Rap Radio Is Playing More Women, But Streaming Playlists Lag Behind – Rolling Stone
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Rap Radio Is Playing More Women, But Streaming Playlists Lag Behind

In the wake of Cardi B, more women are are breaking nationally on rap radio than ever before. Streaming services are not, so far, catching up

Cardi B - Belcalis Marlenis Almánzar in concertWGCI Big Jam, United Center, Chicago, Illinois, USA - 24 Nov 2018

Cardi B is one of the few female rappers to get support from major streaming service playlists.

RMV/REX/Shutterstock

If the future is female, then streaming services are wildly behind the times — the big winners on these platforms are overwhelmingly men. In 2018, for example, just three of the Top 25 most-streamed songs were helmed by women, according to data from BuzzAngle, which tracks music consumption. The same held true for albums.

That means streaming services don’t have much to offer female rappers right now. Two weeks ago, just two of the 50 songs on Spotify’s popular RapCaviar playlist incorporated women: Both involved Cardi B. Apple Music’s comparable playlist, The A-List: Hip Hop, had three songs involving women — the same two as Spotify, Cardi B’s “Money” and City Girls’ “Twerk” with Cardi B, plus Offset’s “Clout,” which features, you guessed it, Cardi B.

This isn’t a new problem — the music industry is typically inhospitable to female rappers. But surprisingly, urban radio is showing a new willingness to support women on a quest for national success. In addition to playing anything connected to Cardi B last week, radio’s 40-song chart made room for Venus’ “Throw It Back,” a brusque, pummeling club single, along with both Megan Thee Stallion’s “Big Ole Freak” and Lightskinkeisha’s “Ride Good,” which pair frankly carnal raps and airy melodies.

“They test well in all of our research,” says Steve Hegwood, President of Core Communicators Broadcasting, which owns hip-hop stations in Atlanta and Charlotte. “Females 18 to 30, guess what? They want to hear City Girls. They want to hear Lightskinkeisha. They want to hear Megan Thee Stallion.”

But the presence of multiple female rappers on the airwaves simultaneously is, unfortunately, still novel. “Not to date myself, but I remember when it was only [Lil] Kim and Foxy [Brown],” says Joie Manda, executive VP at Interscope. “I remember when it was only a Nicki [Minaj] for a decade.”

In recent years, other women could occasionally score one hit — Dej Loaf, Young M.A. — but not a second. This sometimes surprised radio professionals. “Most of the radio stations target, believe it or not, 18-34 [year-old] females, so you would think we would have more [songs by women succeed],” says TT Torrez, music director for WQHT, better known to New Yorkers as Hot 97. “You would think there would not have been such a long hiatus before we saw several different women breaking on radio.”

Part of the blame falls on labels, which rarely put their weight behind female rappers — “no one was checking for them,” Torrez says. And part of the blame was due to radio and its reliance on call-out research. Stations use surveys to assess their listeners’ preferences, and “it was once a thing where research said, ‘female rappers don’t test,'” according to Lionel Ridenour, an urban radio promotions veteran.

Torrez calls this characterization “bullshit.” But to the extent that “female rappers don’t test” was viewed as gospel, it creates a feedback loop: Program directors, most of whom are men, don’t want to use a coveted playlist position on a song by a woman, so listeners don’t become familiar with that song, and it doesn’t do well in surveys. That women don’t play well on the radio is, ultimately, a self-fulfilling prophecy. “You have to play them enough to research,” Torrez says.  

Many program directors see Cardi B as the wrecking ball that demolished the old system; any preconceived notions the industry was operating under were disproved by her success over the past two years. It’s hard to pinpoint why she was able to succeed when so many before her were rejected — “she’s just different,” says Barbara McDowell, music director for Chicago’s WPWX. But Hegwood believes “[Cardi B] knocked the door down and said, ‘come on through.'”

It’s also possible that the success of female R&B singers at urban radio last year — notably Ella Mai and Queen Naija — may have had a ripple affect, showing programmers that listeners were willing to listen to women’s voices. Urban radio favors hip-hop over R&B, but it plays both, and Mai’s “Boo’d Up” spent a record 16 weeks at Number One on Billboard’s mainstream R&B/hip-hop airplay chart in 2018. That’s a clear sign of pent-up audience demand for something — anything — other than another man rap-singing. “There may have been some stagnation with everything sounding the same type of way,” Ridenour acknowledges.

Competing theories aside, there’s no question that “consumers and radio programmers are more receptive now [to female rappers],” says George “Geo” Cook, director of operations, brand manager and program director for KKDA and KRNB in Dallas.

Not just more receptive — downright enthusiastic. Hegwood believes “lots of female-oriented songs” is “a key to the success of urban radio lately.” McDowell now has her eye on the Chicago rapper Katie Got Bandz; Hegwood’s pick for next-to-break in Atlanta is Kash Doll. Nielsen BDS reported that the young rapper Melii’s “HML” was one of the most-added songs at rhythmic radio in the first week of March, while Lightskinkeisha’s follow-up single, “Hey Lightskin,” was the second most-added track at urban radio last week. “Ladies are bringing a different perspective,” Ridenour says.

