Music

Did Drake Just Prove He’s Bigger Than the Beatles?

With his latest Billboard Hot 100 record, he’s one step closer to being bigger than the biggest band of all time. Or is he?

A man thrusts forward in a dance class. He is wearing a white shirt with a gold chain around his neck, black shorts, a black headband, and a black arm band.
Photo: Republic Records/Youtube. Illustration by Slate.

I know we have to break down the new No. 1 song in America, but first, I’d like to briefly address our new No. 4 song. It’s called “Champagne Poetry,” and it’s the track that opens Certified Lover Boy, the relentlessly hyped new album by Drake. Like several other hits by the rapper who calls himself Champagne Papi, “Champagne Poetry” is built out of samples within samples, like Russian nesting dolls. Its primary inspiration is a 2017 joint, “Navajo,” by “trap jazz” vocalist and producer Masego. “Navajo,” in turn, is built out of a chopped-up sample of a 1971 a cappella recording by German vocal troupe the Singers Unlimited. And the song they were covering 50 years ago is “Michelle,” a francophile ditty written by one Paul McCartney and recorded in 1965 by his … ahem, famous rock foursome. (You can’t miss the sped-up “I love you, I love you, I love you”s that cycle through “Champagne Poetry.”)

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Call me a conspiracy theorist, but “Champagne Poetry” is, I submit, a long con. I can’t help but think Drake recorded it as an elaborate ploy to dunk on the Beatles.

Because, after all, what would be shadier in the week when Drake ties a cherished 57-year-old chart record by the Beatles than to do it, in part, with a song sampling them? Drake had to be predicting this would happen. Dude even got a tattoo of himself standing in front of the Fab Four two years ago, implying that he was set on taking all their chart records (which itself was a follow-up to his Meek Mill lyric, “I got more slaps than the Beatles”). He knew what he was doing.

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Oh yeah, and the new No. 1 song: It’s also by Drake. It’s an interpolation of Right Said Fred. Guy steals from the best.

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“Way 2 Sexy” by Drake featuring Future and Young Thug—a silly summit of sing-rappers, arguably the three biggest in that game—tops a Hot 100 that’s smothered in Drizzy Champagne. All 21 tracks on Certified Lover Boy debuted within the chart’s Top 40. Within the Top 10, “Sexy” is one of nine new Drake tracks—from “Girls Want Girls” featuring Lil Baby at No. 2, to “Love All” featuring Jay-Z at No. 10. (The only spoiler to what would have been an all-Drake Top 10: the No. 6 placement by the former No. 1 “Stay” by the Kid Laroi and Justin Bieber.) Drake’s near-sweep of the winners’ circle sets all sorts of records that are giving headaches to chart historians this past week, like yours truly. By instantly scoring nine Top 10 singles from Certified Lover Boy, Drake beats a record for most Top 10 singles from an album that was previously held by Michael Jackson, his sister Janet Jackson, and Bruce Springsteen (plus Drake himself; more on that in a moment). And by taking Nos. 1 through 5 on the chart—dammit, Laroi, couldn’t you have placed one notch higher?!—Drake ties a record long thought unrepeatable: the Beatles’ April 4, 1964, sweeping of the Hot 100’s entire Top Five.

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The name of this Slate series isn’t “Why Are These Nine Songs Bodying the Top 10?” It’s “Why Is This Song No. 1?” So before I dissect the integrity of these chart records by our Canadian overlord, I should address the track that wound up atop the dog pile. As its name suggests, “Way 2 Sexy” is a reboot of “I’m Too Sexy,” the 1992 No. 1 smash by British club-pop group Right Said Fred. Unlike Taylor Swift’s 2017 No. 1 “Look What You Made Me Do”—which was also a big payday for RSF’s Fairbrass brothers, thanks to Tay preemptively giving them co-writing credit, despite borrowing nothing more than the cadence of their chorus (say it again with me, folks: Thanks for nothing, “Blurred Lines”!)—Drake’s new chart topper is essentially a remake. The “2” in the title alone is a dead giveaway, but so is the chorus. Much as Richard Fairbrass purred in the ’90s about being too sexy for his shirt, your party, Milan, New York, and Japan, Drake’s joint finds Future rapping about all the modern-day things he’s too sexy for: “this syrup,” “this ice,” “the trap,” “that jack,” and, of course, the eternally not-sexy-enough “your girl.” (As ever in hip-hop, misogyny takes its little turn on the catwalk.)

