Music

This Is the Best Start to a Year We’ve Had in Pop This Decade (Essay)

Around this time two years ago at Billboard, we were all asking: Where are the new hits?

Through the first few months of 2022, the Billboard Hot 100 was stocked almost exclusively with holdovers from 2021 and even 2020 or earlier, with totally new music in precious short supply in the chart’s top tiers. Relief eventually came that month in the form of Harry Styles’ instant runaway smash “As It Was,” and then as April turned to May, via new albums by Future, Bad Bunny and Kendrick Lamar. But it still felt like the year was playing catch-up, like at midyear 2022 was still only just properly getting started.

Suffice to say, we will be having no such problems in 2024. Just over four months into the year, we already have so many big-ticket releases, breakout hits of all sizes, and off-court drama from many of pop music’s primaries, that it feels like we might need the rest of the calendar this year just to catch our breath.

Whereas in past years this decade — 2022 was the most extreme example, but ’20, ’21 and ’23 certainly had doldrums of their own for pop fans to weather — it felt like pop’s best and brightest mostly spent the early months biding their time, feeling out the year before joining the fray, this year feels like everyone jumping in the pool at once. It’s an exciting (if occasionally overwhelming) time to be a music fan, easily the most exciting we’ve seen yet this decade.

Let’s start with the list of A-list artists who have already released entirely new albums by May 9: Beyoncé, Taylor Swift, Ariana Grande, Ye & Ty Dolla $ign, Future & Metro Boomin (twice!), J. Cole and Dua Lipa. (Depending on your “A-list” definition, you could also potentially throw Usher, Justin Timberlake and Kacey Musgraves on that list as well.) Hell, you could probably cut the list after the second name and the point would still stand: Any year where you get new sets by Beyoncé (Cowboy Carter) and Taylor Swift (The Tortured Poets Department) — the two most celebrated pop stars in the world right now — before Memorial Day, you’re probably off to a pretty fast start. And both sets have been enormous, world-building, culture-conquering affairs, with huge Hot 100-topping lead singles and no shortage of critical and fan discourse over their deeper implications.

But Bey and Taylor weren’t the only superstars on that list to come correct so far in 2024. In a slower year, Grande’s Eternal Sunshine and its Hot 100-topping singles “Yes, And?” and “We Can’t Be Friends” might still be dominating the culture following its early March release, with the set drawing some of her strongest reviews to date and her best first-week numbers of the decade so far. Ye re-emerged following deserved backlash to his anti-semitic comments (among other controversies) with Vultures 1, his most fan-celebrated album since 2016’s The Life of Pablo, and its lead single “Carnival,” which was his biggest pop hit in even longer. And of course, Future and Metro have topped the Billboard 200 and owned the weekend twice already this year with their We Don’t Trust You and We Still Don’t Trust You partner sets, also spawning a three-week Hot 100 No. 1 in the former set’s lead single “Like That.”

Speaking of “Like That”: That Kendrick Lamar-assisted chart-topper essentially knocked the hip-hop world off its usual axis, kicking off the back-and-forth with Drake that has somehow managed to overshadow everything else that’s gone on in popular music so far this year. J. Cole responded first to Lamar’s pot-stirring “Like That” verse, on his lukewarmly received Might Delete Later mixtape and its closing “7 Minute Drill,” before publicly bowing out of the beef and deleting “Drill” from streaming services. But Drake was determined to get his money’s worth: He responded with both the leaked “Push Ups” and the social media-released “Taylor Made Freestyle” — which featured unlicensed, AI-generated guest verses “from” West Coast legends Snoop Dogg and the late Tupac Shakur, and was eventually taken down upon threat of legal action from the Shakur estate.

The beef has naturally only escalated from there, also roping in hitmakers ranging from Rick Ross to The Weeknd, and eventually being taken to the next level by Lamar. He dropped the excoriating “Euphoria” last Tuesday (Apr. 30), and then followed that with a trio of Drake disses over the weekend (May 3-5): “6:16 in L.A.,” “Meet the Grahams” and “Not Like Us,” the last of which is now on its way to not only being the biggest song from the feud, but one of the biggest songs of the year, or of either rapper’s career. Drake dropped two songs of his own over that period, in the officially released “Family Matters” and the YouTube-only “The Heart Part 6” — though with Lamar’s anthems now essentially smothering him from all sides, the battle has largely been decided for Kendrick in the court of public opinion. Nonetheless, debate over the particulars of the beef (and who had taken the lead and/or fallen behind) absolutely dominated discussion for the last month and a half following “Like That,” not just for hip-hop or pop fans, but across all of popular culture, while also producing a handful of instant-classic tracks.

The Kendrick-Drake feud has been the biggest in music this year, but it wasn’t the first. The stage was set for that blockbuster beef by the January back-and-forth between Megan Thee Stallion, whose “Hiss” was thought to have subliminals aimed at rap rival Nicki Minaj (as well as additional lyrics assumed to be shots at Drake and other rap-world figures), and which inspired a response track (in addition to a lot of social media talk) from Minaj in the form of “Big Foot.” The fallout from that beef was mostly contained to the release week of the two tracks, but it helped Megan secure her first-ever entirely solo Hot 100 No. 1 for “Hiss,” and generally established the competitive tone for hip-hop among its biggest 2024 artists.

