In a year full of bizarro hits, nothing tops “Jesus Is the One (I Got Depression)” by comedian Zack Fox and producer Kenny Beats. The song starts with a threat — “If you ain’t a Christian, I’m gonna stab you in the face” — and ends with a party of sorts: “If you’ve got a mental illness, fucking turn up!” In between, Fox eulogizes Betty White even though she’s not dead, tries to steal money from strippers, and promises to put Thousand Island Dressing to creative, if indelicate, use.
The track has been Number One on Spotify’s U.S. Viral 50 chart for more than a week, amassing 6.6 million streams Stateside, according to the analytics company Alpha Data. But those signals of commercial vitality are a source of angst for the song’s creators. “Is it that people want something this meaningless, or is it that everything is already so meaningless that this fits right in?” Fox wonders. “I’ve never tried so intentionally to make something terrible in my entire life. I hate this shit.”
To be clear, the surprise popularity of “Jesus Is the One (I Got Depression)” has had some upsides: “My standup shows are selling out,” says Fox. But he believes his rising hit demonstrates “how broken the [music] industry is.” “I’m a huge fan of hip-hop, but it’s so broken right now I bet someone could literally troll their way to the top,” he adds. “I did it.”
“Jesus Is the One (I Got Depression)” originated in an episode of The Cave, a lighthearted Youtube series where Kenny Beats — who has worked with Vince Staples, Rico Nasty, and, most recently, Ed Sheeran — invites young rappers to the studio to freestyle. The producer whips up an instrumental on the spot, often following amusingly idiosyncratic requests. “Make a Bernie-bro beat,” Fox asks in his episode, which appeared online at the end of April. Then he gets more specific: “I want a post-9/11, pre-death-of-Whitney-Houston-style beat.” More specific still: “I want a beat that sounds like I pissed on myself, but I’m wearing corduroys, so it’s OK.”
The Cave is presumably cheap and quick to make, and it reliably garners more than half a million views — except for Fox’s episode, which is pushing close to 2.5 million. As P.M. Dawn-like samples of “Jesus is the one” vocals drift through the studio, Fox pulls down his pants and raps wearing a top hat and comically tiny wrap-around sunglasses. Long after Kenny Beats cuts the music, Fox continues to spew gibberish lines that mostly rhyme, each one drawing a cackle from friends in the studio. “We puttin’ that on Spotify?” Fox asks. “Yeah,” Kenny Beats responds sarcastically. “Tomorrow.”
“This song is not special. I’m not some sort of sage. I’m not even a rapper.”
In fact, the two men did not intend to release the song commercially. “This was supposed to be for The Cave — YouTube content,” Fox says. But some listeners were amused by the outlandish track, and they took matters into their own hands, ripping the song off YouTube, chopping up the parts they liked and setting them to videos. When the rip began to show signs of life, Fox and Kenny Beats worried, “maybe we’re missing out on bread if this shit keeps going up on TikTok.” They decided to release an official version of the song in June, and it climbed into the U.S. viral chart on July 8th.
Them: Do you believe in God??
— IG: @lavishlifedonb 🦋 (@lavishlifedonb) June 6, 2019
“You know the part of the movie Pootie Tang where Chris Rock is like, ‘we got a new song from Pootie Tang,’ and it’s [a recording of silence], but people all over the world are dancing to it?” Fox asks. “We Pootie Tanged ourselves into the viral charts.”
In Pootie Tang, a cigar-smoking record executive watches the titular character record his silent single before enthusing, “we have got a hit, baby!” Apparently, little has changed in the music business since that film came out in 2001. “You would think the serious people on the industry side of things would be like, ‘Zack did a joke freestyle and that hit bigger than all these serious songs right now, we gotta fix something,'” Kenny Beats says. Instead, “all these A&Rs are hitting us up like, ‘Yo guys, you came up in a research meeting this week.’ They’re trying to throw money at it.”
How much money? “An absurd amount for how dumb the song is.” Fox says at least one major label is currently trying to sign him.
This is typical of the way the record industry works right now. “Labels are shooting themselves in the foot, because all they do is wake up and look at Shazam [and now TikTok],” a manager complained to Rolling Stone last year. “They’re just working off analytics. They don’t realize this record is not actually that great.” Or maybe they realize, but they don’t give a damn.
This tendency has led to soul-searching in some corners of the music business. “Will we overlook the next 2Pac or skip past the next Madonna because they didn’t have enough views on YouTube or enough of a following on Instagram?” manager Nick Jarjour wondered last year. “Many A&R execs today sit in a perpetual state of ‘analysis paralysis,’ where they need to see a certain metric before they sign a deal,” wrote Lucas Keller, founder of the management company Milk + Honey, earlier this month. “When I witness this, when it’s about the numbers and not the art, I think: Here Lies Artist Development. RIP.” (For a more flippant send-up of modern A&R, try this Instagram account.)
Fox and Kenny Beats enjoy trolling — “funniest shit ever,” the comedian says —but they are now positioning their half-baked, Christianity-and-mental-wellness-friendly freestyle as a wake-up call for the music industry.
“This song is not special,” Fox says. “I’m not some sort of sage. I’m not even a rapper. This popped off because of how monotonous and how saturated rap has become in this viral-Spotify-TikTok environment. The whole barometer on this industry is completely wrecked.”
“In that way it’s been inspiring for artists who are actually trying to make it,” Kenny Beats adds. “Now you’re like, ‘that’s not the barometer that I need to go by anymore.'”