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Top 40 Radio Has a Rap Problem

Kendrick Lamar, Cardi B and Migos make the most popular records in the country, so why aren’t they thriving on pop stations the way white rappers do?

Rappers at pop radio

Rap has become more and more popular, but Top 40 radio keeps the genre at arm's length.

“If you’re an artist and you’re signed to a major label, you want to be on the radio, especially if you’re popular,” Kanye West told Power 105.1’s Charlamagne tha God in May. West has enjoyed the support of mainstream R&B/hip-hop radio for most of his 15-year recording career: “Father Stretch My Hands Pt. 1,” for example, was top five in the format in the fall of 2016. But pop radio has all but abandoned him. Although West once romped through Top 40 with songs like 2007’s “Stronger,” none of his last three albums have produced a major pop radio hit, though each went platinum. “To put that same amount – if not more – work [into a record], and you’re used to it coming out like Graduation, where everything is everywhere … it’s frustrating,” West said.

This problem is not unique to West. Scan the last six years of Billboard’s Pop Songs chart, which tracks pop radio spins, and you’ll quickly notice a pattern. Since the beginning of 2012, only one non-white rapper has been able to cross over from mainstream R&B/Hip-Hop (or “urban”) radio and crown the chart: Drake, with “One Dance,” which features minimal rapping. Nor is it the case that pop radio has mysteriously turned against hip-hop as a whole. During those same six years, white rappers have repeatedly scored pop Number Ones: Macklemore (twice), Eminem, Iggy Azalea (twice), Machine Gun Kelly, G-Eazy (twice) and NF. Aside from Drake, the only non-white rappers to reach Number One in this format in recent years have done it by collaborating with an A-list pop act – as Kendrick Lamar has done as a featured guest for Taylor Swift and Maroon 5 – or by making a record so far from the sound of mainstream hip-hop that rap radio wouldn’t touch it (Flo Rida’s “My House”).

Tom Poleman, iHeartMedia’s Chief Programming Officer, describes the Top 40 ethos as “just playing what’s hot.” Yet even though J. Cole’s “Deja Vu,” Future’s “Mask Off,” Lamar’s “DNA.”, Lil Uzi Vert’s “XO Tour Llif3,” Lil Pump’s “Gucci Gang” and Migos’ “MotorSport” were all Top 10 hits on the Hot 100 – which measures total cross-platform consumption, including streaming, sales and radio play – none of them made a dent in Billboard’s pop airplay ranking. And while Migos’ “Bad and Boujee,” Lamar’s “Humble.” and Cardi B’s “Bodak Yellow” were Number One hits on the Hot 100 – objectively the most popular records in the United States – they did not get enough radio play to enter the top 20 on Billboard’s Pop Songs chart.

Perhaps it’s unreasonable to expect Top 40 radio stations to act as a progressive force in the music industry, but presumably they are interested in making money by playing popular songs. So it’s startling that at this moment, when hip-hop is utterly dominant, hits from the non-white rappers who remain at the genre’s creative and commercial vanguard are so absent from pop radio’s top slots. Intentionally or otherwise, Top 40 radio has seemingly adjusted to the ascendancy of hip-hop by creating an alternate ecosystem in which the rules that govern the rest of the music business do not apply.

The modern system of radio formats dates back to the late 1970s and early 1980s, according to Eric Weisbard, an associate professor at the University of Alabama and the author of Top 40 Democracy: The Rival Mainstreams of American Music. As radio listening started to migrate from AM to FM, “instead of just having one Top 40 format for all the hits, you started to have several formats representing different kinds of audiences that radio stations wanted to target,” he explains. “Radio is deceptive,” he adds. “It’s not selling music to listeners, it’s selling listeners to advertisers.”

In the case of Top 40, radio is marketing a very specific niche to those advertisers. “What a programmer of a Top 40 radio station imagines is that the ideal listener is a mom in a car with her daughter,” Weisbard says. “That’s a stereotype in the industry.”

