Music

Billboard’s Newest No. 1 Hits Reiterate One Important Rule

More pop stars have an oddball, ultimately forgotten big single than you might think.

Left is a brunet with a black outfit. Right a brunet with a yellow and white outfit.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Urban Wyatt and Helene Pambrun.

Pop quiz: Name Maroon 5’s first No. 1 hit.

Think back to the mid-aughts, when Adam Levine and his merry men were the hot new act on the charts. What song took them to the top of the Hot 100 for the first time? “This Love?” “She Will Be Loved?” Those were both massive hits in 2004 that cracked the Top Five and rode the chart for the better part of a year, but … nope, neither went to No. 1. Give up? It was the disco-rock banger “Makes Me Wonder,” the lead single from Maroon 5’s next album, in 2007, that finally did it. And it did so in grand fashion: “Makes Me Wonder” leapt 63 spaces to No. 1, a then-record for the biggest jump to the top in the chart’s history. “Wonder” is a fun tune but, 15 years later, not one of Maroon 5’s better-remembered jams. Currently, it’s not even one of their 10 most streamed songs on Spotify.

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Here’s another bit of trivia: What was Britney Spears’s first single to debut at No. 1?

Britney has several chart-toppers. I’m not looking here for a Spears classic like “… Baby One More Time,” which took 11 weeks to climb to the summit in 1999. I’m asking, what was her first song to enter on top? Was it “Oops! … I Did It Again?” The great “Toxic?” The lurid “Gimme More?” None of these even reached No. 1. No, it was “3,” an oddball entry in the Britney oeuvre—a 2009 ode to ménages à trois that namechecks Peter, Paul, and Mary. (Man, during the early conservatorship years, Brit did so much weird shit.) Coming off her acclaimed album Blackout and her live comeback on the Circus tour, “3” slammed onto the Hot 100 at No. 1. And now? It’s solidly middle of the pack for Spears, nowhere near her top 10 most played songs, its streams much lower than such smaller chart hits as “If You Seek Amy” or “Work Bitch.”

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My point: Songs that move quickly up the Hot 100 or even enter at No. 1 may not be legacy hits. They are drafting off a prior success, and the answer to our perennial question of “Why Is This Song No. 1?” might be, “This artist is so hot right now, almost anything they put out would probably enter on top.” (Probably. More on that in a moment.)

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In the last fortnight, we’ve had two prime examples in a pair of back-to-back No. 1 debuts by men whom we can now fairly call superstars: boy-band alumnus Harry Styles and rising rapper Jack Harlow. Their respective new chart-toppers, “As It Was” and “First Class,” are both bops. Whether they will remain highlights of their respective catalogs, however, is an open question.

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This week, Harlow’s “First Class” sits at No. 1 on the Hot 100, where it crash-landed after a single week of streams, sales, and airplay. At No. 2 this week is the Styles insta-smash that debuted at No. 1 just last week, “As It Was.” On a data level, the main answer to how these songs debuted on top is streaming; each debuted to the highest one-week stream totals of 2022. Last week, the 43.8 million streams Styles rolled was not only the biggest for the year to date, but it was also the largest opening stream total since his ex-girlfriend Taylor Swift’s epic “All Too Well (Taylor’s Version)” blew up last November. (Good thing that Taylor epic was about Jake, not Harry!) Harry’s opening stream total for “As It Was” looked impressive … until this week, when Jack Harlow’s new track beat it by more than 10 million. “First Class” hit a whopping 54.6 million streams for the week. And that is the biggest total since another, more established rapper, a certain Aubrey Graham from Toronto, racked up 67.3 million streams last September with “Way 2 Sexy.”

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Is Jack Harlow the new Drake? Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Dude has released a bunch of mixtapes but is only on his second proper album, next month’s Come Home the Kids Miss You. If that album also enters on top with a big number, maybe then Harlow would appear Drake-like. For now, Louisville native Harlow is trying to grab rap’s next rung and distinguish himself from the likes of G-Eazy or NF, white rap stars for the post-SoundCloud era. His first-week streaming total suggests he’s reached escape velocity. And Harry? He’s still creating distance between his One Direction days and his self-powered solo stardom.

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What both Harlow and Styles are trying to achieve with these singles is a natural-seeming, hegemonic assumption of the pop throne. They’re coming at it from different directions, Styles the gender-fluid pseudo–rock star, Harlow the bro-ish-but-cuddly MC with hip-hop–head cred. But for each man (aged 28 and 24, respectively) the goal is the same: waltzing onto the charts like it ain’t no thing, taking command as if he is to the manor born.