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Awkwardly positioned between bop and burlesque, “Way 2 Sexy” is the closest thing to a club banger on CLB. It’s far from the most acclaimed track on the album—critics’ reactions range from mildly tickled to cringing, even offended—and so its arrival at No. 1 on the Hot 100 feels a bit hollow. That said, unlike the other 20 Drake tracks that slammed onto the chart right after his album’s release, “Sexy” has been actively promoted, with both a radio push and a high-concept music video, streams of which clearly boosted the song’s big chart entry. The clip, it must be said, is pretty funny, and a reminder that former actor Aubrey Graham is comedically game. He offers parodies of pop-culture stuff from before he was in junior high: ’80s workout tapes, the Rambo movie franchise, the videos of midcareer Michael Jackson, and even the desert-set video for Boyz II Men’s 1995 hit “Water Runs Dry.” It’s like a dime-store version of Kendrick Lamar’s equally random 2017 video “Humble.”

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It must also be said, however, that Drake plays a larger role in this video than he did the song. He raps literally one brief verse in “Way 2 Sexy,” near the beginning. (He had more bars in Travis Scott’s 2018 smash “Sicko Mode,” and Drake didn’t even get featured credit for that one!) The rest of the track is a showcase mostly for Future, who carries the chorus plus his own verse, and Young Thug, who gets the longest verse in the song’s cleanup spot. (His best line: “I pray to the chopper under my pillow/ Tooth fairy.”) Drake does a solid for his buddies by giving them so much airtime on the track. It’s Thug’s third credit on a Hot 100 No. 1, after hits by Travis Scott and Camila Cabello, and Future’s first No. 1 ever.

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But Drake’s absenteeism is a metaphor for the song’s flimsiness, and I’m skeptical about its staying power. While “Way 2 Sexy” predictably opens to Drake-sized streaming numbers (67.3 million, the year’s second-highest total after the opening week of Olivia Rodrigo’s “Drivers License”), its first-week radio audience is awfully light for an artist of his stature (7.7 million, lower than the opening weeks of BTS’s radio-challenged hits “Dynamite” and “Butter”). “Sexy” might stay on top a week or two on streams alone, but once excitement over Certified Lover Boy dies down, it’s easy to see the song quickly disappear, à la what Drake’s last two Hot 100–topping debuts did: 2020’s TikTok-thirsty “Toosie Slide” and 2021’s already-evaporated “What’s Next,” a song so flimsy Drake didn’t even bother to include it on CLB. The short runs of these songs, which nonetheless go down in Billboard’s record books as Hot 100 No. 1s, makes you question how seriously we should take Drake thumping Michael, Bruce, and Janet for the most Top 10s per album and the Fab Four’s Top Five sweep.

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In a way, we chart geeks have been bracing for this day for several years. Drake came exceedingly close to toppling both of these records when he dropped his last official studio album, Scorpion. The week that album arrived in July 2018, seven of its songs placed within the Hot 100’s Top 10, including the then-current No. 1 “Nice for What” and the soon-to-be No. 1 “In My Feelings.” Billboard, at the time, was already trumpeting that Drake had beaten the Beatles—you can see why Drake got that tattoo—because his seven out of 10 was greater than the Fabs’ five out of 10 (the week in ’64 that the Beatles swept Nos. 1–5, they had no hits between Nos. 6–10). True enough, but as I and others pointed out at the time, the Beatles’ more important record—locking down the entire Top Five—was intact, because Drake’s seven-song invasion did not blanket the first five positions. Moreover, Drake’s seven Top 10s in 2018 instantly drew him even with the record for most Top 10s on an album, previously held by three LPs from the ’80s: Michael Jackson’s Thriller (which produced seven Top 10s from 1982–84, “The Girl Is Mine” through “Thriller”), Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the USA (1984–86, “Dancing in the Dark” through “My Hometown”), and Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation 1814 (1989–91, “Miss You Much” through “Love Will Never Do (Without You)”). Drake’s 2018 septuplet of hits tied that record in one fell swoop.

