At age 43, the rapper Big Boi is enjoying the biggest hit of his solo career: a cheerful, reassuring and toothless number titled “All Night.” On a recent Tuesday, he brought the single to The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon with help from longtime collaborator Sleepy Brown. Fallon head-bobbed with his usual childlike enthusiasm, while the two performers looked like actors in a cute buddy comedy, synchronizing a two-step dance and playing air piano.
“Being up there with Sleepy Brown — he is one gyrating son-of-a-gun — and my background singers, it was some otherworldly funk-rockateer experience,” Big Boi says the next day, speaking over the phone as he heads towards his next late-night TV stop, The Daily Show With Trevor Noah. “The vocals were crispy; Jimmy loved it; it was a win-win for everybody.”
To put it simply, if crudely: “All Night” should not be a hit. Rappers, especially aging ones, rarely have success on pop radio. What’s more, “All Night” came out more than a year ago, meaning that it’s effectively ancient — hits usually become successful in the weeks after their release, not 14 months later. The fact that “All Night” cleared these hurdles and is now Big Boi’s most-streamed song on Spotify and his biggest single at both pop radio and rhythmic radio — a format with a 40-million-strong audience that serves as a connector between the Top 40 and hip-hop airwaves — suggests there is hope for other rap and R&B singles, which are frequently denied the opportunity to reach pop radio’s wide listenership.
Big Boi has been hit-less since he left the duo OutKast, a legendary figure but a member of the old guard in a genre that elevates exciting young voices faster than any other. His most successful solo single, “Shutterbug,” peaked at Number 60 on Billboard’s Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart in 2010. In 2015, Big Boi went on an odd detour, collaborating with indie duo Phantogram as the group Big Grams. It was a move that baffled — or maybe worse, bored — critics and consumers alike. He has changed labels multiple times, following longtime friend L.A. Reid from Def Jam to Epic, and then departing Epic after Reid was pushed out the door following allegations of sexual misconduct.
Big Boi’s final release on Epic Records was Boomiverse, which came out in June 2017 without making a ripple. Much of the album was a collaboration with the rapper’s old producer pals Organized Noize, but it also included “All Night,” which was written by various members of the Los Angeles pop machine, including Dr. Luke — once a Top 40 whisperer, now best known for his lengthy legal battle with the singer Kesha — Cirkut (Katy Perry, Miley Cyrus) and LunchMoney Lewis (Nicki Minaj, Christina Aguilera).
“L.A. sent me the record in the middle of the night,” Big Boi remembers. “The keys caught me, the ragtime piano — super jammin’. I was watchin’ Westworld at the time and the pianos reminded me of that.” The keyboard-heavy loop inspired Big Boi to “flex [his] melodious voice.” “We’ve been singing and harmonizing since the early days — you might have heard me on songs such as [starts singing Outkast’s ‘Elevators (Me & You)‘],” he adds.
Despite Reid’s initial interest in “All Night,” in the end the executive decided to lead the campaign for Boomiverse with two other songs. “I was like, we drop ‘Kill Jill’ for the streets, we put out ‘All Night,’ and we’ll be runnin’ the table — the underground rap shit along with the Top 40 record you want,” Big Boi says. “He wanted ‘Mic Jack.'”
“What L.A. wants, L.A. gets,” so “Kill Jill” and “Mic Jack” were released in April; both sputtered out quickly. Epic Records dumped Reid in May. Boomiverse came out in June and failed to crack the Top 20 on Billboard’s albums chart. It was effectively dead out the gate.
That changed in November, when Apple resurrected the album by picking “All Night” to soundtrack an iPhone X ad. Apple started running the spot during the NFL playoffs, and Nathan Graham was watching. “I grew up a huge OutKast fan, but I had no idea [the song in the ad] was Big Boi,” he says. He used Shazam to find out who the rapping unicorn Animoji was.