But does this perspective translate to the streaming services? Lightskinkeisha’s “Ride Good” reached 18.6 million U.S. listeners on radio in seven days during its peak week, according to Mediabase. But it has just over 4 million streams on Spotify in roughly six months, and that’s a global number. Megan Thee Stallion’s “Big Ole Freak” reached 9.4 million listeners in the U.S. last week, according to Nielsen BDS. The single’s global Spotify streams are still below 2 million. (Apple Music does not make stream counts public, though hip-hop usually performs better on the platform than it does on Spotify.)

It’s possible radio is just taking the lead — the airwaves remain the primary method of music discovery — and streaming stories might still develop for these artists. Tuma Basa, YouTube’s Director of Urban Music and the former head of RapCaviar for Spotify, believes that “it’s too early to call” whether or not streaming services will support multiple female rappers. “We’ve never seen this amount of new female rappers having this kind of success without male co-signs,” he says. “To evaluate it or judge it based on numbers or traditional metrics would be, I think, a mistake.”

Terri Thomas, the program director who broke Megan Thee Stallion at radio by supporting her on the Houston station KBXX, feels similarly. “The streaming picture can get there [for these women],” she says. “They’re doing all the things, building a relationship with their fanbase, shaking hands, kissing babies.”

More remote reasons for these rappers’ delayed success on streaming also exist: Maybe the composition of songs like “Ride Good” and “Big Ole Freak” doesn’t lend itself to the streaming experience. “There is a definite structure for songs that are successful on streaming: short tracks, limited intros, songs that start with the chorus and end with the chorus,” Cook says. “These [tracks] aren’t necessarily structured in that manner.”

“There’s also a certain group of key producers who get successful streaming records: Tay Keith, Hitmaka, Metro Boomin,” Cook continues. “It may be just the right song with the right structure with the right producer may allow [these women] to achieve that streaming success in the future.”

But streaming services and radio have different audiences, and it’s possible that one set of listeners is more receptive to female voices than the other. “I listen to Spotify, I listen to Tidal,” McDowell says. “But I don’t really see female artists, I don’t want to say being promoted, because that’s not how it works, but the majority of the time I’ve seen female rappers it has been on Instagram or YouTube.”

Last year, a national survey of 3,000 U.S. consumers by Audience Net, a U.K.-based research company, noted that “paid subscribers tended to be male, with 22% of men stating they paid for a premium subscription, compared to 15% of women.” Paid subscribers also skew younger. So if, for example, enthusiastic young male streamers dominate RapCaviar’s listenership, and they are less interested in hearing rap made by women, “Big Ole Freak” could struggle to pick up the momentum required to achieve a major streaming record. (Megan Thee Stallion’s label, 300 Records, declined to discuss her single.)

Manda wonders if the same mindset that once hamstrung women on rap radio now rules the streaming services. “I remember when female rap records wouldn’t test as well at radio,” he says. “RapCaviar, A-List: Hip-Hop, I don’t know if female rappers, if their skip rates are higher? I don’t know what the metrics there are. But I think there’s an issue there. You should talk to Spotify and Apple.” (Skip rate indicates whether listeners make it through any 30 seconds of a song — after which a stream counts for royalty purposes — in a given playlist.)

A spokesperson for Spotify declined to comment about the success of female rappers on the platform. Apple Music also declined to comment, though the service recently picked Tierra Whack as an “Up Next” artist and aired an interview with Megan Thee Stallion. Both platforms have touted their commitment to women during March, which is Women’s History Month. 

YouTube’s Basa disputes the idea that there could be an algorithmic impediment to female rappers’ streaming success. “Back in the day, if I was Trina and I did a lot of songs with Trick Daddy, or I was Eve and I did songs with the Lox or DMX, if my video is playing on YouTube, my recommendations would split with other members of the Lox, since I’m connected to them,” Basa explains. “Now, [since female rappers are succeeding] without a co-sign [from a man], if a Saweetie video plays, those algorithmic recommendations are not being diluted by male picks. Cardi B, when she blew up with ‘Bodak Yellow,’ because she wasn’t part of a crew, I know for a fact other females benefitted algorithmically.”

“Here’s a theory,” Basa continues, “If playlists are male-dominated and male-curated, radio has the opportunity to take a cultural leap on this [in terms of supporting female acts]. It’s in their interest to take the lead on this, super-serve the female audience.”

For the moment, rap radio’s willingness to support women is upending modern convention for establishing careers in hip-hop. “A lot of times the labels break artists on streaming platforms, then they come back to radio and use whatever analytics they get from streaming as part of their story [to break artists on the airwaves],” McDowell says. “It’s not to say [these women] won’t have the [streaming] success, they just went a different route in breaking their music.”

At the moment, they may not have another choice. But at least, for the first time, an established route to national commercial success is developing for women in hip-hop.

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