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Is TikTok Good or Bad for Rap?

photograph of TikTok icon on ipod sitting on empty counter

TikTok has taken over the world by storm. In 2018, it became the most downloaded app on the IOS networks app store with 45.8 million downloads, passing up YouTube’s 35.8 million and Instagram’s 31 million. With around 800 million active users worldwide, the app has been the hub for the latest viral challenges, skits, and dances.

In the wake of TikTok’s popularity comes a very noticeable shift in the music industry, specifically for rap. Lately, rappers look for the success in the virality of their music through TikTok and have continued to engineer their music for the platform. This new wave of rap music coming up through TikTok begs the question if it’s a good thing for the genre or causing a regress.

The power of TikTok and what it could do for the modern day music artist first came apparent with Lil Nas X and his smash hit “Old Town Road.” The song saw a variety of remixes, was the source of endless memes, and maybe most importantly, it sat atop the Billboard Hot 100 chart for a record breaking 17 consecutive weeks.

Lil Nas’s success wouldn’t have been possible without TikTok though. Before, his song sat in the void with millions of others hoping for even the slightest exposure. But once it popped up on TikTok and people grew curious about the rap-country mashup playing in the background of other user’s videos, the song exploded from there. Since then, along with Lil Nas’s affirmation, TikTok emphasizes what the app can do for music creators.

With Lil Nas’s success in mind, how is TikTok regressing rap? After all, along with the accolades the app helped his song achieve, TikTok and Lil Nas X demonstrated how versatile rap can be when blended with other genres. It even shed some light on the LGBTQ community’s relationship with rap music when Lil Nas came out as queer.

Maybe the issue isn’t so much with “Old Town Road” than it is with the surge of music artists coming after Lil Nas, looking for their chance at virality and Billboard standing. Since then, countless rap artists and groups have strategized putting their music on TikTok for their chance at pushing their brand, so much so that there are tutorials on how to make music on TikTok go viral.

But in the midst of this scramble for virality, up-and-coming rappers who are already established, as well as seasoned rap veterans, have made their mark with their music on the app. For instance, the rapper/singer Doja Cat’s song “Say So” entered Billboard’s Hot 100 at number 96 after trending on TikTok. Even the living rap legend Drake has gotten in on the app when his 2018 hit “Nonstop” gave rise to the “Flip the Switch Challenge,” where people stand in front of a mirror and change clothes after turning off a light. The challenge received more than half a billion views.

Now, in the midst of the world in quarantine due to COVID-19, Drake released his latest single “Toosie Slide,” a track with lyrics turned instructions for a simple dance that Drizzy seemingly made up on the fly. Like the dance, the song itself isn’t groundbreaking. Yet it reached number 1 on Billboard’s Hot 100. Why? Besides the fact that he’s simply Drake, the Toronto rapper has been doing for years what rap artists looking for virality on TikTok have just started to do—using social media creatively to push music. The majority of people listening to “Toosie Slide” don’t have it on their playlist to study or travel. Whenever the song is playing, the person who turned it on is filming themselves or someone else to post online to go along with the latest trend.

So, yes, tapping in to social media to push music isn’t anything new. But while Drake has always bided his time and made calculated moves with marketing his music, it’s as if rappers looking for TikTok to make their music viral are throwing what they have at the wall and seeing what sticks.

Maybe this is the core of the issue with TikTok and a negative impact on rap. The genre is over saturated to begin with. But now, with the advent of TikTok and its formulaic nature, anyone who’s read a Dr. Seuss book and knows how to use Garage Band has a shot at becoming the next big thing. It seems as if rap artists looking to TikTok for fame are looking for just that. The music itself and the quality of it becomes second to virality.

However, even compelling and unique works can come from the combination of rap music and TikTok, arguing that music quality and virality go hand in hand. Take Tierra Whack, a Philly rapper who made waves in the rap industry with her debut project Whack World. But there’s a catch. There’s a total of 15 tracks on Whack World, and they’re all 1 minute long. For the music listeners who want an immersive music experience, Whack released a 15 minute visual consisting of a series of vignettes that catered to each track.

