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It all started off with a sweet, sweet fantasy. Back in 1995, Mariah Carey did the unthinkable and enlisted Ol’ Dirty Bastard to drop a gritty verse on the lead single from her fifth album, Daydream. “Fantasy” wasn’t the first example of rap crossing over into pop, but when O.D.B. first told us that he’s “keeping it real” alongside the squeaky-clean singer, it’s no exaggeration to say that the music industry was never the same again.
Since “Fantasy” took over the airwaves in the mid ‘90s, rap and pop have gone hand in hand like “babies with pacifiers,” giving birth to hundreds of collaborations over the years. In recognition of this growing trend, the Grammys introduced a new award in 2002 for Best Rap/Sung Collaboration that was first won by Eve and Gwen Stefani for “Let Me Blow Ya Mind”. However, the rules changed yet again in 2017 when the Grammy awarding body redefined this particular category as Best Rap/Sung Performance to “represent the current state and future trajectory of rap” by including solo artists “who [blur] the lines between rapping and singing.”
It’s no coincidence that two of the female pop stars who have been nominated most in this category are responsible for blurring these lines more than anyone else. Sharing 16 nominations and 6 wins between them, Rihanna and Beyoncé have always experimented with hip-hop to a point, but in the past year, both of these acclaimed artists have emerged as full-blown rappers with a number of impressive runs and features. But why now? And why have other pop stars like Fergie and even Taylor Swift begun dropping rhymes too?
Pop Is Going Swish, Swish, Bish
In the same year that the Grammys recognized the distinction between singing and rapping had changed, Nielsen Music also revealed that R&B and hip-hop overtook rock for the first time, now accounting for 25% of all music consumption in America. In October 2017, The Wall Street Journal revealed that out of the top 25 songs streamed in the States that year, 20 of them were performed by hip-hop artists and even more surprisingly, none were recorded by a female pop star.
Despite their prevalence in the media, A-list performers such as Lady Gaga, Miley Cyrus and Katy Perry are no longer shifting the numbers that they once did. Each of their latest releases failed to produce a number one hit and in 2017, the only female pop star to hit the number one spot solo in America was Taylor Swift with “Look What You Made Me Do”. Interestingly enough, the only other women to share that accolade in 2017 were Cardi B, a female rapper who crossed over to mainstream success with “Bodak Yellow,” and Beyoncé, who performed the song “Perfect” with Ed Sheeran.
It seems then that most female pop stars are finding it harder to navigate the charts like they once did, stumbling now that the zeitgeist has shifted towards rap. With that in mind, it should come as no surprise that “The demand for urban collaborations on pop releases has been at an ultimate high,” at least, according to Chris Anokute, the CEO and founder of Young Media Inc. Unfortunately though, a number of these collaborations failed to give these artists the chart boost that they needed. Katy Perry witnessed her work with both Migos and Nicki Minaj “Swish Swish” down the drain in 2017, failing to crack the Top 40, and Selena Gomez’ “Fetish” collaboration with Gucci Mane is her lowest-peaking single on Billboard’s Pop chart to date.
Look What You Made Them Do
Back when Kanye West shut Taylor Swift down at the VMA’s in 2009, no one could have predicted that country’s sweetheart would now be rapping on the likes of “…Ready For It?” or trading bars with Future on “End Game”. Apparently, it’s Taylor’s world and we just live in it, yet it’s hard not to be at least somewhat cynical about Swift’s foray into hip-hop, and fans appear to be divided too.
Three years ago, Swift was the first female artist to replace herself on the top of the charts with the first two singles from 1989, but this time round, “Look What You Made Me Do” only reigned for three weeks and follow-up single “…Ready For It?” debuted at number four. On paper, a union between one of the world’s biggest pop stars and the top selling genre in music should have succeeded beyond anyone’s wildest dreams, yet not even Taylor Swift’s reputation helped “…Ready For It?” climb to the top of the charts. While neither release resembled anything close to a flop, this downward trajectory is symptomatic of the changing landscape that female pop stars find themselves in today, and not even a foray into hip-hop helped improve matters here either.