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As far as the industry is concerned, they’re both right on schedule. The music business operates on a roughly biennial album-release timetable, and Harry and Jack each had a big chart moment at the height of our first pandemic summer. In August 2020, Styles scored his first ever Hot 100 No. 1 with the peachy, beachy “Watermelon Sugar.” One month before that, Harlow rose to No. 2 with the sly, tongue-tripping, apostrophe-challenged “Whats Poppin.” By August, the week Styles was No. 1, Harlow was still in the top three. It’s sort of apropos that, near the start of summer 2022, Harry and Jack are again jockeying for the No. 1 spot. What’s changed, however, is that, back in 2020, each hit took months to reach its peak—20 weeks for “Watermelon Sugar,” 21 weeks for “Whats Poppin.” This year, there’s no climbing for either dude. One week and poof! Instant No. 1.

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But are the songs any good? To some extent, both of these pop stars are in Maroon 5–in-2007, Britney-in-2009 mode, poised to command with whatever. But the actual content of the singles does matter; neither of these No. 1 debuts was a foregone conclusion. When it comes to albums, my AC/DC Rule states that a new LP trades on the reputation of its predecessor, with follow-ups to a slow-growing blockbuster often entering at a higher chart position from the jump. This is less true for singles—for every Ace of Base “The Sign” (a fast No. 1 in 1994 after the left-field No. 2 “All That She Wants”), there’s a John Legend “You & I (Nobody in the World)” (No. 66 in 2014, after his sleeper No. 1 hit “All of Me”). Following up a smash single is a subtle art, recapturing the image-making magic and overall vibe of the prior earworm while offering just enough novelty. Results may vary.

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For Harry, the explosive first week might just be pent-up demand. “As It Was” is his first new single of any kind since “Watermelon Sugar” fell off the chart in 2020. Styles had a very bespoke trick to pull off here. As I chronicled in my piece about the chart-topping “Watermelon Sugar,” it took Styles almost half a decade after the (apparently permanent) hiatus of One Direction to define his persona. His eponymous first album was straight-up classic rock, welcomed warmly by the 1D fanbase but, in the year of our Lord 2017, limited in its radio and Spotify appeal. His 2019 follow-up LP, Fine Line, got the balance right: From his Met Gala–worthy outfits to his trippy, ’60s-esque album cover, Styles kept the groovy old-school vibes but married them to current-sounding digital surf-pop. Fine Line sold a lot of copies on vinyl, suggesting that audiences have accepted Styles as the closest thing we have to a strutting, cocksure Mick Jagger these days. But Harry still needs radio hits, which means he needs to sound both trad and modern, reinvigorating the breezy, effortless electro that made him a radio star in 2019 and 2020.

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On that score, “As It Was” is pretty clever. It’s got a cavernous, mature, Triple‑A production sound reminiscent of recent Tame Impala, with a perky keyboard hook that sits comfortably alongside The Weeknd or Dua Lipa. Vocally, Styles is flitting between his dreamy croon and his falsetto, making it youthful and light. And as for the lyrics, I especially love the part where our insecure hero refers to himself in the third person, a total rock-star move: “Harry, you’re no good alone—why are you sitting at home on the floor? What kind of pills are you on?” It’s like a Zillennial version of Bruce Springsteen’s self-flagellating lyrics to “Dancing in the Dark.” I’ll be honest: For the first week it was out, I had trouble remembering the name of “As It Was,” given its lack of a memorable noun or verb. But if ever someone could make such a generic title hooky, it’s this song, which treats the refrain like a swoony payoff: “In this world, it’s just us/ You know it’s not the same as it was/ As it was, as it was.” I’ve already heard “As It Was” on the radio while driving around, and it sounds like it belongs there.

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By contrast with Harry’s nearly two-year radio silence, Jack Harlow has not been off pop fans’ radar since 2020. In fact, “First Class” is arguably following up not the 2020 smash “Whats Poppin” but a chart-topping 2021 mega-smash: “Industry Baby,” a big hit scored last year by our new queer-pop overlord Lil Nas X. You may recall this as the single whose video featured young Montero dancing naked in prison alongside an equally nude drill team. But the supporting player was the (game but fully clothed) Harlow, who stopped by the prison and dropped a cheeky 32-bar rap on the bridge, earning himself full chart credit on a No. 1 hit.