The interplay between radio formats has fluctuated over time, and the racial composition of the singers on Top 40 stations – famous examples include Z-100 in New York, Kiis-FM in L.A. and B96 in Chicago – moves accordingly. “There are moments when Top 40 seems very white,” Weisbard says, pointing to the post-disco, pre-Michael Jackson moment in the Eighties as well as the late 2000s era of turbo-club singles. On the flip side, he notes that the pre-Beatles Sixties and the early 2000s were moments when pop radio played multiple records by non-white performers. 

Machine Gun Kelly seen at KAABOO 2017 at the Del Mar Racetrack and Fairgrounds in San Diego.

Historically, a programming director’s decision to put a record into rotation has depended on her personal preferences and the reactions of both listeners and advertisers. “Sometimes there’s a record that’s not acceptable due to race reasons,” Weisbard says. “We have lots of records like that early in the history of hip-hop.”

Even before preferences come into play, though, programmers aren’t picking from a hat that contains every possible single: Major-label promotional efforts can have a large impact on the pool of songs that end up on a radio playlist. “If a record’s not being promoted [to a certain format], you can pretty much, at this point, count on radio not taking the initiative,” says radio business veteran Sean Ross.

This has important ramifications, because major labels have often failed to prioritize promoting rap records to the pop format. Reza Sarrafieh, who spent more than a decade as an urban promotions executive at Interscope Records, says that “every single meeting was always a struggle” for this reason. He remembers feeling, “Why the fuck can’t you guys over at Top 40 promotion work with my records that I’ve got Number One on urban?” “Labels have been too slow to understand the value of rap,” he adds. (Several major labels declined or ignored requests to comment on their promotional practices.)

This problem was exacerbated when internet piracy rose in the 2000s, hurting the official sales of hip-hop relative to pop. “Labels saw iTunes selling more Top 40 while urban music was being stolen peer-to-peer” or distributed via hugely popular (but royalty-free) mixtapes, Sarrafieh says. This meant rap wasn’t sending strong commercial signals to pop radio in the second half of the 2000s, making it a tougher sell for labels.

That has changed dramatically in the streaming era – Lil Uzi Vert’s “XO Tour Llif3,” for example, was recently certified six times platinum – but it’s not clear that labels have changed their behavior when it comes to radio. Leighton “Lake” Morrison, who manages Lil Uzi Vert, says “XO Tour Llif3” wasn’t pushed heavily on pop radio. “We’re forced to think we should stay away from that,” he says. “I don’t think [the promotions team] took a hard approach because they tried it before [with another rapper] and the result has been the same all the time.” (Lil Uzi Vert’s label, Atlantic Records, declined to comment on promotional strategy.)

Promotion is not the only challenge faced by non-white rappers. Anthony Saleh, who manages Future, said his team tried pushing “Mask Off” to pop radio but hit an immediate wall. “We spent real money [on promotion], and it didn’t work,” he says. “Pop radio doesn’t support us.”

That’s in part because the giant conglomerates that dominate American radio have their own incentives to keep artists within their format of origin. Consolidation started after the Telecommunications act of 1996, when “the two largest radio group owners owned 62 and 53 stations, respectively,” according to an FCC report; today, iHeartMedia has over 850 stations, Cumulus Media has 445 and Entercom has more than 230. “Say there’s a radio group owner in a specific market, and they program the pop station, the urban station and the alternative station,” explains Nick Petropoulos, who handles promotion for Glassnote Records. “That group owner wants to have separation between each [station].” Otherwise, some in the radio industry argue, they’d be all competing for the same listeners, rather than reaching as many distinct listeners as possible.

At the same time, market research has led Top 40 playlists to become increasingly narrow in recent years, making each slot on a given station more competitive. “There are fewer and fewer spaces,” Petropoulous points out. “[Programmers] are holding on to records longer, because their research dictates that.”

This creates a circular logic: Pop programmers don’t want to use one of their few slots on a rap record that they see as unlikely to connect, meaning that pop listeners don’t hear that record enough for it to gain traction. “You’re talking about, for the most part, two totally different listening audiences,” says JJ Ryan, a program director for iHeartMedia in Oklahoma City. “We’re not normally quick on rhythmic records [in Oklahoma City]. They take a long time to catch on.”