Fellow pop star Miley Cyrus found some success diving headfirst into hip-hop a few years earlier on “23” and the club hit “Feelin’ Myself”, but soon faced a backlash for how opportune this transformation was. Sure enough, Miley has since abandoned both hip-hop and twerking, returning to her pop and country music roots in a bid to become relevant once again, and it’s exactly this kind of appropriation that makes the idea of white pop stars rapping so problematic.
Over the past two decades, numerous white pop stars have worked with black artists in order to signify maturity in their music, only to then forego these kind of collaborations once they’ve made their statement and desire a return to the mainstream. Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, and countless more have treated black culture as an aesthetic while coming of age, but these tactics no longer seem to work as well now that hip-hop has become the mainstream.
The issue isn’t whether white artists should or should not work within the realms of hip-hop. As the success of Eminem and other white rappers has already proven, there’s enough room in the game for everyone, but the problem is when stars like Katy Perry and Taylor Swift appropriate black culture in a disingenuous bid for success. This is one of the main reasons why Taylor’s attempt at rapping and Katy’s hip-hop collaborations haven’t matched their past success, because of their inauthenticity.
On the other hand, pop stars like Beyoncé and Rihanna have also started rapping more in their music recently, but the reasons behind this are far more genuine and therefore more well received by the music industry at large. Rihanna first brought her rap swagger on the track “Lemme Get That” from her breakout record Good Girl Gone Bad in 2007. In the decade that’s followed, gutsy verses on the likes of Kendrick Lamar’s “LOYALTY.” and N.E.R.D.’s “Lemon” even led some to declare Riri one of the best rappers of 2017.
If Rihanna is the fiery young upstart changing the game with her “Wild Thoughts”, then Beyoncé officially runs the world of rap/pop crossovers, and it’s not just because she’s married to hip-hop royalty. Ever since Beyoncé was first introduced to the world in 1992 as a member of “the hip-hop rappin’ Girls Tyme,” the Star Search alumni has gone on to prove that there’s literally nothing she can’t do. In one of her earliest roles for the movie Carmen: A Hip Hopera, Ms. Carter held her own rapping alongside Mos Def and has since refined her flow in the likes of “Yonce” and “Formation”, even giving JAY-Z a run for his money on the DJ Khaled cuts “Shining” and “Top Off”.
Bow Down Bitches
It’s rather ironic that rap’s ascension to the mainstream has enabled Beyoncé in particular to tap into these roots as she herself is partly responsible for this cultural shift. By mixing up the delivery of her staccato in early Destiny’s Child hits like “Say My Name” and “Bug A Boo”, she helped paved the way for singing and rap to collide in whole new ways that eventually redefined the sound of pop radio. By the time that she recorded “Formation”, it felt perfectly natural for Beyoncé to embrace rap in a lead single, creating a powerful statement on race and identity in the process.
Artists like Beyoncé and Rihanna aren’t the only singers who have also incorporated rap more in their music. Just recently, Black Eyed Peas alumni Fergie proved her chops with a host of classic rap references in “Like It Ain’t Nuttin” and Janelle Monáe reveled in her unique brand of “black girl magic” on “Django Jane” which we last saw on the single “Q.U.E.E.N.”. While each of these artists have shown an inclination towards the genre before, it seems as though hip-hop’s dominance in the industry has enabled these pop stars to finally embrace rap in ways that feel wholly authentic to them and represent a natural evolution rather than a bid for crossover success.
Technically, pop music is whatever rides high on the charts, so it’s safe to say that in 2018, hip-hop is officially the new “pop.” How the genre will continue to evolve in the mainstream remains unclear, but in a world where pop stars like Rihanna and Beyoncé can now veer effortlessly between singing and rapping in their music, authenticity has finally become the benchmark that these crossovers will be judged by. Creatively blurring the lines between different genres of music should always be encouraged, but not at the expense of being genuine. As long as female pop artists like Katy Perry and Miley Cyrus remember this and heed O.D.B.’s advice on “keeping it real,” then future chart success will be more than just a sweet, sweet fantasy.
For more of our features, check out the 10 best “rapcronyms” explained right here.
- Words: David Opie
- Photography: Kevin Mazur/Getty Images for Global Citizen