At the time, Graham was in charge of programming WXSS, a Top 40 station in Milwaukee, and he decided “All Night” might fit in his rotation. “Hip-hop is very dark right now, and that’s not [a] traditional pop [radio sound],” he says. “To me, this fit like a glove.” He started playing “All Night” on January 3. At the time, his station was the only Top 40 outpost supporting the record. “I started seeing Shazam activity,” Graham remembers. “Before you know it, in every suburb, Big Boi was high on Shazam, and I was only playing it like four or five times a day.” He estimates he played “All Night” around 600 times before a second pop station came aboard.
Even with Graham’s support, “All Night” could have died out again. Big Boi was lost in label limbo, a situation that has crippled many acts. “I was talking to Epic like, ‘hey, this is looking like something real, you should do something with this,'” Graham says. “I think they didn’t because it was up in the air as far as where Big Boi was going to end up.” “All Night” had no promotion until March. By that point, Reid had set up a new label, Hitco, and brought in one of his top promotions experts from Epic, Sujit Kundu. “I ended my Epic situation February 28,” says Kundu. “I started working for L.A. March 1. The first order of business was Big Boi.” (The Big Boi signing was not announced until later in March.)
While at Epic, Kundu took 15 singles to Number One at rhythmic radio in two years, but “All Night” was a new challenge. “It was an old record,” Kundu says. “The streaming platforms had all said, ‘we’ve done what we needed to do with this and moved on.’ I had pop radio telling me Big Boi was a hip-hop guy, and they weren’t sure whether it fit, plus he was older. And then I had rhythm radio say, this is too pop. I was in no-man’s land.”
But programmers who agreed to follow Graham’s lead in Milwaukee and try “All Night” found it was a reactive record, and it began to spread in the midwest. “Right when we put it in, it was making noise on Shazam,” says Mallory Bailey, a Top 40 program director in Springfield, Missouri. “I’ve actually had some people email me about it wondering what it was — that hardly happens these days.”
“All Night” also proved to have staying power, even in the fast-paced world of Top 40 pop. “I spent five months working that song, and every week a big release would come out and programmers would say, ‘hey, we gotta deal with this one,'” Kundu adds. “I would watch [the big release] come, and after three or four weeks, it’d go away, and Big Boi just kept playing.” By July, “All Night” was receiving thousands of spins a week, and the majority of them were coming from rhythmic and pop stations, not hip-hop stations, which is extremely unusual for a rap single.
Those numbers were enough to launch the rapper onto the late-night circuit in early August — “We out here shakin’ hands, kissin’ babies,” Big Boi says — and to influence his upcoming release schedule. Big Boi plans to re-release Boomiverse with a few new songs, including another collaboration with Dr. Luke. “As long as I get facials, keep my back strong, keep my stroke game together, stay young in spirit, we’ll keep making music,” the rapper vows.
The TV push may be coming too late, since “All Night” now appears to be losing steam at radio. But there’s an important takeaway from the song’s success: Rap doesn’t need to have only one route to the pop airwaves. In the past, when it comes to rap and R&B singles, “urban” radio usually takes the lead, then passes the baton to rhythmic, and then pop radio might deign to get involved. Graham, the pop programmer who kept “All Night” on life support, points out that “All Night” “took the opposite path from what hip-hop [usually] does.” In doing so, it managed to somehow cut in front of much bigger hits in both urban and rhythm, including Ella Mai’s “Boo’d Up,” Tyga’s “Taste,” Lil Baby and Drake’s “Yes Indeed” and the Carters’ “Apeshit,” which are all still waiting for some attention on the pop side.
“Pop’s tough because a lot of the programmers are pretty stubborn about hip-hop,” Graham continues. “They get scared. I don’t know when everybody’s gonna get it through their heads that we can’t just keep forcing these pop songs that nobody likes down everybody’s throat. That’s a big issue right now with pop radio: The disconnect between what’s happening in the real world and what’s happening in our world.”
That gap could narrow if more pop programmers are willing to take the initiative, like Graham, to play rap records. The success of “All Night” suggests that supporting hip-hop is not as risky as programmers might think.