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'Charting Black Excellence' celebrates black artists and their current accomplishments on the Billboard charts, which often don’t receive the proper recognition and attention.
On August 6, 2016, Normani announced to the Twitterverse that she was “taking a break” after enduring years of cyberbullying. She mentioned that in the 48 hours leading up to drafting the message, and despite her “thick skin to critics,” a slew of racist memes and mentions targeted at her is what forced her need for mental clarity. She also noted, “I am not the first black celebrity to deal with this.”
To my fans: pic.twitter.com/7yICp10G5Z— Normani (@Normani) August 7, 2016
That moment came after what fans of her former girl group— the X-Factor-crafted Fifth Harmony— perceived as a swipe at fellow ex-member Camila Cabello. For a while, it had become apparent that Camila was distancing herself from the girl group, as she always seemed separate in group photos and out of sync in interviews. Not to mention, her first two lead attempts without the others made major breakthroughs on the charts: 2015’s “I Know What You Did Last Summer” with Shawn Mendes and 2016’s “Bad Things” with Machine Gun Kelly.
Questioned on all her bandmates in a Facebook Live interview with Galore, Normani’s delayed response for Camila, "quirky"—after immediately thinking of BFF compliments for the other three—was misconstrued as a shady moment. However, it revealed that the inevitable would take place at the end of 2016: Camila’s departure as a solo artist, turning Fifth Harmony into a quartet.
The second music quarter of 2017 into the first music quarter of 2018 became the Moment of Camila, as Fifth Harmony struggled to gain similar chart success without their former member. While Camila would eventually go on to secure a No. 1, self-titled debut album on the Billboard 200 chart, and a summit-reaching lead single ("Havana") on the Billboard Hot 100, the question turned into who'd be "next" during 5H’s final era. Just as Zayn’s surprise departure from One Direction started an arms race for who would blow up into the biggest solo star, history seemed to be repeating itself with Simon Cowell’s female equivalent.
On September 13, 2017, the American Teen Khalid tweeted a thread about “living [his] dream” after surviving a car accident before his senior year in high school. He too discussed how he dealt with bullying because he “sang.” Of course, Khalid has faced his own forms of cyberbullying—and, worst off, from members of his own community. In 2018, he’d be nominated for Best New Artist at The Grammys, and his suicide prevention collaboration with Logic and Alessia Cara, “1-800-273-8255,” peaked at No. 3, ultimately spiking the number of calls the hotline received from those in distress. His appeal on the pop scene coming from a folksy voice blended with R&B style.
The linkage of Khalid and Normani on “Love Lies” is symbolic to say the least. As two of the latest generation’s leading mainstream acts, they’re changing the course of pop radio with a song that’s about spreading love. Released on Valentine’s Day of this year, “Love Lies” hailed as the second single from Love, Simon—a teen flick revolving around hidden romances and crushes, a topic both Khalid and Normani are adept to discuss.
With a flickering trap&B beat that’s smoothed out by an icy, relaxed quiet storm vibe, the song's consistency exists in the chorus and their duelling perspectives. Khalid plays the role of a Byronic hero of sorts who is distrusting in general, but willing to open up to his damsel played by Normani. Coincidentally enough, Normani played the Prom Queen in the music video of Khalid’s signature hit “Young, Dumb, and Broke."
In the music video—which resembles the elevator mystique of Rihanna and Ne-Yo’s “Hate That I Love You”—and during stage performances, Normani's true, leading-star power stands (and splits) tall. The defining moment of this song’s rise came during a performance at the 2018 Billboard Music Awards in May (see below), with Normani’s stunner dance routine instilling faith in viewers who believed the newest crop of talent can’t replicate the showmanship of the Michael and Janet Jacksons, Beyoncés, and Ushers of music. Oddly enough, Normani ended up performing graciously on the same bill as her former bandmate. After the final award was handed out, internet favor—particularly on Twitter—had viewers reconsidering who 5H's true breakout star is.
