A pair of black American brothers, born in the same town as Elvis Presley, lay claim to the legacy of the biggest white rock group of all time, right in the title of their single, and they’re rewarded for it, with thousands of fan videos and the No. 1 song in the country.
Just by existing, isn’t this song a fine rebuke to Donald Trump’s America?
Let’s take solace where we find it: Literally days after the country chose a bigoted über-bro as its next commander in chief, Billboard announced that a song called “Black Beatles” took over the top spot on the Hot 100. It ejected 12-week chart-topper “Closer” by DJ-bros the Chainsmokers. Our anxious nation’s latest No. 1 song comes courtesy of the duo who call themselves Rae Sremmurd and a video meme they happily stumbled into.
Rae Sremmurd is a pair of Tupelo, Mississippi–born siblings, Khalif and Aaquil Brown. Now based in Atlanta and known as 21-year-old “Swae Lee” and 22-year-old “Slim Jxmmi,” the brothers are de facto ambassadors from that city’s hip-hop scene: Their career has been guided by leading ATL producer Michael “Mike WiLL Made-It” Williams (his EarDrummers production company, spelled backwards, gave the duo their name), and on “Black Beatles” they’re supported by veteran Atlanta rapper Gucci Mane, who drops 24 bars midway through the song. The pinup-worthy Rae Sremmurd have been fixtures on black radio and budding pop stars for the last three years, responsible for the hits “No Flex Zone” (No. 36 pop, No. 8 R&B Airplay), “No Type” (No. 16 pop, No. 3 R&B Airplay), and “Throw Sum Mo” (No. 30 pop, No. 1 R&B Airplay).
But no hit in Rae Sremmurd’s two-album catalog has come close to the cross-cultural dominance of “Black Beatles,” their first Top 10 pop hit. (It’s also, remarkably, the first pop No. 1 for Mike WiLL Made-It, who has been a top producer for nearly half a decade. His prior high-water mark was the No. 2 peak of his 2013 Miley Cyrus production “We Can’t Stop.”) When the brothers recorded “Black Beatles” earlier this year, it was a bit cheeky to be comparing themselves to the Fab Four—the spooky, synthy trap track sounds nothing like the Beatles, and its lyrics only briefly invoke John Lennon’s glasses and Paul McCartney’s family tree. But this sass is what’s so winning about the song: To the duo, being a “black Beatle” means having arrived at the toppermost of the poppermost, the highest echelon of musical iconography: “Black Beatles in the city/ Be back immediately/ To confiscate the moneys … I’m a, I’m a black Beatle/ Cream seats in the Regal.” It’s a fine addition to the yearslong lineage of hip-hop striver’s anthems—a wittier version, a decade later, of “Party Like a Rockstar” by fellow Atlantans the Shop Boyz.
Infectious as it is, the song’s nationwide explosion was wholly unpredictable, to say nothing of it toppling the Chainsmokers. When “Closer” hit No. 1 back in late August, “Black Beatles” wasn’t even on the Hot 100—it debuted about a month later, all the way down at No. 96. And when it made that debut, no one had dreamed up the Mannequin Challenge, the viral video meme that is largely responsible for vaulting “Black Beatles” to No. 1.
Since it emerged less than a month ago, the #MannequinChallenge hashtag has appeared millions of times on Twitter. For those who haven’t yet had the pleasure, the meme involves teams of friends—dozens, sometimes hundreds or even thousands—striking curious poses while one cameraperson captures the eerie tableau, bobbing and weaving around a room filled with living statues. (My favorite part of many Mannequin Challenge videos is when the camera catches someone blinking or twitching—or a nonparticipant walking in the background—affirming that this is actually a video of people painstakingly holding still.)
Amazingly, the Mannequin Challenge meme didn’t even involve “Black Beatles” to start. The Oct. 26 video widely credited with starting the trend—featuring a half-dozen students at a high school in Jacksonville—had no soundtrack at all. But within days, as the meme took off, high school kids began organically gravitating toward the spacey, sonically appropriate “Black Beatles” to soundtrack their videos. Adapting quickly to the trend, Rae Sremmurd themselves recorded a short Mannequin Challenge video live at a Nov. 3 show, getting their entire concert audience to freeze while “Black Beatles” played. That helped open the floodgates: Since early November, a plurality of the Mannequin Challenge videos have been soundtracked by Rae Sremmurd’s jam.
All this video activity had a huge impact on the chart fortunes of “Black Beatles.” As per Billboard’s rules, videos don’t have to be official record label uploads to count for the charts—views of any homemade YouTube video that uses at least 30 seconds of an original recording counts toward that song on the charts. Billboard reports that, in the week “Black Beatles” hurtled to the top, YouTube videos featuring the song were viewed nearly 21 million times. That video activity leapfrogged the song from No. 9 to No. 1 in a single bound last week. (The song is now in its second week atop the Hot 100, with even greater video activity—Billboard reports more than 28 million YouTube views last week.)
This makes “Black Beatles” the first song driven to No. 1 by a video meme in nearly four years, since Baauer’s “Harlem Shake”—beneficiary of the YouTube meme of the same name. The parallels between the Harlem Shake meme and the Mannequin Challenge are manifold. In the former, large groups of friends videotape themselves waiting for the drop in Baauer’s song, then dancing manically in unison. In the Mannequin meme, your gang is captured trying not to move—it’s the Harlem Shake meme turned inside-out. So there’s some poetic symmetry in the way the two songs topped the charts.
