A pop singer, living out the old maxim to “write what you know,” records a song about heartbreak and the spiteful feelings it engenders. Rumors abound that the raw lyric is directed at a high-profile former paramour. (The singer denies it, not entirely believably.) The singer has been around a while and even topped the charts years earlier, in a former collaboration that rode radio’s then–most reliable pop trend. But trends since then have shifted, and the singer’s ultimate goal is making it as a credible solo performer. To break through, the star-in-the-making seeks not just a big hit but a song that proves definitive, shows what is possible. The heartbreak song, with its notoriety and broad relatability, is what finally does it. Rising to the upper reaches of Billboard’s Hot 100, the song’s icy, minor-key pop, adapted from prevailing music trends, sounds right at home on the radio in the dead of winter.
If it were January 2003 right now, the above would describe “Cry Me a River,” the breakthrough single for Justin Timberlake. Though it did not top the Hot 100, the song’s No. 3 peak that winter finally cemented Justin’s solo stardom, a year after the hiatus (permanent, as it turned out) of his blockbuster boy band, ’N Sync. “Cry” was the second single from Timberlake’s debut, Justified, following the underperforming leadoff track “Like I Love You” (No. 11, 2002), but more importantly, it was Justin’s first single in what would turn out to be a decade-plus, multialbum collaboration with rap-pop producer extraordinaire Timbaland. Just as millennial teen pop was falling off on the charts in favor of R&B and hip-hop, Justin found his new sound: With its cathedral music–esque synth flourishes, beatboxed rhythms, and on-trend hip-hop bounce, “Cry Me a River”—its vindictive lyrics directed at ex Britney Spears, though Justin denied it at the time—set a template for Timberlake’s blue-eyed pop-and-B career, one he followed for the next decade and a half.
But of course, it’s January 2019, and the breakthrough song I’m really talking about is “Without Me,” from Halsey—the biracial, sharp-tongued, throaty singer-songwriter born Ashley Nicolette Frangipane. Halsey (her stage name is an anagram of her legal first name) has been primed to break big on the pop charts for half a decade, ever since she leapt from SoundCloud to a major label deal in 2014. Now officially Halsey’s biggest hit as a lead artist, “Without Me” not only quotes Timberlake’s “Cry Me a River” directly, it bests Justin’s 2003 chart performance, rising all the way to No. 1 on the Hot 100 in the first full week of the new year. Even beyond her higher chart peak, Halsey’s triumph this week—given her gender and the prevailing pop trends over the past couple of years—is arguably more impressive than Justin’s was 16 years ago.
“Without Me” ejects Ariana Grande’s “Thank U, Next” from No. 1 after seven weeks at No. 1—basically the entire holiday season, save for one week in early December when Travis Scott’s “Sicko Mode” interrupted for a single frame. Like “Sicko,” “Without” waited out Grande’s more instantaneous smash very patiently, holding at No. 2 for three weeks around Christmas. And like Scott’s hit, Halsey’s ekes out a win despite not leading in any of the three metrics that contribute to the Hot 100: It ranks fourth in streaming, second in radio audience, and second among downloads—although for practically the entire holiday season, “Without” was the top-selling download, even over Grande’s “Next,” which ruled on the big chart thanks largely to its strength on streaming services and YouTube. Billboard also reports that the passing of Christmas made room for Halsey’s hit to float to the top, thanks to the departure of holiday songs from streaming and radio playlists (including a certain omnipresent Mariah classic that I may be writing about next December). In short, the January doldrums are good for a nonseasonal hit like “Without Me,” datawise, but Halsey’s ruminations also feel apropos for those experiencing seasonal affective disorder.
If Halsey’s name looks familiar, both at the top of the chart and in this Slate series, it’s because we’ve talked about her a couple of times in relation to other dudes’ No. 1 hits. In early 2016, as Justin Bieber was on a tear with his string of chart-toppers, Halsey recorded a larky cover of his top hit of that year, the pissy acoustic-pop trifle “Love Yourself.” Halsey sang the song as “Fuck Yourself,” making plain the four-letter word Bieber and co-writer Ed Sheeran only implied—guaranteeing her version would never be played on the radio but winning Halsey notoriety at a time when she had yet to score a big radio or streaming hit.
Then later that same year, Halsey actually topped the Hot 100, albeit in a supporting role, on “Closer,” the aching, he-said-she-said pseudo-ballad from electronic dance music emo-bros the Chainsmokers. Rising to No. 1 in September 2016, the EDM-lite “Closer” commanded the charts for a dozen weeks, and Halsey’s lovelorn vocal was, to many, the highlight. But the song was so big it threatened to overshadow her own career. It didn’t help that, as I half-predicted at the time, “Closer” wound up being not only an elegy for EDM but a closer (pun intended) for electro-pop’s decadelong boom. By 2017, as streaming swallowed the charts—and the pendulum swung toward viral hip-hop, SoundCloud emo-rap, and piles and piles of Drake—swooning EDM was replaced by brooding trap as Top 40’s dominant sound. As for the Chainsmokers, despite a flurry of follow-up hits, they never returned to No. 1, and by 2018 their singles were pitched largely to clubs and falling short of the Top 40.
