Why are the 2010s more difficult for female R&B singers than the ’90s?
Halfway through 2017, Nielsen Music announced that R&B and hip-hop now account for 25 percent of all music consumption, outpacing rock for the first time in the company’s 25 years of compiling the report. The viral R&B or rap hit jetting up the Hot 100 has become so commonplace that Vulture called 2017 “the year hip-hop won the music business.”
But that depends on which part of the music business you’re looking at. Success on the Billboard Hot 100, which includes sales, streams and radio play, disguises a crucial realm where singles from both rappers and R&B singers still face significant hurdles: the pop airwaves. Cardi B‘s “Bodak Yellow” reached No. 1 on the Hot 100, but over on the Pop Songs airplay chart, it only made it to No. 23. That’s slightly better than Kendrick Lamar‘s “Humble.”, another Hot 100 No. 1 that stopped at No. 26 on Pop Songs. Migos‘ “Bad and Boujee,” featuring Lil Uzi Vert, also topped the Hot 100 but was unable to crack the top 30 on Pop Songs. Pop radio reaches the largest audience of any radio format every week, according to Nielsen Music, yet some of the most popular singles in the country are not played there heavily.
In the current pop radio climate, though, “Bodak Yellow” and “Humble.” are actually crossover success stories. Lil Uzi Vert‘s “XO Tour Llif3” and Future‘s “Mask Off” were inescapable in 2017, unless you spent months listening to pop radio, where they were imperceptible — both failed to register on the Pop Songs chart. As many have noted, pop radio programmers may have been the only camp unmoved by Beyoncé‘s Lemonade album in 2016: “Formation” did not crack Pop Songs, and “Sorry” did not make it into the top 30.
It turns out these are not isolated incidents. Comparing the R&B/Hip-Hop Airplay chart (the chart ranks the 50 most popular songs on R&B/hip-hop radio stations each week) and the Pop Songs chart (the chart reflecting the 40 most-played tracks on top 40 airwaves each week) between 1993 and 2016 shows that fewer songs are crossing from R&B/hip-hop radio to pop radio. And one group has been hit particularly hard by this decrease: female artists. In 1993, 16 songs featuring prominent female vocals made the leap from R&B/hip-hop airplay to pop airplay. In 2016, that number fell to just two.
Billboard created the R&B/Hip-Hop Airplay and Pop Songs airplay charts in 1992, not long after Nielsen Music began to electronically monitor sales and radio data with new levels of accuracy and granularity. The research in this story relied on data from the 24 years for which 52 weeks of chart information is available. The charts were cross-referenced, and any song that appeared in both was marked as a possible crossover track. However, if the song appeared on the Pop Songs chart the same week — or before — it appeared on R&B/Hip-Hop Airplay chart, it was discarded. The goal is to find songs that gain traction in the world of R&B/hip-hop radio before becoming big enough to force pop radio to take notice; songs that make the journey in reverse or travel up both charts simultaneously are a separate phenomenon.
Examples of the latter include singles from Adele, Sam Smith, Bruno Mars and Rihanna, all of whom get major support at pop radio and often reverse-cross to R&B/hip-hop radio. The number of reverse-crossover songs stays relatively constant from 1993 to 2012, when it ticks upward; it was higher in the following five years than it was for the majority of the time period examined, but increase in reverse-crossovers does not compensate for the overall decline in crossovers, of which there were 539 between 1993 and 2016.
All songs that appeared on the R&B/Hip-Hip Airplay chart were also classified according to the sex of the lead vocalist, with at least 50 percent female vocals required to qualify as a female-lead song. So, for instance, a woman singing the hook on a male artist’s song doesn’t count, but duets where both artists are on equal footing — take Mariah Carey and Boyz II Men — or singing groups that are at least half female do.
The average number of songs making the leap from R&B/hip-hop airplay to pop airplay each year has declined between 1993 and 2016. In 1993, 29 R&B/hip-hop tracks crossed over. The number rose as high as 36 in 2002 before dropping in increments down to just 12 in 2009. The average number of songs that crossed over during the first 14 years is 27 per year; during the last decade, that average fell to 16.
When you break these numbers down according to the gender of the singer, it turns out that the decline in overall crossover songs is entirely driven by a plunge in the number of female artists crossing over. In fact, the number of male crossover songs has stayed almost constant: The trend line has a negative slope that’s barely different from zero, although it is statistically significant.
