Welcome to The Contenders, a midweek column that looks at artists aiming for the top of the Billboard charts, and the strategies behind their efforts. This week (for the upcoming charts dated Jan. 28), SZA’s SOS is expected to easily fend off challengers on the Billboard 200, but there will be more of a contest to reach the top of the Billboard Hot 100, where she faces stiff competition from Taylor Swift, Miley Cyrus and Shakira & Bizarrap as she seeks her first No. 1.
SZA, “Kill Bill” (Top Dawg Entertainment/RCA): As SZA’s SOS spends its fifth week atop the Billboard 200, her biggest single yet climbs to a new peak of No. 2 on the Hot 100 (dated Jan. 21) this week. The melancholy (and murderous) “Kill Bill” has ruled Billboard’s Streaming Songs chart for three weeks now, and it’s now also gaining at radio, debuting this week at No. 24 on Pop Airplay and No. 48 on R&B/Hip-Hop Songs Airplay.
However, “Bill” has yet to appear on the 50-position all-genre Radio Songs listing, which Taylor Swift’s “Anti-Hero” — the eight-week Hot 100 No. 1 currently keeping SZA from the top spot — has ruled for four weeks. (Still, “Bill” is just below the survey this week and likely to debut next week.) Also to help get the breakout hit over the top and score the first Hot 100 No. 1 of her career, SZA released a new four-song “Kill Bill” pack to streaming services last Friday (Jan. 13), adding sped-up, instrumental and a cappella versions to the original — all of which are currently for sale on her website, and discounted to 69 cents.
Miley Cyrus, “Flowers” (Columbia): Whether or not “Bill” overtakes “Anti-Hero” this week, it could face entirely new roadblocks in a pair of much-hyped singles that came out last week. The bigger of those is likely “Flowers,” Friday’s first taste of veteran pop star Miley Cyrus’ upcoming Endless Summer Vacation album that’s due in March. Produced by regular Harry Styles collaborators Kid Harpoon and Tyler Johnson, the mid-tempo kiss-off immediately won fans for its sunny pop-rock groove, self-reliant message and Bruno Mars-echoing (possibly Liam Hemsworth-referencing?) chorus.
After the song went viral on TikTok over the weekend, it bounded to the top of both the Spotify and Apple Music daily charts, as well as the iTunes song sales chart — and top 40 has also quickly seized onto the track, with a splashy debut sure to come on Radio Songs next week. It’s the kind of multi-platform dominance that has largely eluded Cyrus, despite her continued household-name status, over the past decade; she hasn’t reached higher than No. 8 on the Hot 100 (as an added performer to The Kid LAROI’s “Without You” remix in 2021) since she topped the chart in 2013 with “Wrecking Ball,” her sole No. 1 so far.
But Cyrus’ timing is right with “Flowers” — released last Thursday, Jan. 12 at 7 p.m. EST, five hours ahead of the tracking week for next week’s Hot 100. She’s taking advantage of an early-year pop landscape that’s relatively light on impactful new releases, as evidenced by the Hot 100’s top 40 currently being overrun by songs from 2022 (or even longer ago). But just as importantly, she’s riding positive momentum from her popular and well-received Miley’s New Year’s Eve Party NBC special, in which she dueted on old hits with godmother Dolly Parton and teased new music to come, with her full album announcement arriving less than a week later. It all adds up to Cyrus having her best shot in 10 years at a return trip to No. 1 next week.
Bizarrap & Shakira, “Bzrp Music Sessions, Vol. 53” (Dale Play): Before “Flowers” arrived, the buzziest debut of last week was easily Shakira’s incendiary team-up with in-demand Argentine DJ/producer Bizarrap. The propulsive electro-pop banger lit up the internet upon its release last Wednesday (Jan. 11, at 7 p.m. ET), particularly for its shots-fired lyrics aimed directly at the superstar’s footballer ex-husband Gerard Piqué. “Vol. 53” quickly surged to No. 1 on YouTube’s Trending chart, and also reached the top 10 and top 20 on the daily Spotify and iTunes U.S. charts, respectively.
Despite coming out six days into the prior tracking week, “Vol. 53” already debuts on several Billboard charts this week, including an impressive No. 12 bow on the Global 200. It misses out on the Hot 100, but with its streaming momentum staying strong, it’s certain to crash the chart next week. However, with stateside radio not yet embracing the Spanish-language track as much as it has “Flowers” and “Kill Bill,” it may end up lagging behind those front-runners.
Taylor Swift, “Anti-Hero” (Republic): While the threats to its reign are numerous, you can’t count out Taylor Swift and her incumbent eight-week No. 1. Swift and her team have made all the right moves to extend the Midnights single’s reign to career-best lengths, including releasing a number of remixes for the track for sale exclusively on her website — and, most recently, discounting those remixes to 69 cents from last Monday to Thursday (Jan. 9-12). Does she have any last-second tricks up her sleeve for this chart week?