In early 1984—as Michael Jackson’s Thriller was nearing the end of its epic run at No. 1, about 15 months after its release—a non-album single appeared on the radio that sounded like a Jackson bonus track. It was clearly Michael’s voice, singing the chorus, sounding paranoid about prying eyes always watching him, but it wasn’t credited to Jackson at all. Instead, the label attributed it to a mustachioed tyro who dubbed himself Rockwell and sang-rapped in a pseudo-British accent. Kennedy “Rockwell” Gordy also happened to be Motown founder Berry Gordy’s son. Jackson was doing a solid for a family friend, singing the chorus on the young striver’s debut single. Credited solely to Rockwell, “Somebody’s Watching Me” hit No. 2 in March of ’84, powered by peak Michael magic. (It would’ve gone to the top if not for bigger hits by Van Halen and Kenny Loggins.)
Nearly 35 years later, the Hot 100 is crowned by a track that’s even more whacked-out and skittery than “Somebody’s Watching Me.” And like Rockwell’s one big hit, it leans heavily on the year’s biggest star—in an officially unbilled, unmistakable vocal. Only this track is front-loaded with its big guest appearance, not even waiting for the chorus (if it even has a chorus).
The song in question is “Sicko Mode,” credited to Houston rapper and friender-of-the-famous Travis Scott, and it kicks right off with what some are calling the best bars Drake has rapped all year—notable in a year when Drizzy released a blockbuster album and topped the Hot 100 with three smash singles. Opening with a 16-bar head-fake and coming back for a long verse in the song’s penultimate act, Drake gets many of the song’s most memeable lines and might well contribute more rhymes than Travis. And Drake is not even the song’s only guest: Rae Sremmurd’s Swae Lee, 2 Live Crew’s Uncle Luke, and deceased emcees Biggie Smalls and Big Hawk all make appearances. And yet … in an era when every sample, bar, and even comedic aside on a rap track is routinely given featured attribution, 26-year-old Travis Scott claims sole credit for himself. Talk about standing on shoulders—a decade and a half after Scott’s idol Kanye West codified the rapper-as-curator archetype, Travis’ “sickest” move might be getting others to carry his single for him.
Let’s give the dude his props: Travis Scott is far deeper into his chart-topping career than Rockwell was in 1984 (or ever), his single is more ambitious, and he’s self-aware enough to know what he’s doing. “Who put this shit together? I’m the glue,” Scott raps in a line that, Drake notwithstanding, might not only be the best lyric on “Sicko Mode” but also its most accurate statement. While the song is the handiwork of a half-dozen producers, led by rap-pop polymaths Rogét Chahayed and Chauncey “Hit-Boy” Hollis Jr., the song is ultimately Scott’s chopped-and-screwed vision. In this way, the solo, auteurist credit makes sense—when it comes to throwing a party, Travis is the un-Khaled.
Born Jacques Webster—imagine being self-assured enough to trade in that name for another, more prosaic rap moniker—Travis Scott has been on the come-up for half a decade. He broke in 2013 via his debut mixtape, Owl Pharaoh, and a near-simultaneous appearance on Kanye West’s label-showcase compilation Cruel Summer. Since then, he’s rung up two chart-topping albums under his own name, 2016’s Birds in the Trap Sing McKnight and this year’s Astroworld, whence came “Sicko Mode.” The week the album landed in August, the single crash-landed on the Hot 100 at No. 4 and proceeded to bounce around the Top 10 for the next four months.
Just after Thanksgiving, “Sicko” finally found an opening during a slow week for Ariana Grande’s dominating “Thank U, Next.” You might have heard that Grande dropped a music video for “Next” that has racked up instant record-breaking views, but Grande did Scott a huge favor by waiting until last Friday to drop her video, missing Billboard’s prior week of data collection entirely. The video views were so massive that even one day of YouTube data would have kept her song at No. 1. Team Travis took advantage of Ariana’s bye week to drop a Skrillex remix of “Sicko” that gave the song the last bit of fuel to sneak into the penthouse, after four weeks stuck at No. 2. Billboard reports that “Sicko Mode” narrowly edged out Grande’s “Next” for the top slot despite not ranking first in any of the Hot 100’s metrics: streaming (where it ranks second), sales (also second), and airplay (eighth).