In contrast, the number of female artists has plummeted: A pool of 16 crossover female songs in 1993 shrank to just two in 2016. The slope of the trend line for female crossover songs is statistically indistinguishable from the slope of a trend line for all crossover songs, meaning that the overall decline in crossover songs is driven by the decline in crossover female songs. Women once made up more than 50 percent of all the R&B/Hip-Hop Airplay crossover songs; from 2012-2016, they accounted for just 13 percent.
One possible reason that fewer female-fronted acts are crossing over is that there are fewer songs by female-fronted acts on the R&B/Hip-Hop Airplay chart in the first place. Sure enough, the pool of tracks by female artists on R&B/hip-hop radio is now roughly half of what it once was: There were 62 songs by women on the R&B/Hip-Hop Airplay chart during 1993, but just 33 during 2016. During this period, the number of songs by male acts on the R&B/Hip-Hop Airplay chart has drifted downward at a much more gradual rate (115 in 1993, 109 in 2016).
There is no difference between the average amount of time male and female crossover songs spend on the Pop Songs chart, but interestingly, the average peak position of crossover songs by women on Pop Songs is superior relative to their male counterparts. A female act who does manage to crossover reaches an average position of No. 16, while the average male crossover act tops out around No. 20. Although the difference between the two averages is not large, it is statistically significant.
These results do not surprise radio business veterans. “There are fewer records going over,” says Dee Sonaram, vice president of rhythmic radio promotion at 300 Records. “Nowadays it takes a lot more than a great record; you almost have to have a moment of pop culture for it to work on that side.”
“The pop world is totally different,” Sonaram continues. “You gotta understand, they don’t necessarily want Migos on the Z100 Jingle Ball [the annual holiday concert for New York City’s premier top 40 station, WHTZ]. It’s cool to have ’em on there now and then, but it doesn’t fit between Katy Perry and P!nk. Even with [300’s] ‘Trap Queen’ [by Fetty Wap, No. 2 on the Hot 100 but No. 20 on Pop Songs in 2015], we had a problem [with the lyrics]: ‘Hey mom, what are we cookin’ up in the kitchen?’ There’s still a certain amount of programmers out there that are probably scared to put that record on, even though you clean it up.”
This suggests a biased restraint on rappers and R&B singers, who could reach the biggest pool of listeners available on radio if they were put into heavy rotation by pop programmers. But Sonaram believes that’s not the right way to think about it. “I don’t know that going up the pop chart further does anything for [Cardi B],” he says. “It might even overexpose her. You gotta be careful of the Flo Rida effect. Flo Rida has an amazing career; he’s always going to come back with a huge record on pop radio. But he’ll never get on urban radio. He can’t go back.” (In the 1990s, however, when pop radio was more receptive to crossover acts, artists like Usher and JAY-Z routinely earned pop airplay without losing the allegiance of urban radio programmers.)
It may seem counterintuitive to radio outsiders, but Ken Johnson, vp of urban programming for Cumulus Media, believes that the downturn in crossover actually helps mainstream R&B/hip-hop stations. “On the urban side of the ball, I don’t look for records to cross over, per se,” he explains. “If they don’t cross over, it benefits urban radio more. Listeners who are consumers of that music, if they’re not getting that on top 40 radio, there’s a few places they can still get it, and one of those is urban radio.”
As to the reason behind fewer female acts at R&B/hip-hop radio and fewer crossover female acts, radio programmers suggest women are battling both a sexist music industry and the dominance of hip-hop, which rules urban radio but has rarely made room for multiple female artists. “Women have always had a more challenging time in this industry,” Jill Strada, programming director for Miami’s top 40 (WFLC) and hip-hop (WEDR), says. “And on the rap tip, we’re still talking mostly about the same chicks.” R&B is more hospitable to female artists than hip-hop, but both male and female R&B singers have been crowded out by rappers. “Urban [radio] hasn’t been playing or embracing the R&B sound the way it once did,” Strada acknowledges. It remains to be seen if the success of an act like Cardi B will encourage labels to invest in more female MCs.
Perhaps choosing to focus narrowly on radio is an outdated approach in an increasingly streaming-driven world — a more equitable streaming landscape might counter the downward trend in female R&B/hip-hop artists on the airwaves. However, Spotify’s premier pop playlist, Today’s Top Hits, takes some of its cues from radio, deploying few songs that qualify as female crossover hits.
So despite all the success of R&B and hip-hop in 2017, pop radio has largely ignored this rising tide. And female artists are not sharing in its benefits.