What does Beyoncé have in common with Temar Underwood? In real life, very little. I doubt that Ms. Knowles has had many red carpet run-ins with Underwood, a singer-songwriter who, according to his Web site bio, has been “preparing for his introduction to the world … since his arrival in New York City in 2002.” (These things take time.)
The BillboardHot R&B/Hip-Hop Singles Sales chart, though, is not quite real life. It is a parallel musical universe in which Beyoncé’s “Halo” sits alongside songs by Underwood and other virtual unknowns, including Dizzy D., J.Long, Nikki Jane, K’Jon (no relation to J.Long), and an R&B crooner who calls himself Cleer. (Per www.cleerproject.com: “What makes Cleer so unique is that he is arguabley [sic] a jack of so many trades; one fully able to express himself. Not only is he a recording artist and an accomplished percussionist but he is adept in the fields of painting, drawing and sculpting. He also has a love of fashion.”)
The Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Singles Sales rundown is the oddest and most anachronistic of Billboard’s charts, tracking sales of commercial singles—physical product, not downloads—in the urban market. In past years, the chart closely mirrored the regular Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs countdown, packed with hits by major label superstars like 50 Cent, Mariah Carey, and, yes, Beyoncé. But as sales of CD singles have dwindled (most major labels have ceased production of CD singles altogether), the Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Singles Sales chart has become a sales log, primarily, of 12-inch maxi-singles—good old-fashioned vinyl records.
As such, it is a chart dominated by unsigned regional artists, who favor a sweat-and-shoe-leather predigital model of promotion, marketing their records to club DJs. The sales figures involved are probably minuscule. In other words, Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Singles Sales is the most indie chart imaginable, a record not of commercial success, exactly, but of bootstrapping, song-plugging effort. Fourteen-year-old Lauren Ashley may or may not follow in the footsteps of fellow Houstonian Beyoncé. But last week, the 12-inch of Ashley’s “Ambulance” outsold “Halo.” Does Ashley have a fast-talking uncle, peddling these records out of the back of the van? If so, he done good.
In most cases, it’s easier to root for these musical underdogs than to listen to them. Cleer, for instance, may be a fine sculptor, but on the basis of “Where the Party Is” (No. 7 on last week’s chart), he’s a rather wan would-be neo-soul star. But occasionally songs in the Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Singles Sales chart bubble up from the regional grass roots and go national. Last week’s chart-topper was the Dallas rap crew GS Boyz’s infectious, ridiculous “Stanky Legg,” which, with help from BET, YouTube, and, presumably, the odd 12-inch sale, has followed the path blazed by “Chicken Noodle Soup,” “Aunt Jackie,” and “Crank That” to become this season’s viral dance craze hit. The GS Boyz now have a real record deal on Georgia rapper Yung Joc’s Swagg Team label. They even managed to crack the top 50 on the Billboard Hot 100. Only time will tell whether their skills extend to the visual arts.