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Given that Drake is the king of streaming, and streaming data now comprises more than half of the Hot 100’s chart points, you had to figure if he came back with one more monster album, both of these chart records would be his. And, sure as the sun sets in the west, here we are: Certified Lover Boy arrived last week with near-record streams of 743.7 million, more than double the opening streams of his rival Kanye West’s Donda the week before. (In all of streaming history, only Drake’s own Scorpion generated more streams for an album in a single week.) All 21 tracks on CLB are eligible for the Hot 100. And with competition especially soft in the late summer–early fall, placing all 21 within the Top 40 (and nine of them in the Top 10) was, for Drizzy, a cakewalk. Which doesn’t take anything away from the magnitude of his achievements, but it does make his chart records almost categorically different from those of chart titans past.

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I am often asked how it’s possible to compare chart records across the full 63-year history of the Hot 100 when the chart’s rules have evolved so much. In other words, isn’t what Drake did this year, versus what Michael Jackson did in the ’80s, apples and oranges, maybe apples and kumquats? (I was challenged to explain this back in 2014 by none other than Slate’s own Dana Stevens, the first time I guested on the Culture Gabfest: “Aren’t we just talking about the dissolution of the Billboard Hot 100 as meaningful, [given] the quickly changing definition of what a hit is?” Dana, serving the new guy hot soup!) What I usually say in response to this is the charts have never been static and can’t be. Radio stations and formats are born and die, retail mediums evolve, data technologies improve. And so every chart feat comes with a Roger Maris–size asterisk, from the record for longest-lived Hot 100 hit to the record for biggest album debut. Frankly, this is why I have this job: taking the charts seriously enough to compare 1964 hits and 1984 hits to 2021 hits, but also explaining the caveats that made it easier or harder to achieve those chart feats at various times, and assessing how much new benchmarks matter.

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The way I see it—in my imaginary chart-nerd kangaroo court—the case of Mssrs. Jackson, Springsteen and Jackson v. Aubrey Graham is different from the case of Mssrs. Lennon, McCartney, Harrison, and Starr v. Graham. I would throw out the first case on the merits but maybe allow the second to go to trial.

I am particularly skeptical of Drake’s new record for most Top 10 hits from a single album. I’m swatting that one away with a fat asterisk. From the ’60s through most of the ’90s, songs had to be available as retail singles to even appear on the chart, and each was worked to radio sequentially. For example, Epic Records waited for Michael’s “Billie Jean” to peak on the charts before issuing “Beat It” as a 45; Columbia worked Bruce’s “I’m on Fire” before moving onto “Glory Days”; A&M put out Janet’s “Rhythm Nation” as a cassingle before they went with “Escapade.”

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This could not be more different from the 21st century, in which nonsingles are allowed to chart (that rule changed back in 1998), and digital albums make every song Hot 100–ready from Day One. These changes began to skew the chart record books even before Spotify, in the age of the download. After iTunes disaggregated the album in the mid-’00s, putting every album cut on sale and making them all potential singles, it became possible for, say, half the songs on a Taylor Swift album to crash the Hot 100 in a single week, or even all the songs by an American Idol winner (seventh-season winner David Cook came within spitting distance of equaling a Beatles record way back in 2008). The streaming era has only accelerated this possibility, giving rise to the short-lived streaming-only “hit” that explodes onto the chart and disappears almost instantly. For example, of the 51 Hot 100 hits Drake amassed in the years 2017 and 2018, more than half spent two weeks or fewer on the chart. This has given rise in Billboard to the terms “proper first single” or “actively promoted,” in order to distinguish what used to be considered singles from tracks. As far as I’m concerned, back in the ’80s and early ’90s, Michael, Bruce, and Janet scored seven Top 10 singles, each one actively promoted, from their respective albums. This past week, Drake just scored nine Top 10 tracks, only one of which is considered a proper single. So sure, the technical record for most “hits” from one album is Drake’s. The cultural record still belongs to the ’80s pop gods.

