Rap singles have been on top of the Hot 100 for the past 26 weeks, and hip-hop has been the most consumed genre of music in the U.S. for 18 straight months. But these victories have not been mirrored in the world of Top 40 radio — even Drake, who routinely breaks streaming records, still faces a tough slog over the airwaves. “God’s Plan” had to spend 10 weeks as the Number One hit on the Hot 100 before it became a top 10 record at pop radio, and follow-up single “Nice for What” never made it into pop radio’s top 10 despite eight weeks as the biggest record in the nation.
But Drake appears to have crushed that resistance with his latest single, “In My Feelings.” The key has been a viral dance challenge, which has made the record so ubiquitous across such a wide swath of listeners that pop radio cannot help but throw its considerable weight behind the single: 70 different stations recently added the song into rotation, according to Nielsen. “All of the mediums, regardless of what format, are looking for the thing that everybody’s talking about,” says Terri Thomas, a programming director for The Box, Houston’s mainstream R&B/hip-hop station. “The total virality of it – ‘In My Feelings’ made its way into all aspects of popular culture.”
That’s not easy for a rap record to do. Though streaming takes up the lion’s share of the headlines, radio still reaches corners of the country that streaming does not. Nielsen reported in April that, “on a weekly basis, 93% of all adults tune in to radio, the most of any platform, and radio has 243 million listeners in a given month.” Listeners are still roughly twice as likely to discover new music on the radio as they are on streaming services, according to Nielsen, and in 2017 the pop format still had the largest audience share in the 12 to 17, 18 to 34 and 25 to 54-year-old age brackets. But pop radio doesn’t play much rap.
“Nice for What” enjoyed some Top 40 play, but it didn’t become a mega-hit, despite its soothing, hyper-melodic Lauryn Hill sample and star-studded video. “In My Feelings” can be seen as a companion piece — like “Nice for What,” it’s co-produced by the veteran Blaqnmild, who is presumably partially responsible for the kinetic percussive breakdowns inspired by the New Orleans subgenre known as bounce music. On paper, “In My Feelings” might be considered the less pop-radio friendly of the two singles. The second half of the song includes a melange of staccato samples — Lil Wayne’s “Lollipop;” a famous bounce snippet known as the Triggerman beat — that have a history for rap listeners but no currency at pop radio.
Perhaps that’s why Drake’s team did not promote “In My Feelings” to pop radio at first. Instead, they led with “Don’t Matter to Me,” which features snippets of an unreleased Michael Jackson demo — potential points on the pop radio scorecard – but also comes off as a gloomy, post-break-up tour through a romantic wasteland. Pop programmers respected Drake’s wishes: The week after Scorpion came out, they played “Don’t Matter to Me” 102 times, according to Mediabase, which tracks radio play. They spun “In My Feelings” just once.
But the day Drake released Scorpion, “In My Feelings” caught the ear of Shiggy, a popular social media personality, who posted a buoyant video of himself dancing to the song. #DoTheShiggy began to spread — a laundry list of celebrities, including Will Smith, Odell Beckham Jr. and Kevin Hart, posted their own versions — and to morph: While Shiggy danced facing a stationary camera, many “In My Feelings” fans started imitating him on-the-move next to a slow-rolling car.
“Kids are stopping their cars in the middle of the street to do the challenge,” says Beth Cruise, program director for KKSW in Topeka (204 spins for “In My Feelings” over the last seven days). “It’s like, ‘why is this person pulled over to the side of the road doing a dance?’ Everyone Googles #DoTheShiggy, then they find out it’s Drake’s ‘In My Feelings,’ and it becomes a sensation.” Not everyone was pleased by the results of their Google search — “In My Feelings” is likely the first Drake single to earn a rebuke from the National Transportation Safety Board, which tweeted, “we have some thoughts about the #InMyFeelings challenge. #Distraction in any mode is dangerous & can be deadly.”
With the challenge on the rise, Drake’s label promptly shifted tactics. “Maybe the week after 4th of July, it was clear that the challenge was going viral, so they turned around and said, we’re gonna push this one [‘In My Feelings’] instead,” explains Robbie Mack, Programming Director for WJFX in Fort Wayne, Indiana (115 spins last week). “They sent an email saying, ‘breaking news, due to popular demand, ‘In My Feelings’ is impacting Top 40 now,’” Cruise recalls.