Unlike the Chainsmokers, Halsey proved herself adaptable and quietly carved a path on the hip-hop–dominated, even-more-guy-centric charts of the past two years. She cracked the Top 20 for the first time as a lead artist with 2017’s “Now or Never” (No. 17), a bit of thumping midtempo R&B that echoed the smoky groove of Rihanna’s sleeper hit “Needed Me.” Within months, she’d cracked the Top 10 with “Bad at Love” (No. 5), a skittering pop ditty combining verbose, near-rapped verses and a torchy, operatic chorus. It found a sweet spot for Halsey, proving she could ride alongside hip-hop on the radio but unfurl a secret weapon—a potent vocal—for the chorus. Within weeks of its peak in early 2018, Halsey was back in the Top 20 with “Him & I” (No. 14), a thumping rap-and-pop duet with Oakland rapper Gerald “G-Eazy” Gillum. G-Eazy’s presence on the single was more than featured-rapper window dressing—by the time the song peaked in February, he and Halsey were dating, their chemistry made plain in the music video.
This, effectively and unwittingly, set up Halsey for her chart-topping success, giving her a wellspring of heartache to draw upon for her biggest hit. The couple would break up, reconcile, and then break up again, all within 2018. “Without Me” was written and recorded between the two breakups. Though Halsey was at first evasive and elliptical about whether the song was about G-Eazy—perhaps out of caution for her tentative early-fall reconciliation with Gillum—the October release of the song’s music video, starring a G-Eazy look-alike, left little question.
None of this relationship drama would matter if the song weren’t alluring. After all, “Him & I,” the couple’s relationship-igniting Bonnie-and-Clyde duet, never cracked the Top 10 a year ago. “Without Me” is not only the bigger hit but the better song—hypnotic and brooding but not dour, riding an 808 snare that gives it a tinge of hip-hop flavor, coupled with a reverberating guitar line that sounds like Halsey’s own despair turned into a riff. (This is my aging Gen X brain talking, but the tremulous arpeggios remind me of folky late-’80s alt-pop tracks from before the 24-year-old Halsey was born.) The lyric, too, walks the line between menace and defiance, chronicling a wound that hasn’t healed while reinforcing the singer’s self-worth: “You know I’m the one who put you up there/ Name in the sky—does it ever get lonely/ Thinking you could live without me?” On that chorus line, “li-i-i-i-i-ive” has six syllables, chanted like a mantra. Produced by Louis Bell, a currently hot hit-maker behind smashes from Post Malone and 5 Seconds of Summer, and co-written by Halsey and Bell with well-traveled songwriters Delacey and Amy Allen, “Without Me” plays simultaneously as a female-centric in-my-feelings torch song and a bummer-rap jam suited to our downbeat pop times.
But the most ingenious thing about “Without Me” is its reference to a Justin Timberlake hit that came out when Halsey was still in elementary school. The “Cry Me a River” allusion—which, she has pointed out, is not a sample, and is really more a citation than an interpolation—works on both a lyrical and musical level. More than halfway through the song, Halsey quotes “Cry” directly, adapting its lyric but not the melody: Timberlake’s accusatory pre-chorus, “You don’t have to say/ What you did/ I already know/ I found out from him,” becomes her bitter bridge, “You don’t have to say just what you did/ I already know—I had to go and find out from them!” (Halsey practically growls the last line, with a directness that feels pointed at Gillum.) In recompense for this lightly tweaked quote, Halsey’s team gives full credit to Timberlake and his “Cry” co-writers, Timbaland and writer-producer Scott Storch, on the songwriting of “Without Me”—a legally prudent move in the post–“Blurred Lines” era. But what I admire about “Without Me” is how it strongly echoes Justin’s old hit while borrowing nothing except the line Halsey wants you to notice. Listening to the two songs side by side, they feel utterly complementary despite being played in different keys and at different tempos, and the allusion to Timberlake instantly telegraphs not only the theme but the spirit of his now-I-know-better jam from a generation ago.
Flipping the gender of both Timberlake’s protagonist and the target of his scorn also feels like a well-timed #MeToo move, even if Halsey is accusing her former boyfriend of nothing more than being a cheater. What is more notable is the fact that the Hot 100 has now been commanded by solo women for most of the past two months, save for Travis Scott’s brief interruption. And Ariana Grande and Halsey have more in common than back-to-back No. 1 hits. Of course, both “Thank U, Next” and “Without Me” are kiss-offs: Grande’s cheerful takedown of her string of famous boyfriends makes way for Halsey’s gloomier dismissal of the man with his name in the sky. But also like Grande—who, as I noted, has made her resilience in the face of tragedy the subtext, or even the text, in her hits—Halsey has experienced a wealth of pain at a young age that she lays bare for fans. She has frankly addressed her struggle with bipolar disorder for years and more recently opened up about both endometriosis and a miscarriage. You don’t need to know about any of these misfortunes to find “Without Me” heart-rending or even just catchy, but as with Grande, presenting herself as an open book has grounded her material in a lived reality.
So: Good for the ladies moving on, living their truth, writing songs about it, and topping the charts. As I said in late 2017 when Cardi B succeeded Taylor Swift at No. 1, there’s no upside in declaring a pattern of two chart-toppers a trend. Although it is tempting: Last week, when Billboard released the first Hot 100 of 2019 (and the last to include 2018 data) the magazine reported, in passing, a notable chart milestone. With Ariana holding at No. 1, Halsey still at No. 2, and Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas Is You” reaching a new all-time Hot 100 peak of No. 3, solo female performers held the entire top three for the first time in more than four years, dating back to a week in November 2014, when two Swift singles and Meghan Trainor’s “All About That Bass” commanded the top trio. The end of 2014 was also, in hindsight, the end of a strong run for women-centric pop, as the digital-download-fueled era of Gaga, Katy, and Miley gave way to the Spotify-fueled era of Drake, Drake, and Drake. Is a more gender-balanced pivot in the offing? With another Post Malone single on the rise, probably not. But for now, at least, Halsey’s No. 1 serves as a rejoinder not only to an ex but to any chart watchers, radio programmers, and industry executives thinking they could “live without” a new generation of hit-making women.