But the short songs themselves are engineered towards potential listeners on TikTok. It’s easier for users to pick out what they want to use for their 15-second video from a 1-minute song than a 3-minute and longer song. Even a producer that worked on Whack World said that TikTok’s 15-second window is pushing producers  to be more concise with their songs. No more long intros or inside jokes on outros.

But why should TikTok dictate how rap music is made? For likes and to be featured on the app’s main page? This way of thinking is reminiscent of that of those in the PR/advertising industry—modern day Mad Men.

But should music really be made the same way that Super Bowl commercials are? A person with a glass half full way of thinking might say that we should welcome this shift in hip-hop and encourage how the genre is reaching so many people through the app. But then, the most cynical critic could take one look at artists engineering their music to be featured for 15 seconds on an app and say that they’re catering to a generation of listeners with decreasing attention spans.

With TikTok growing ever present in rap, it seems like we’re one generational shift away from the music from the early 10’s and prior being considered archaic. And the amazing thing about rap music is that the genre is always evolving. Though that shouldn’t mean that the past is completely forgotten, and the future is always one that we should be headed for.

Lil Nas X vs. Billboard: The Charting Conundrum of “Old Town Road”

Photograph of a type writer with the words "Lil Nas X" having just been typed

In December of 2018, Montero Hill, AKA Lil Nas X dropped his song “Old Town Road” on TikTok, a video-sharing app from China. The song was originally used as a meme on TikTok, but it blew up after videos sampling the song amassed over 67 million views. “Old Town Road” has since reached the top of Spotify United States Top 50 as well as global Apple Music charts. It also sits at #15 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. In addition to the Hot 100 chart, “Old Town Road” has made it to the Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart as well as the Hot Country Songs chart. But something odd happened a bit after the song caught fire–Billboard removed Lil Nas X’s single from the Hot Country Songs chart. Social media exploded after the discovery, with users confused and disappointed at Billboard’s decision. But what prompted Billboard to remove Lil Nas X’s song? Is the song country music at all? Could it be that the song truly didn’t fit some criteria that Billboard has for music genres, or could it be that the whole ordeal is based off of racial undertones?

Though “Old Town Road” blew up as an internet meme, there’s more to the song than meets the eye. Lil Nas X weds rap/hip-hop and country music genres by using rap beats and country influenced lyrics. In a deep, country music style voice over a bass boosted instrumental, Lil Nas X sings:

I got the horses in the back

Horse tack is attached

Hat is matte black

Got the boots that black to match

Ridin’ on a horse

You can whip your Porsche

I been in the valley

You ain’t been up off that porch now,

When Billboard removed “Old Town Road” from the Hot Country Songs chart, they explained that it was because the song did not embrace enough elements of today’s country music to be charted as a country song. Perhaps it is the rap/hip-hop elements of the song that prevent it from being classified in the country genre of music–a combination of the instrumental and the song’s lyrics. For instance, in the song’s second verse, Lil Nas X says:

Ridin’ on a tractor

Lean all in my bladder

Cheated on my baby

You can go and ask her

My life is a movie

Bull ridin’ and boobies

Cowboy hat from Gucci

Wrangler on my booty  

Unlike the first verse of the song, the second appears reminiscent of standard rap/hip-hop elements. Lean, a combination of prescription cough medicine and soft drink beverages, has been a staple in contemporary rap. When combined with opioids, lean can seriously impair one’s motor functioning, which the user hopes to achieve. The mention of adultery and “boobies” in the verse aligns with the disregarding of women in rap music as well. These motifs of rap, which are proportionately negative, could be a hint as to why Billboard removed “Old Town Road” from the Hot Country Songs Chart. But even then, it raises the question: what makes country music? The answer to such a question might involve race matters. Billboard has denied considerations of race influencing their decision to take “Old Town Road” off the country songs charts. However, race seems like an unavoidable factor in such a situation where a black artist is being excluded from a predominantly white music genre.