“Harlem Shake,” for better or worse, was a milestone chart-topper in Hot 100 history. It debuted at No. 1 in early 2013, the week Billboard began counting YouTube views for the chart, thanks almost entirely to viral videos—103 million views of them in a week, to be exact. In the three years and nine months since the Hot 100 rule change, we’ve seen several hits powered to No. 1 by heavy video activity: Miley Cyrus’ “Wrecking Ball” hurtled to the top thanks to its racy video, and Taylor Swift’s hits “Blank Space” and “Bad Blood” each leapt to the top from outside the Top 10 after Swift deployed cinematic, glossy clips for both songs. But in these and other cases, the YouTube activity was driven largely by the songs’ official, label-sanctioned videos. (The closest any song came to hitting the top thanks to fan video activity was when Cyrus’s “Wrecking Ball” went back to No. 1 for a single week in December 2013 due to heavy play of a Chatroulette parody of her video. Remember Chatroulette?)
So yes, Rae Sremmurd’s hit is the first since Baauer’s to reach No. 1 thanks to a meme involving thousands of small videos by unfamous people—a fad they fundamentally had nothing to do with. But there’s an important difference between “Black Beatles” and “Harlem Shake,” one that makes Rae Sremmurd’s hit closer to the those by Cyrus and Swift: “Black Beatles” was emerging as a hit before the meme, and it stands a real chance of living on after the meme.
Remember, Mannequin videos featuring “Black Beatles” only materialized the first week of November; data from the meme began affecting the Hot 100 just a fortnight ago. Prior to that, “Black Beatles” was already a Top 20 hit—it had reached No. 16 on the chart. (There is a data lag of about two weeks on Billboard’s charts; a Hot 100 dated Nov. 12, 2016, actually reflects data collected the last week of October.) Moreover, “Black Beatles” has been receiving appreciable radio airplay. Prior to the meme, the song had a radio audience of about 6.5 million. That’s actually quite small by U.S. radio standards—so small that at first “Beatles” didn’t appear on Billboard’s Radio Songs chart, the airplay component of the Hot 100. Last week, with the Mannequin meme at full froth, “Black Beatles” finally garnered enough spins to make a dent on Radio Songs; Billboard reports its airplay was up 57 percent for the week and nearly quadrupled from two weeks ago, reaching 25 million. That’s still a modest audience, ranking it only 44th on Radio Songs.
But that’s a damn sight better than “Harlem Shake,” which even after topping the Hot 100 in 2013 never appeared on Radio Songs at all. When’s the last time you heard “Harlem Shake” on the radio (if ever)? When’s the last time anyone called up Baauer on a jukebox? After their initial video-fueled chart boosts, “Wrecking Ball,” “Blank Space,” and “Bad Blood” all caught up at radio over the next couple of months and wound up as top five airplay hits. That might be a little high for a single as quirky as “Black Beatles,” but unlike the verse-and-chorus–less “Harlem Shake” it’s easy to picture Rae Sremmurd’s song in heavier rotation a month from now. (As of this week, Billboard reports “Beatles” is up another 63 percent in airplay to 41 million in audience, ranking it 28th on Radio Songs.)
It’s also selling and streaming well: “Black Beatles” now ranks as the country’s most-purchased digital song (more than quadrupling over the last two weeks to 154,000 downloads sold) and the most-played on-demand song at services like Spotify and Apple Music (25.3 million streams, more than doubling over two weeks). True, some of those sales and streams are to curiosity-seekers and the meme-obsessed—but not all 154,000 purchasers are making their own Mannequin video, and a song doesn’t get played that much purely for novelty value. “Harlem Shake” was a lopsided phenomenon, a pseudo-hit driven largely by YouTube. “Black Beatles” is a real hit.
When “Black Beatles” reached No. 1, a number of press reports made much of the fact that an actual living Beatle, Paul McCartney, co-signed both the song and the meme. On Nov. 10, the Cute Beatle tweeted his own twinkly Mannequin Challenge video, holding a peculiar pose at his grand piano while “Black Beatles” played. (Major bonus points to Macca for posing over Slim Jxmmi’s line in the song, “Black Beatle, bitch—me and Paul McCartney related!”)
Not to be a spoilsport data nerd, but enchanting as this video is, the New York Times is actually wrong to say “There was no stopping ‘Black Beatles’ once Paul McCartney got involved”—Paul had virtually nothing to do with the song’s leap to the top. Most of the numbers Billboard and Nielsen gather to produce the Hot 100 are collected on a weekly schedule from Friday to Thursday (all except radio airplay, which is tracked on a Monday-to-Sunday schedule). The chart on which “Black Beatles” hit No. 1 comprised sales, streaming, and YouTube data collected from Friday, Nov. 4, through Thursday, Nov. 10. That last day is when McCartney posted his video—and it’s not even clear the McCartney Mannequin clip itself counts for the Hot 100; it’s less than 30 seconds and was posted to Twitter, not YouTube. Even if McCartney’s co-sign led to further sales and streams of “Black Beatles,” less than a day of them would have been tallied toward Rae Sremmurd’s victory lap.
One last thing you might notice about the dates of that chart tracking week, Nov. 4 through 10, is it was the days just before, during, and just after Election Day. In other words, the same seven-day period that saw progressive multiculturalism edged out at the ballot box also saw millions of Americans jamming to Rae Sremmurd. To say nothing of the thousands of young people that week, of all races, videotaping themselves holding still for a song in which Rae Sremmurd reach for the Beatles’ mantle. The Sremmurd brothers say they were touched by McCartney’s shoutout, less for what it did to their chart status and more for “the whole movement” brought about by the Beatles—a group that, incidentally, survived a pushback from Middle America 50 years ago and came to be embraced across the cultural divide. The Mannequin Challenge is a fad, sure, but it’s a well-timed one—a goofy balm for a nation that’s reeling. At a time when people in the arts take a principled stand for the future of America, maybe the kids in all those high schools aren’t just holding still for a video stunt. However unwitting, they’re standing at attention for an alternative national anthem.