Charting Black Excellence | Why Migos’ AMAs win in a pop category makes sense

Da’Shan Smith

 // Oct 12, 2018

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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.

As awards season continues, the music industry is simultaneously recalculating what is considered “pop music.” It's a debate that’s persisted in recent years, extending beyond decades, since the conception of charts and radio programming. Migos’ victory on Tuesday, Oct. 9 at the American Music Awards highlighted just how far these conversations are going in award shows' nomination committees. And somehow, the trio’s classification as pop confused some, but also addressed a reality.

The intriguing component of the American Music Awards is the concept of fans voting for their favorite artists in categories based on how the committee labels an artist's overall sound. In this case, Migos -- who are amongst the leaders of today’s mainstream trap scene -- skipped the hip hop categories for a sole nod in “Favorite Duo or Group – Pop/Rock.” Due to their increasing popularity, which was jumpstarted by 2013’s “Versace” hitting No. 99 on the Billboard Hot 100, Migos has sandwiched themselves in the pop world just as much as they’ve made a mark in the evolution of today’s hip hop.

However, it would first make sense to define “pop,” that word takes on multiple definitions in the music world. The term doesn’t simply mean “popular music,” but rather examines the cadences existing within a record. To be clear, pop is indeed and always will be a genre. Pop, as a genre, was designed with the intention of garnering hits on the radio and have mass commercial appeal. Usually cultural aspects from the most trendy genres (i.e. hip hop, R&B, Latin, etc.) are borrowed and infused with more basic song structuring, repeated lyricism -- particularly through a catchy hook, and more simple melodies. Pop music is designed to attract the youth with the help of the music industry's most relevant stars.

As trap’s presence has grown expansively in the five years since “Versace,” it would make sense that the genre would borderline pop music based on its structuring alone. The hooks of trap are catchy and easy to remember. In the case of Migo’s own “Stir Fry,” which had to be one of the songs considered in the 2018 eligibility period, the chorus continues to repeat, “In the kitchen, wrist twistin' like it's stir fry (whip it)” ad nauseam. Produced by one of modern history’s best pop producers, Pharrell, “Stir Fry” not only modeled conventional pop infused with witty trap references and vocal delivery, the song found its way on an iPhone X Animoji commercial that aired during the Grammys. Seeing Migos’ music being used in national broadcasting solidified they were not only recording artists who trap, but they also craft pop records for commercial gain.

In their career span, the group has already placed four songs -- including “Stir Fry” at No. 35 -- on Billboard’s Mainstream Top 40, which charts pop radio airplay. Of course, if you’ve read the Normani and Khalid article from this series, then you’re already familiar with the race problem pop programmers seem to have with black artists. On the all-encompassing Hot 100 chart -- which doesn’t discriminate by genre or race, Migos reached the Top 10 three times in 2018 with “MotorSport,” “Stir Fry,” and “Walk It, Talk It.” This proved their idea of trap is suitable enough for global audiences.

What’s fascinating about all the nominees in this year’s AMAs pop categories is the fact that they’ve all infused trap in their recent pop sounds. Starting with the winner of "Favorite Female Artist," Taylor Swift tries to prove her “big reputation” on “End Game” where she’s rap-singing along with Future and Ed Sheeran, who was nominated for "Favorite Male." Not to mention how “...Ready For It?” discusses an “island breeze” in the lite of say Rihanna, and models after the industrial rap spirit of Yeezus-era Kanye West. In order for her bad girl shtick to work for this era, Swift had to borrow some hip hop influences to keep her pop music relevant in a streaming era dominated by the genre.

Swift’s partner-in-crime during the award show, Camila Cabello didn’t necessarily go the trap route on her debut era. But, she mingled with her Latin heritage from Cuba instead, notably on “Havana.” It should also be mentioned that her scrapped promotional single “OMG” featured Quavo, which exemplifies how the Migos’ particular brand of trap is permeating and influencing today’s pop the most. Though “Havana” reached No. 1 on the Hot 100 and Mainstream Top 40, another pop-trap maestro, Young Thug, received the first of this kind. He won for both "Collaboration of the Year" and "Video of the Year."

The competition against Migos in the "Favorite Duo or Group/Pop-Rock" category also dabbled in trap with pop intentions. Maroon 5 is currently enjoying a No. 1 song on the Hot 100 chart with Cardi B called “Girls Like You.” That song sways in pop and a tropical fusion of afrobeats. Maroon 5’s single prior to “Girls Like You,” “Wait” trickles in trap. This song even has an official remix with A Boogie Wit Da Hoodie.

On the other hand, Imagine Dragons is currently leading their alternative rock field, which can be attributed not only to the stadium-euphoria their music exudes, but also an element of hip hop that comes in their sound. It’s hard to place in words, but the energy of Imagine Dragons contains an attitude that’s a bit more -- for a lack of better words -- “urban-skewing,” particularly if you pay attention to how hard hitting 2017’s “Thunder” beat is. Granted, the song was released in 2016 (outside of this year’s AMA eligibility period). But, the rockstars have also collaborated with Lil Wayne, Wiz Khalifa, Ty Dolla $ign, and Logic on “Sucker For Pain.” In ways, this is reminiscent of the days JAY-Z collaborated with Linkin Park on songs such as “Encore”-- a subtle fusion of nu-metal styled rock with hip hop, which made both acts interchangeable in their respective music fields.

Unlike Migos; Cardi B, Drake and Post Malone were also nominated for hip hop categories in addition to the pop ones. This seemed like an acknowledgement of how the three recording artists -- who are collecting record proportions of No. 1s and Top 10s on the Hot 100, hip hop, and mainstream pop charts -- are ruling all the genres of music. Recent rumors have come out that Malone’s work from Beerbongs & Bentleys will only be considered in the pop categories of the Grammys -- despite its trap&B focus. All eyes are now on the Grammys to see if they’ll consider Cardi B, Drake, and Migos in the same light, or if this is simply another way for the system to game the deserving artists.

All in all, Migos’ win in the pop category is significant because black artists have created pop and pushed it to new heights with rockstar attitudes. This has been verified by America’s choice for the first King of Rock himself, Elvis Presley. As the legend goes, on his deathbed, Presley denied that he was the king of the genre. Instead, he gave that credit to Chuck Berry. Then, we have the case of Michael Jackson, a black man who set the standard for today’s modern pop and what constitutes being a music celebrity, icon, and eventual legend.

I use this word often when writing these pieces, but Migos’ win is, in fact, a reclamation. Black artists are running pop culture and always have. Simply put, music coming from black people is the culture. Post Malone may have a hit song titled “Rockstar.” But, 21 Savage cosigned and rapped a verse that embodies the demeanor of a modern black rockstar. There’s a reason why Migos has two installments of an album series entitled Culture, a project where even they acknowledge “the higher we go” more impact is bound to happen.

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