In addition, Billboard’s argument of “Old Town Road” not incorporating enough country elements appears weakened when acknowledging the fact that white country music artists such as Florida Georgia Line and Sam Hunt incorporate hip hop elements in their songs. Some country music oversexualizes women like rap and hip-hop does. For example, in Sam Hunt’s song “Body Like a Back Road,” he sings “The way she fit in them blue jeans, she don’t need to belt, but I can turn them inside out, I don’t need no help.” Even with hip-hop elements and misogynistic lyrics, these artists’ music is still considered country. Why is Lil Nas X’s music in question?

Perhaps it is this double standard between rap/hip-hop and country that suggest a racial component. Shane Morris, a former record label executive for Nashville records, a country music label, said that Billboard removed Lil Nas X’s song from the charts as a compositional problem because they didn’t know how to justify the matter without sounding racist. Whether Morris’s words are true or not has yet to be determined, but the situation with Lil Nas X–where a black artist is working with a predominantly white genre– is not the first. Per The New York Times, Charles Hughes, the director of the Lynne & Henry Turley Memphis Center at Rhodes College, explained that black music artists have been influencing country music for a long time. Despite their contribution, black artists haven’t enjoyed the benefits  their white counterparts have.

Hughes went on to compare Billboard removing Lil Nas X from the Hot Country Songs chart to country radio stations ignoring Ray Charles’ 1962 album “Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music.” “Old Town Road” and Ray Charles’ music are almost sixty years apart, but seem to possess some interesting similarities. Just like Ray Charles, Lil Nas X’s music is a modern take on country music as he combines the genre with a contemporary sound. In addition, just as radio stations ignored Ray Charles’ music, country radio stations have not been supporting “Old Town Road.” This past week, the song was only played 5 times on country radio stations.

The lack of radio stations playing “Old Town Road” could provide some insight as to why Billboard removed the song from the country songs chart. In a statement released to the Washington Post, a Billboard spokeswoman explained that when categorizing genres for chart inclusion, Billboard incorporates audience impression and airplay in addition to musical composition. The statement went on to explain that “Old Town Road” charted on the Hot Country Songs chart because its rights owners tagged the song as country and it hadn’t been vetted for Billboard’s criteria. The song had 63 plays on Billboard’s R&B/Hip-Hop airplay chart and zero plays on the Country airplay chart. Therefore, it was removed from the Hot Country Songs chart. The data provided makes Billboard’s decision understandable, as it appears as if listeners are deciding what is charted and what is removed. However, doesn’t the artist get some say in how their music is categorized? Lil Nas X himself said that the song was country rap, suggesting that it should be on both the R&B/Hip-Hop and Country charts. If an artist intends for a song to fit in with a certain genre, who is to say otherwise?

Recently, as if to challenge Billboard’s decision to remove “Old Town Road” from the Hot Country Songs chart, Lil Nas X released an “Old Town Road” remix, featuring country legend Billy Ray Cyrus. The “Achy Breaky Heart” singer hopped on the song for a verse and it has been received well by social media. The question now is, if the song gains enough popularity, how will Billboard chart it? Is the song still not to be considered country despite a famous country singer being featured on it? It has yet to be seen. The question of the impact of race to the song’s characterization has yet to be seen as well, but it can’t be ignored due to the long history of racial tension in black music. And as for “Old Town Road” being considered country music, its plays seem to determine that. But perhaps the vision of the artist who creates the song should be considered as well. Regardless, Lil Nas X has shifted contemporary music and how it has been classified. Boundaries are hard to distinguish because artists like Lil Nas X are destroying them by combining genres. The whole ordeal is a just a testament to the fact that music is evolving and those who monitor, document, and evaluate it should evolve with it.