Lil Pump’s “Gucci Gang” never made it into regular rotation in Oklahoma City, and Migos’ “Bad and Boujee” wasn’t even promoted to Ryan’s station. Lamar’s “Humble.” didn’t take off – “for our pop audience, we haven’t seen a huge splash from him” – and neither did Cardi B’s “Bodak Yellow.” “We wanted to play it because it was an event record,” Ryan explains. “But it wasn’t one of those songs that, for pop radio, would hang around for a long time. Nothing against the sound. It’s a tight format.”

iHeartMedia’s Poleman is adamant that the tightness of the format is “less about the person and more about the song.” The idea of commercial radio as a utopian meritocracy is hard to take on face value, but it doesn’t hurt to try. According to this line of thinking, the hip-hop records that recently crowned the Top 40 – by Machine Gun Kelly, G-Eazy and NF – did so because they are power ballads that happen to include rapping. Matt Bauerschmidt, G-Eazy’s manager, points out that each of the rapper’s two Top 40 Number Ones has “a big melodic part that’s really easy to repeat.” When aiming for the upper echelons of pop radio, G-Eazy and Machine Gun Kelly have also worked with female collaborators with experience in the format (Bebe Rexha and Halsey for G-Eazy, Camila Cabello for Machine Gun Kelly). 

G-Eazy performs during the Beautiful and Damned Tour in Oakland.

But if sonic choices are the only factor in Top 40 play, it’s hard to explain why just a handful of non-white acts of any genre – Rihanna, Bruno Mars, the Weeknd, Jason Derulo, Flo Rida – appear regularly in the format. Even Beyoncé hasn’t been the lead artist on a Top 10 pop radio hit since 2009; she has released plenty of ballads during that time. And Lamar’s “Love.,” a melodic ballad co-produced by Top 40 savant Greg Kurstin (Adele, Sia), was not a runaway smash at pop radio. Neither was Future’s “Selfish,” another pop-friendly ballad with Top-40 stalwart Rihanna, which the rapper’s team also tried pushing to pop radio.

“Part of [what gets played on pop radio] is the song structure,” Bauerschmidt says. “But I think, as with most things in our society, there is also an institutional bias.” Sarrafieh makes a similar point in starker terms: “If listeners aren’t used to hearing black rappers, radio is afraid to play [them].”

iHeartMedia’s Poleman maintains that “regardless of your skin color, you can come up with a hit.” He adds that this year so far, he is “seeing three times as many urban songs in the top 25” as there were last year. The week of May 26, that figure includes a pair of songs from the Black Panther soundtrack, meaning they benefit from a Hollywood marketing budget, much like Wiz Khalifa’s “See You Again,” from 2015’s billion-dollar-grossing Furious 7. The other two crossover songs by non-white rappers on Billboard’s Pop Songs chart the week of May 26 both belong to Drake. However, Drake’s “God’s Plan” had to spend ten weeks as the Number One hit on the Hot 100 before it became a top 10 record at pop radio.

That top-10 slot isn’t just a secondary prize after a streaming-driven run up the chart: Even in the streaming era, a rapper can still benefit from pop radio support. A recent Nielsen survey found that radio play is still the most common way for listeners to find new music. “[Top 40 support] does help get artists to arenas, get them to the Grammys,” Glassnote’s Petropoulos adds.

But as Top 40 radio consistently ignores the most popular records in the country – and as those singles thrive despite that cold shoulder – old ideas about the centrality of pop radio in the music industry start to seem archaic. According to data from Mediabase, which tracks radio play, Taylor Swift’s pop radio Number One “Look What You Made Me Do” reached an impressive 900 million listeners through the airwaves. Kendrick Lamar’s “Humble.” topped out at Number 26 in terms of pop radio spins, but other formats, notably heavy support from mainstream R&B/hip-hop radio, meant Lamar reached more than two billion people.

Those billions might not have included many proverbial mother-daughter Top 40 listeners in places like Oklahoma City. But Morrison, Lil Uzi Vert’s manager, believes that’s only a temporary setback for non-white rappers. “When you’re seeing Migos on ESPN and Saturday Night Live, the music’s going to get out there regardless,” he says. “Moms are gonna get in the car and want to hear those songs too.”

In This Article: Cardi B, Hip Hop, Kendrick Lamar, Migos

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