A viral dance does not guarantee that a record gets play on pop radio — in fact, the format has not shown much support to viral rap records in recent years. Silento’s “Watch Me” and iHeartMemphis’ “Hit the Quan” were both boosted by popular dances and became big hits on the Hot 100, which incorporates sales, streams and airplay, but they did not register on Billboard’s Pop Songs chart, which ranks tracks according to total spins at Top 40 stations. When the Running Man challenge returned Ghost Town DJs’ “My Boo” to cultural prominence, it seemed like a potentially safe pick for pop radio — an unimpeachable Nineties classic and a love song to boot. But virality couldn’t push “My Boo” onto the pop airwaves.
Programmers say “In My Feelings” has achieved a different level of ubiquity than the dance-craze-spawning singles that came before it. “Things can go viral with a certain subset of the population,” Mack explains. “There’s viral and then there’s viral. You could ask pretty much anyone who listens to current music, or even moms and dads, and they’re aware of the [‘In My Feelings’] challenge or have seen videos. It’s reached that in the last five to seven days.”
“When I heard a 33 year old mother of two asking my teenage daughters if they knew what the Shiggy Challenge was and then they spent the next 15 minutes debating whether they would be brave enough do their own video version, that’s a no-brainer for airplay,” adds Randy Cain, program director for KLAL, the Top 40 station in Little Rock, Arkansas (86 spins last week).
That’s not to say that Top 40 went all in right away: Two weeks after Scorpion came out, “In My Feelings” trickled into the pop format, earning 107 plays, still behind 155 for “Don’t Matter to Me.” But the following week saw exponential growth, as “In My Feelings” earned 1,575 plays, more than ten times as many as the week before. The play count jumped to 3,908 last week as more stations added the song into rotation.
Impressively, 155 of 167 pop stations that report to Mediabase are now playing “In My Feelings,” and the Top 40 stations who added the record the most are often in markets that are not considered hotbeds of rap fandom: Topeka, Kansas, Green Bay, Wisconsin and New Bedford, Massachusetts. Jazz stations in Richmond and Houston even deviated from their regularly scheduled programming to give “In My Feelings” a spin. In Houston, according to Thomas, a car dealership is using the “In My Feelings” challenge as part of a promotion — on one of the local country stations.
With the success of “In My Feelings,” Drake may be close to achieving a wildly rare distinction for a rapper. When it comes to radio, even songs by the most popular rappers must start in the “urban” format before they eventually cross over to the pop airwaves months later. Drake may have built up enough goodwill with pop programmers — six Top 20 hits in the format since 2016, according to Billboard — to get near the level of someone like Taylor Swift, where every single gets de facto support from Top 40 radio. (Programmers dispute this characterization, invariably arguing that play decisions are made on a song-by-song basis.)
“He has built that road brick by brick over the last few years,” says Cat Thomas, vice president of contemporary music for Cumulus Media, which controls more than 400 radio stations in the U.S. “[The rise of ‘In My Feelings’] has as much to do with the groundwork Drake has laid over the years to become an A-list artist for the format. What that [groundwork] gives him is consideration [from pop radio programmers].” Cruise, in Topeka, agrees. “I am paying attention to what he does more,” she says.
But Cain, in Little Rock, is not so sure that Drake is near that tipping point. “I think urban radio will continue to lead the way when his next singles are released,” he says. “The dance craze element helped to make the song familiar to the pop audience much faster than his other singles and created instant hit status for this song.”
In the end, the runaway success of “In My Feelings” at pop radio underlines how hard it is for rappers to reach the format’s wide listenership – they need not only a years-long string of hits, but a nation-captivating dance video bigger than all that have come before it. “These are the moments that people wish they could create,” Thomas says. “Many people would love to duplicate it and try to plan for that. But you never know if it’s gonna work.”
She paused briefly to listen to her station before adding, “we’re playing ‘In My Feelings’ right now.”