The Billboard Hot 100 keeps its finger firmly on the musical pulse of the nation by ranking the 100 most popular songs from week to week. 2013 was an unprecedented year for the Hot 100. One could almost say that the musical pulse of the nation skipped a beat last year, as no African-American recording artist scored a number one hit on the Billboard charts, something that has never happened before in the 55-year history of the Billboard rankings.
This is an anomaly of epic proportions, considering the weighty influence that African-Americans and African-American culture has always had on popular music. This influence has been consistently represented in Billboard’s rankings since 1958, when the Hot 100 was established. In the 1960s, soulful acts like The Temptations and The Supremes held down the number one spot on the charts for weeks at a time. Al Green and Marvin Gaye carried African-American hits into the 1970s, while Donna Summer and others topped the charts throughout that decade. Michael Jackson dominated the 1980s, and the explosion of so-called gangster rap ensured that the 1990s would see plenty of number one hits from black artists. In fact, in May of 1993 each of the top 10 spots on the Hot 100 were occupied by an African-American act including Janet Jackson, Dr. Dre and Whitney Houston, and this phenomenon would occur again 10 years later in October of 2003. In 2004, a black recording artist held the number one spot for the entire year.
Considering their constant presence on the charts and their occasional dominance of them, it is unbelievable that no African-American owned a number one hit in 2013. Even the R&B charts were topped by white acts for 44 out of the 52 weeks of 2013. What factors could have contributed to this unprecedented absence?
Other culture outlets have been focusing their attention on the most popular black acts, particularly Beyonce, Jay Z and Kanye West. These stalwart Billboard standards were unable to produce a number one hit last year, while in the past their number ones would flow like water. Perhaps the hip-hop/ R&B fan base is not responding as it once did to these artists, or perhaps their music can no longer compete in a changing market. Both factors are certainly relevant. Say what you will about their new music, but Kanye and Hova’s new albums, Yeezus and Magna Carta Holy Grail, were two of the most buzzed about releases of the year. Few critics would have predicted that neither of these hip-hop/R&B titans would top the charts with anything from their new albums, though “Holy Grail” did come close.
But, very little attention is being paid to the host of black artists outside this trinity of R&B royalty who could have locked up the number one spot. J.Cole, Kendrick Lamar and Wiz Khalifa all enjoyed enormous success last year, and Rihanna seems to score a number one hit with every single. As was the case throughout Billboard’s history, in 2013 there were dozens of black artists capable of producing a hit song, and many of them did. With the odds in their favor to score at least one chart-topper, the question arises: were black recording artists snubbed in 2013?
There is, however, an element of controversy to Billboard’s method. In the past, a number one single featuring more than one artist would be listed as a number one for each artist on the track. In 2009 both Jay Z and Alicia Keys had a number one hit with “Empire State of Mind.” However, Billboard has since changed its system. An artist featured on a song no longer receives a number one hit of his or her own if the song shoots to the top of the charts. In 2013, “Blurred Lines” achieved number one success, although only Robin Thicke was credited for it. T.I and Pharrell went unrecognized for their hands in the success of the song. Rihanna, too, under the old system would have been rewarded with her 13th number one hit for “The Monster” by Eminem. Yet, only Eminem was given the honor, even though the song’s popularity was clearly a joint achievement.
It seems that this stunning anomaly must owe itself to the whims of the market. It is the market, after all, which determines the popularity of hit songs. For over 50 years, however, the market has always produced at least one chart-topper from a black recording artist. It is truly noteworthy and historic that in 2013 this was not the case. Only time and the musical tastes of the nation will determine whether this anomaly will become a trend.