Although Normani doesn’t feed into that energy like the critics do, it is fair for this particular critic to note that out of all of the Fifth Harmony members who have released their debut songs as solo artists, “Love Lies” is now the highest peaking, at No. 9 on the Billboard Hot 100 (as of this week). To break that down: Camila’s “I Know What You Did Last Summer” reached No. 20; Ally Brooke’s “Look At Us Now” with The Lost Kings and A$AP Ferg managed to make only the dance charts; Lauren Jauregui’s “Back To Me” with Marian Hill became moderately successful internationally but didn't break stateside; and Dinah Jane’s “Boom Boom” with RedOne, Daddy Yankee and French Montana landed on the Latin charts only.
In terms of Billboard's Top 40 chart, chronicling pop, it's quite surprising that Normani and Khalid, as black artists, have the No. 1 song at the moment. As the Chief Content Officer of Genius, Brendan Frederick, tweeted in response to @chartdata: “Funny that Drake hasn't hit #1 on the Pop Songs chart (a.k.a. the ‘Mainstream Top 40’ chart) this year, despite being the most popular artist of 2018 by a huge margin. Probably because ‘pop music’ is a racist construct created by the music industry to uphold white supremacy.” In that same thread, he’d go on to highlight: “None of the 6 rap songs that hit #1 on the Hot 100 in 2017 also topped Pop Songs. In fact, no Black artist has had a #1 Pop Song since 2016!”
Taking that a step further, the positioning of R&B songs on the Mainstream Top 40 charts are horrible as well, especially if that song is delivered by a black artist. One of my favorite Billboard articles asked if the format had an issue with playing Beyoncé, who happens to be Normani’s leading inspiration. And the answer, from personal listening experience, is a resounding “YES! YES IT DOES!”
There have been countless times (in grocery stores and restaurants) where I’ve done my favorite pasttime of listening to the intercom’s radio, heard Ed Sheeran's “Perfect” or J Balvin and Willy William’s “Mi Gente,” but rarely experienced the Beyoncé-assisted versions that propelled those songs to top positions. Not to mention how Billboard removed Beyoncé’s artist credit a few weeks into “Perfect’s” No. 1 reign on the Hot 100. To quote her Beychella performance, “ain’t that ‘bout a bitch?,” considering it was her version in the first place that pushed Mr. Sheeran into the top spot.
Then we have the case of pop music always borrowing from what styles are already trendy; and, of course, that’s more than likely black-rooted (and now, Latin) music. When analyzing why it had been a surprise that Rihanna's “Love on the Brain” had reached the Top 5 of the Hot 100—a year after its release—I mentioned how its “success on pop radio today is a rare find, because traditional R&B’s presence on the format is an oddity.” In hindsight, it is fascinating that “Love Lies” is not traditional R&B, but rather trap&B, which we labeled “the new pop” back in May, during its genre Master Class.
The songs that hit No. 1 on the Pop/Mainstream Top 40 charts prior to “Love Lies” were Post Malone’s “Better Now” and Maroon 5 & Cardi B’s “Girls Like You”—variants of trap&B fused with pop. Black artists have reached the top in that chart recently, but in guest roles: Ty Dolla $ign in Post Malone’s “Psycho,” Young Thug’s in Camila’s own “Havana,” and Quavo in Liam Payne’s “Strip That Down.” The last song with solely black artists to reach the summit position is Flo Rida’s hip-pop single “My House,” dated March 26, 2016. Again, to quote Bey, "ain’t that ‘bout a bitch?"
Normani and Khalid’s presence in the top region reveals that pop radio, which considers itself the "Mainstream Top 40," has a ways to go when it comes to being fully representative. That ultimately trickles down to the DJs, shock jocks, and radio programmers controlling the airwaves, considering what labels have to offer their format. In the meantime, it’s worth celebrating this new milestone as it will hopefully open the doors for more upcoming talent to experience similar success, and ultimately expand Normani and Khalid's already growing legacies, as black treasures for music.
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