“Hiss” and “Not Like Us” are also examples of how popular music’s biggest artists haven’t necessarily needed full releases to make an impact so far in 2024. SZA, our staff’s No. 2 Greatest Pop Star of 2023, also poked her head back out with her new single “Saturn” — supposedly a preview of her upcoming Lana project, whose release date remains TBD — which debuted in the Hot 100’s top 10 in March and is still hanging around the region months later. Olivia Rodrigo kicked off one of the year’s most-anticipated tours with the Guts World Tour, her first-ever arena trek, making news both for some of the tour’s special guests and for the new (Spilled) deluxe edition of her 2023 Guts album, which has already spawned another top 20 hit for her in live favorite “Obsessed.” Lana Del Rey, Tyler, the Creator and Doja Cat all headlined Coachella for the first time. Luke Combs had a major Grammy moment with Tracy Chapman. Zach Bryan is bringing out everyone from Bruce Springsteen to Sexyy Red for his live encores. Pretty much all the artists who have defined the ’20s thus far have been in the mix one way or the other in 2024.

But the real reason 2024 has been so exciting, even beyond all these recognizable names showing up and showing out, is the equally impressive list of rising stars who have made their mark on the year so far.

Música Mexicana phenom Xavi began the year with two songs already climbing the top 100, and plenty more seemingly to come. Teddy Swims and Benson Boone have forced top 40 to make room for big soulful vocals and even bigger screaming guitar, with their crossover smashes “Lose Control” and “Beautiful Things,” respectively. Alt-rock has seen its fortunes revived on the chart through Djo’s psych-leaning “End of Beginning” and Artemas’ darkwave-inspired “I Like It When You Kiss Me,” both surprise top 20 Hot 100 hits. Even longtime cult favorite Hozier, a decade removed from his breakout hit “Take Me to Church,” is now back with a somehow-even-bigger hit: “Too Sweet,” lifted to No. 1 by good TikTok buzz and the currently rising tides of alt-folk and soul-pop.

Even in the midst of the Taylor and Drake/Kendrick takeovers, Shaboozey and Tommy Richman have seemingly come out of nowhere to score breakthrough hits that are genuinely competing with the superstars’ new singles, in country anthem “A Bar Song (Tipsy)” and hip-hop/R&B singalong “Million Dollar Baby,” respectively, both already top five Hot 100 hits. Meanwhile, more regional hits from the likes of Cash Cobain and J.P. have not yet crossed over enough to make much of a national chart impact, but are helping to define the sound of the clubs and the culture on the level just below the mainstream.

For a few of these breakout artists, the success has been a long time coming. Sexyy Redd built up momentum for most of 2023 with viral hits “Pound Town” and “SkeeYee” — culminating in a feature appearance on Drake’s For All the Dogs No. 11 hit “Rich Baby Daddy” — but she’s taken it to a new level this year with her first solo top 20 hit, the dancefloor shout-along “Get It Sexyy.” Glorilla has taken a similar path to solo success with her own self-referencing smash “Yeah Glo!,” while also joining forces with Megan Thee Stallion for the chart-storming “Wanna Be.” Sabrina Carpenter and Chappell Roan were pop favorites with critical acclaim disproportionate to their actual top 40 presence — but following opening slots on Taylor Swift’s and Olivia Rodrigo’s recent tours, they’ve both seen raised profiles and higher levels of crossover stardom with new singles “Espresso,” and “Good Luck Babe!,” respectively, both all but sure to keep growing into the warm-weather months.

The sheer volume of impressive hits so far this year can be seen in the amount of turnover on the Hot 100 — particularly in the top spot, where no one song has reigned for more than three consecutive weeks (“Like That,” again). We’ve already seen 11 different songs top the Hot 100 across the first 19 chart weeks, compared to seven last year and just six in 2022. Both of those years saw a No. 1 hit reign for 15+ weeks seemingly almost by default: “As It Was” and Morgan Wallen’s “Last Night” didn’t dominate because they kept finding new ways to infiltrate pop culture (a la Lil Nas X with “Old Town Road”), but simply because the competition usually just wasn’t strong enough across the board to consistently threaten their supremacy. This year, with everything that’s been happening, it seems unlikely that either song would even get to double-digit weeks on top.

It’s hard to say why so much is happening right now, as the reasons behind nearly every breakout story are different. And it’d probably be facile to simply attribute it to pop music once again being Fully Outside, breaking out of its post-shutdown slump and roaring back with a number of artists who were hesitant to rejoin a compromised music world now once again fully engaged. But certainly, it feels like the 2020s are discovering their own distinct musical identity a little — after a first few year largely filled with callback hits and sonic leftovers from past eras — and 2024 is arguably the first year of the decade that feels entirely like its own thing, without being stuck in the hangover of the first major streaming boom of the 2010s, or still mired in the COVID quicksand. TikTok is still the greatest promotional accelerant in music, but increasingly it feels like the app is pouring gasoline on fires that artists have already started, simply offering well-liked songs additional exposure through word-of-mouth spreading, rather than spawning self-made hits through viral dance challenges and influencer button-pushing. For lack of a better word, all the hits feel real.

Regardless of the reasons, it’s been a transfixing start to the year in popular music, with major contributions seemingly coming from all different corners of the music world, and from all different levels of artists. And what’s more, it doesn’t look to be slowing down anytime soon: This Friday brings with it a new album from Gunna, a new mixtape from Future and a new single from Post Malone and Morgan Wallen, the latter being arguably the biggest remaining recording artist in contemporary music who we haven’t heard much new from this year. And then the week after, it’s time for Billie Eilish’s much-hyped Hit Me Hard and Soft album, her first full-length set to arrive with no advance singles. Get your rest days in where you can and maybe hope for a bit of a summer vacation in a couple months, because it doesn’t look like pop is going to be taking it easy on us anytime in the near future — we’re exhausted, but elated.

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