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Lil Nas X did Jack Harlow a major solid. “Industry Baby” wasn’t just a trollgazy, meme-tastic video. It was a massive radio hit, riding Billboard’s Radio Songs for more than eight months (it’s still on that chart now), giving Harlow more drive-time exposure with pop audiences than he’d ever had, even at the peak of “Whats Poppin.” The question—like Styles following up “Watermelon Sugar”—was how Harlow would follow it up.

Arguably, there was a false start. In February, Harlow dropped what is technically the lead single of his next album: the loping stemwinder “Nail Tech,” whose synth-horn fanfare openly echoes the sound of “Industry Baby.” But the gimmickry stops there. After a decade of building his reputation with a series of mixtapes, the point of “Nail Tech” was to reestablish Harlow’s bars-dropping credentials. At that, at least, it succeeds—the track is a fairly witty collection of boasts (“Most of y’all ain’t wealthy/ Most of y’all just dress like it/ I caught the vibe that y’all givin’ off/ And I’m tryin’ to make myself less like it”).

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The bad news for Team Harlow: “Nail Tech” debuted at No. 18 on the Hot 100 in February, then fell quickly. But it may not have mattered—the song was probably never meant to be a pop move. This is where the strategy for a pop-rock act like Harry Styles diverges from that of a crossover rapper like Jack Harlow. Since the days of LL Cool J, leading off a new rap album with a self-aggrandizing joint for the heads is a common tactic before you go full-on pop with a loverman track for mass consumption. “Nail Tech” was a hip-hop amuse-bouche, and it doesn’t appear Atlantic, Harlow’s label, seriously pursued radio for the track. They were saving that for their pop move.

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And “First Class” is a pretty shameless pander. That song title, and basically its whole chorus, is lifted directly from a prior No. 1 hit, 2007’s “Glamorous” by Black Eyed Peas rapper-singer Fergie. (Funnily enough, this gives Harlow yet another thing in common with Drake, whose last No. 1 hit, “Way 2 Sexy,” was a warmed-over reboot of Right Said Fred’s 1992 No. 1 twirl “I’m Too Sexy.”) I’ll confess I was never a big fan of Fergie’s solo blockbuster The Dutchess, which strained to sell her “urban,” Stacey-from-the-block bona fides in a series of rap-adjacent pop tracks produced by Polow da Don and will.i.am. But in 2022, that hip-hop–lite vibe is easy pickings for Harlow, and it’s not like he’s stealing the soul of a classic. He pinches Fergie’s refrain, “Ridin’ first class, up in the sky” and intersperses it with little rejoinders: “And I can put you in (First class, up in the sky).” On the chorus, Ferg’s chilled-out cheerleader chant, “G! L! A-M! O! R! O-U-S, yeah!” becomes Harlow’s “I been a (G!)/ Throw up the (L!)/ Sex in the (A-M!)/ Uh-huh.” If it reads dopey, it sounds even dopier, but Harlow sells it well enough. This song is product, and it sticks the landing.

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Mind you, I am no rap-authenticity police, but when it comes to Jack Harlow, give me the wordplay of “Nail Tech” over the hybridized schlock of “First Class” any day. But no matter what I think, the people have spoken: Clearly Zoomers have fonder memories of Fergie than I do, and they wanted some Jack Harlow throwing down with the Ferg, even more than they wanted the return of Harry Styles. In their analysis of “First Class’s” big chart debut, the staff at Billboard point out that, just weeks after Harlow got a big look performing at the Grammys alongside Lil Nas X, now was the moment to “shake the industry awake [and aim] squarely for the A-list.” And to be fair to Harlow, it’s easier for an artist like Styles, with his aging boy-band fanbase, to come back to a hero’s welcome. Now’s not the time for Harlow to quibble over his authenticity on the streets.

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We’ll see which of these hits—maybe neither of them!—sticks around past these initial chart explosions. Song of Summer season is about a month away, and it will take more than a week of rabid streams by core fans to establish these as ambient hits for kids of all ages. “As It Was” sounds more like the enduring, wistful summer bop to me, the one likeliest to stick it out on the radio. But who knows? With sentiments like, “You don’t need Givenchy, you need Jesus/Why do y’all sleep on me? I need reasons,” maybe Jack Harlow’s brazen pop move is the Halston, Gucci, Fiorucci name-dropper our post-pandemic summer deserves.

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