Of those three metrics, arguably the most impressive data point for “Sicko” is its lowest ranking: its airplay. Because, let’s be honest, it’s remarkable that this bizarre mindfuck of a single is on the radio at all, let alone a Top 10 track. In a recent episode of their podcast Switched on Pop, musicologists Nate Sloan and Charlie Harding compared the song’s structure to the avant-garde orchestral music of John Zorn, and that’s not as absurd as it sounds. “Sicko Mode” is not so much composed as arranged, its Mack-truck gearshifts more a feature than a bug—from Drake’s calliope-flecked intro, to Scott’s 808-riding verses, to a bassy, stumblebum bridge featuring samples of Hawk, to its dead-stop finale. To find an antecedent for “Sicko” among previous Billboard No. 1s, you have to go all the way back to Paul and Linda McCartney’s whimsical, Pythonesque curio “Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey,” a 1971 chart-topper with disjointed voices (most by Paul himself, serving as his own Swae Lee) and several tempo changes. Of course, 2018 has already seen several laconic or lurching songs top the Hot 100—from Childish Gambino, XXXTentacion, and even Drake himself—but they mostly struggled to get over on the radio. (“God’s Plan” eventually became a sizable radio hit because it’s Drake.) Such is Travis Scott’s brand that not only rap connoisseurs but radio programmers felt compelled to buy tickets to his sonic circus.
Scott’s rise to the chart pinnacle has not been without controversy, because he is not above gaming the stats. I would rather ignore his battle with rap provocateur and spoiler-for-a-fight Nicki Minaj, but it largely revolves around the charts, so duty calls. Long story short—and my, is the story long—in August, Scott’s second week at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 album chart denied Minaj a chart-topping debut for her album Queen, and she lost her shit. Among Nicki’s accusations, the most resonant concerns the panoply of album bundles Scott leveraged to get his album to the top spot: Travis-branded clothing and other merchandise, or access to purchase tour tickets (not even the tickets themselves), came with an album download that, if redeemed, counted for the Billboard 200. Minaj has appeared everywhere from Beats 1 radio to The Ellen DeGeneres Show to promulgate a string of theories that she was robbed of a No. 1 album. At one point, even Ariana Grande entered the fracas. For his part, Scott tweaked Minaj at the end of his late August performance at the MTV Video Music Awards, reminding the audience (and her) of his No. 1 album.
Scott is not only not backing down; he continues to employ these chart-juicing but Billboard-legal tactics. Just last week, Astroworld returned to No. 1 in its 17th chart week thanks in large part to album-affiliated merch. As Billboard reported, “Scott release[ed] more than two dozen merchandise/album bundles for Cyber Monday … a keychain, hats, T-shirts, hoodies and so forth came bundled with a digital copy of the Astroworld album.” Tying chart position to tour-ticket bundles has been a source of chart controversy for nearly a decade and a half, ever since Prince pioneered the tactic while releasing 2004’s Musicology, but the practice has metastasized in the 2010s, when traditional album sales have all but disappeared. Minaj—who has employed bundles herself to pump up debut-week sales—is an imperfect and self-serving messenger, but she has a point. Scott’s summit-scaling Billboard success looks an awful lot like gimmickry.
Or maybe Travis is both faking it and making it. His prior album, Birds in the Trap Sing McKnight, reached No. 1 with no stunt shadier than an Apple exclusive, and its rise to the top was fueled mostly by traditional album sales. It’s quite possible Astroworld would have rung the bell, too, in a parallel universe where not only did he not tie it to trinket sales but everyone from Bon Jovi to 5 Seconds of Summer to Andrea Bocelli wasn’t also tethering albums to tours and merch. As for leaning on other artists for his hits, Scott has courted this controversy before—his 2016 hit “Pick Up the Phone” was essentially lifted from a prior Young Thug and Starrah cut and rebranded with new Travis vocal effects, which … makes him like every mixtape emcee ever. His version of “Phone” (on which he co-credited Thug) was an eventual Top 20 R&B/Hip-Hop hit. And now his spellbinding “Sicko Mode” is sitting atop the Hot 100, fueled not by bundles but by raw consumption, both on Spotify and the radio. Travis Scott has figured out the rules of the late-’10s chart game and is just running his plays more adeptly than anyone right now.
Anyone except maybe Drake—and so there’s something apropos about our vampire overlord serving up Travis’ biggest success to date. Drake is the ultimate swagger curator, the rider of other people’s waves. The key to his longevity is his ability to coolhunt and co-opt. His 2017 album wasn’t even an album but a “playlist.” For all of Drake’s meme-worthy lines on “Sicko,” probably his catchiest comes near the beginning, just before the first tempo shift, when Drizzy calls out Travis’ nickname and gives the song its title: “Goin’ on you with the pick and roll—young La Flame, he in sicko mode.” According to Scott, to “go sicko mode” means to do whatever it takes to beat the competition, to put in the work. You can’t say he’s not a man of his word.