Like her character in “Kill Bill,” the real-life SZA is sizing up the competition on pop radio and taking action.
The singer-songwriter sports two tracks from her new album, SOS, on Billboard’s mainstream top 40-based Pop Airplay chart (dated Jan. 21), led by “Kill Bill,” which soars in at No. 24, up 865% to 2,257 plays on 129 reporting stations (or, an average of 18 plays per panelist) Jan. 6-12, according to Luminate.
Meanwhile, SZA’s “Nobody Gets Me” pushes 37-30 on Pop Airplay, up 115% to 1,632 plays on 107 reporters (a 15 plays-per-station average) in its third week on the list. The tracks claim the second- and fifth-greatest gains, respectively, among all songs on the survey.
SOS, released on Top Dawg/RCA Records, has held the top spot on the Billboard 200 albums chart in its first four weeks, marking the first R&B album by a woman to achieve such a start since Janet Jackson’s janet. nearly 30 years ago.
Radio ‘Gets’ Two Tracks
RCA originally targeted ballad “Nobody Gets Me” for the pop format, but as streaming has stayed strong for “Kill Bill” – SZA’s not-her-best-idea-turned-murder fantasy (hopefully) – the label decided to formally promote both together. The latter debuted with 36.9 million official U.S. streams Dec. 9-15, followed by frames of 32 million (Dec. 16-22), 26.6 million (Dec. 23-29) and 28 million (Dec. 30-Jan. 5).
“Nobody Gets Me” started with 25.1 million streams Dec. 9-15 and drew 10.4 million Dec. 30-Jan. 5.
“Kill Bill” has so far hit No. 3 on the streaming-, airplay- and sales-driven Billboard Hot 100, debuting at the spot on the Dec. 24 chart and returning to its high on the Jan. 14-dated ranking, and ascends to the top of the Jan. 14 Billboard Global 200. “Nobody Gets Me” debuted at its No. 10 Hot 100 best (Dec. 24).
“When SOS came out this December, we immediately heard from pop programmers saying they wanted to play ‘Nobody Gets Me,’” says RCA head of promotion Keith Rothschild. “Heading into the holidays, most stations went into year-end countdowns [and paused on adding new music]. During that time, ‘Kill Bill’ became a streaming monster. On Jan. 2, I called [the RCA] pop team – [led by] Joe Daddio, Jessie Maldonado [and] Jeff Rizzo – and said, ‘What if we impacted both records at top 40 coming out of the break?’ I also asked a few key programmers, and everyone agreed: ‘Let’s do it.’”
(Fellow SOS track “Shirt,” which helped introduce the album with its release in October, is being worked to R&B/hip-hop and rhythmic radio. It climbs to new highs of Nos. 7 and 8 on the Jan. 21 Mainstream R&B/Hip-Hop Airplay and Rhythmic Airplay charts, respectively.)
Programmers: ‘The Data Speaks Loudly’
“There has been a great deal of interest in SZA from our [pop] programmers,” says Jon Zellner, iHeartMedia president of programming operations/digital music, citing growing support on the chain’s Pop Airplay reporters including WHTZ New York, KIIS Los Angeles, KYLD San Francisco and WHYI Miami.
“Typically, programmers tend to gravitate toward one emphasis single,” Zellner says. “‘Kill Bill’ is way ahead at this point. It’s always tough to determine whether any song will have staying power, but the song has a strong hook and a powerful message.”
“The data speaks loudly,” says Erik Bradley, assistant program director/music director at Audacy-owned Pop Airplay panelist WBBM (B96) Chicago. “Our core loves this album and these two singles feel like they’re strongly leading the way. They’re mainstream radio-friendly. It’s really hard to design a plan to have dual singles, but in this instance, the data demanded it, and that creates a no-brainer decision to have both songs simultaneously in regular rotation. Add to that the launch of SZA’s tour and it just feels like everything is teed up for a major 2023 win for her.”
“In radio and programming, we have rules about artist separation, and sometimes those rules need to be adjusted to mirror what our listeners are showing they want,” shares Molly Cruz, regional brand manager for Audacy’s Milwaukee, Wis., stations, including Pop Airplay reporter WXSS, noting prior success with simultaneous pop radio singles for Doja Cat, Ariana Grande, Taylor Swift and The Weeknd, among others.
‘I Might (blank) My Ex’
Hedging against any potential concerns about the lyrics in “Kill Bill”– “I might kill my ex … his new girlfriend’s next …,” later the more damning “I just killed” – RCA has serviced two edits to radio, one in which “kill”/“killed” is simply omitted and one in which the words are replaced by the sound of a slicing knife. (So that’s how she did it! The song’s Christian Breslauer-directed official video, released Jan. 10, as well as its title, an ode to the 2004 film of the same name directed by Quentin Tarantino, with its focus on samurai swords, should’ve also given clues.)
RCA chuckles that while the edit for the song – which SZA wrote with Rob Bisel and Carter Lang – is being promoted, some programmers prefer the original version with the “kill” lyric to the “I might/just (blank) my ex” mix, as the latter could invite listeners’ minds to wander toward tawdry territory.
Historically, songs with similar sinister plots have become hits, however rare, often with the same tongue-in-cheek vibe as SZA’s. Johnny Cash famously boasted that he “killed a man … just to watch him die” in “Folsom Prison Blues,” a No. 32 Hot 100 hit that also topped the Hot Country Songs chart for four weeks in 1968; Eric Clapton confessed “I Shot the Sheriff” in his Bob Marley-penned Hot 100 leader in 1974; and The Chicks’ “Goodbye Earl” reached No. 13 on Hot Country Songs in 2000 – notably, ending a streak of seven consecutive career-opening top 10 singles for the trio (even with the video’s serious portions offset by “Earl,” aka, Dennis Franz, dancing with the trio from the afterlife).
“I applaud her creativity and storytelling,” Bradley praises SZA.
“‘Kill Bill’ is my personal favorite,” Cruz says of SOS’ tracks. “It’s always fun when your favorite song is doing well and you have solid metrics to increase rotation. I think the songwriting on ‘Kill Bill’ is relatable to so many because it’s about the pain of seeing an ex move on and appear happier with their new partner.”
Muses Zellner about “Kill Bill,” “While violent, [it] certainly is creating a buzz. Are there really people who would rather go to jail or hell than be alone?”