of hit singles from her Planet Her album, three of which have been Rhythmic No. 1s.

“We must give credit to the artists and our A&R department for giving us such amazing records,” adds Kevin Valentini, an SVP, Promotion at RCA for the rhythmic format.

Still, in an environment where every label is fighting for a finite number of airplay spots, such an accomplishment requires a chess-like precision and planning to maximize each song’s potential without sacrificing another, all at the right time. And one hit, Valentini says, doesn’t guarantee the next. “As much as our radio partners respect our judgment, each record takes the same amount of effort with a different approach each time. Nothing is a given.”

While SZA and Brown’s track records with radio hits make their cases easier, pitches for newer artists, such as Doja Cat and Latto, might receive aid from an unlikely ally – social and streaming services. Though radio and digital services are often pitted against each other as mediums locked in a battle for attention, the internet has become a key tool in breaking new acts into the radio space. “Like with any new artist, we need ‘that thing’ to engage with radio,” writes Lori Giamela, the other SVP, Promotion at RCA for the rhythm format.

“For Doja, YouTube was the platform to catapult her as the visuals connected with her fans. For Latto, Instagram and socials are where her personality shined, and she was able to grow her audience.” Success in the social and streaming worlds, she adds, helps promotion staff the push for newer acts to radio programmers, who are under mounting pressure more than ever to retain listeners. That reality, accelerated by the COVID pandemic, has often led to programmers erring more conservatively and hedging their bets on playing proven hits or hitmakers.

And while the current landscape suggests there are few sure bets on radio, an RCA act, at least on rhythmic radio, is the closest thing. “As promotion people, we’re competitive by nature,” adds Valentini, “but it’s even better when you’re competing against yourself.”