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This logic would seem to also debunk Drake equaling the Beatles’ sweep of the Top Five. After all, four of these Drake songs—the aforementioned “Girls Want Girls,” and “Champagne Poetry,” as well as “Fair Trade” at No. 3 and “Knife Talk” at No. 5—are not being actively promoted, and very likely never will. I’ll bet at least three of these songs will drop out of the Top 10 once the charts update this week (maybe all five?), making this very 2021 “sweep” look like a fluke. The thing is: The Beatles’ 1964 sweep was a fluke, too.

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As I explained in a 2017 episode of my Slate podcast Hit Parade, Capitol Records royally screwed up the introduction of the Beatles in America. They had the chance to start promoting the group’s British hits on parent label EMI in the states as far back as 1962, but Capitol passed on issuing every single one here. This led Beatles manager Brian Epstein to negotiate distribution deals for individual 1963 singles with various American independent labels: The tiny Vee-Jay Records agreed to issue “Please Please Me” for relative pennies, and the even smaller Swan label picked up “She Loves You.” After Capitol finally got a clue and broke “I Want to Hold Your Hand” at the start of 1964, these indie labels found themselves sitting on a goldmine. By the time Beatlemania reached fever pitch, anything with the group’s name on it was charting, whether Capitol was promoting it or not. The week of the Fab Four’s Top Five sweep, those five hits were on four different labels: two on Capitol, “Can’t Buy Me Love” and “I Want to Hold Your Hand”; “She Loves You” on Swan; “Please Please Me” on Vee-Jay; and “Twist and Shout” (a song EMI hadn’t even issued as a single in England) on a Vee-Jay subsidiary called Tollie Records. If Capitol had been on its game, it would have issued no more than two of these hits at a time, and the Top Five sweep—as awesome as it was, and reflective of peak Beatlemania—never would have happened.

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In other words, if we claim Drake’s five Top Five hits are really just one actively promoted hit plus four deep cuts … well, at least a couple of the Beatles’ smashes would have to be dismissed as not “actively promoted,” too. Of course, there are still worlds of difference between the two chart feats: For starters, the Beatles didn’t benefit from streaming data, where the very act of playing a record is tallied for the chart, as now happens with Drake’s hits to the tune of millions of streams. And I mean, come on, those five Beatles hits were, to varying degrees, all classics. I don’t think even Drake believes “Knife Talk” is culturally equivalent to “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” either as a musical composition or as a long-term chart proposition. My point is: You can’t comprehend either Top Five sweep of the Hot 100, by the Beatles or Drake, without understanding a whole lot of record-business backstory.

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Fortunately, the Top Five sweep can only ever be equaled; it can’t be topped. Though if Drake could figure out how to squeeze six singles into Billboard’s Top Five, I’m sure he would make that his next goal. For years now, I’ve been trying to figure out when we will ever reach peak Drake. I credit him, as do many other critics, with changing the cadence of rap and the sound of pop. As for his quest to top the Beatles: On paper, at least, he’s now made the tattoo on his arm come true. Would he ever retire while he’s still on top? We know how that worked out for Jay-Z. Drake’s last few hits have been far less culturally pervasive than such prior smashes as “Marvin’s Room,” “Hold On, We’re Going Home,” “Started From the Bottom,” “Hotline Bling,” or “Nice for What.” And collectively, Certified Lover Boy’s tracks were streamed a bit less than Scorpion’s. So maybe the public will tell Aubrey Graham when it’s time to drop the mic? Clearly, it’s not time yet.

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