On February 11, Madison Square Garden was shaking. In what will simultaneously go down as one of his most egotistical and successful acts of showmanship, Kanye West unveiled his new album, The Life Of Pablo, to the packed arena at ear-splitting volume.
Like many, I was watching the show from my living room, packing bowls and fighting Tidal’s perma-buffering livestream.
As the album’s second song, a two-part suite called “Father Stretch My Hands,” moved from soulful gospel to a sort of ecstatic trap, Kanye delivered a verse addressing his dad before an unexpected voice erupted from the handclaps. Ahh, I thought. Kanye got a Future collab on the record!
So now, as we await Desiigner’s next move, we have to ask: What are his chances? Where does he go from here?
It was only after the album finished that I learned Future’s cameo wasn’t Future at all. The voice belonged to an 18-year-old from Brooklyn rapper named Desiigner. How did this happen?
We’d be asking the same question on April 25, when “Panda,” Desiigner’s single lifted and remixed into Kanye’s album, hit number one on Billboard’s Hot 100—a chart position higher than any single on West’s record.
“Panda” was originally posted to SoundCloud on December 15, 2015. It was Desiigner’s first solo track, a dedication to the BMW X6 rapped over a beat from Adnan Khan, a British producer who goes by Menace.
Menace started making beats when he was 12. What became “Panda” took him all of two hours, and Desiigner purchased the beat for $200 after hearing it on YouTube.
To call it unlikely is a ridiculous understatement. Debut singles go number one from time to time, but it’s almost unheard of from an artist who hasn’t been groomed by a major label or achieved years of “unofficial” success on the mixtape circuit.
So now, as we await Desiigner’s next move, we have to ask: What are his chances? Where does he go from here? The history of chart-topping debuts shows that the answer is either nowhere or everywhere, a blessing or curse with not much space in between. I went back to 1997, the year of Desiigner’s birth, and studied the fate of other artists in his position. What happens when you’ve started from the top, rather than the bottom?
The debut rap single that tops the charts either launches a mega-career or achieves its success based on novelty. In 1997, Puff Daddy climbed all the way to the top of the charts with “Can’t Nobody Hold Me Down,” which featured an obvious Grandmaster Flash sample and an interpolation of another major hit song, Matthew Wilder’s 1983 single “Break My Stride.”
Puff’s heavy borrowing was viewed by some as a gimmick, but Bad Boy, his record label, was already defining an entire region and era of hip-hop. Puff Daddy had spent years perfecting a style of production which flipped classic rock and R&B into club-ready pop. The Notorious B.I.G. was the label’s first superstar, but Bad Boy was positioned to be successful, with or without Biggie.
1998 brought Lauryn Hill’s debut single, “Doo-Wop (That Thing),” but she had become a star two years earlier. The Score, the second album from The Fugees, had already lit up the charts with singles like “Killing Me Softly,” “Fu-gee-la,” and “Ready Or Not.” Hill’s bravura combination of singing and rapping was already a bankable quality. Her debut single made good on the hype.
Post-Lauryn, five years passed without a debut rap single topping the Hot 100. The fallow period was cured by 50 Cent—he took the crown in 2003 with “In Da Club.” 50’s setup will go down as one of the best-ever launches to a rap career. Beyond his marketing narrative (shot nine times, beefed with more famous rappers on “How To Rob,” abs), 50 released three mixtapes in quick succession the summer before his debut album. Eminem took notice and put “Wanksta” on the 8 Mile soundtrack. That led to 50 going in over one of Dr. Dre’s most slap-happy beats, and 50 took “In Da Club” to the top of the charts.
More often than not, debut singles went number one because of an artist’s unique voice. They found the perfect time (and label) to place their stamp on culture, and most artists in this rarified group went on to achieve years of stardom and enough subsequent hits that, even if they didn’t return to the top of the charts, brought a deeper longevity to their careers.
That all changed in the mid-aughts, as YouTube and Facebook became ubiquitous. Chart-topping debuts became trendier. D4L’s “Laffy Taffy” is novelty at its finest; so stupid that it’s best remembered as a Ghostface diss. Soulja Boy’s “Crank That” sounds like the toy version of a real song, but its accompanying dance turned it into a cultural phenomenon.
In 2007, living rooms became workshops for “superman-ing that ho,” and webcam videos of the resulting efforts racked up millions of hits. Dance craze number ones have long been reliable versions of the form, but Soulja Boy, just 17 at the time, perfected an emerging formula with “Crank That.” Like older peers in Atlanta, he merged a catchy dance with the sound of contemporary rap. American culture’s growing penchant for oversharing did the rest.
It’s tempting to think of “Crank That” as a precursor to “Panda.” Both are made by teenagers coming out of nowhere. Neither have Fugees or Biggies in their past. Both build on vanguard sounds of their time by reducing their fussiness and danger. Whereas “Crank That” accompanies a dance with arms extended in superhero pose, the “Panda” dance is crooked at the elbow, a face buried in energetic dabs. Neither rapper is an original voice of his era, but they’re both so catchy that it’s impossible to dislodge their hooks from your ear. “Panda,” though, does not provide instructions. It values energy over coherence. It doesn’t force feed what it’s about, or what it’s supposed to mean.
“Panda,” though, does not provide instructions. It values energy over coherence. It doesn’t force feed what it’s about, or what it’s supposed to mean.
B.o.B., who charted for the first time in 2010 with the Bruno Mars-assisted “Nothin’ On You,” provides the most recent archetype for debut rap songs going number one. That’s because he spent four years before his “debut” honing his craft on mixtapes, developing a regional, then national fanbase, and scoring a plethora of industry co-signs. The most notable came from T.I., who signed B.o.B. to his Grand Hustle imprint and helped bring his sound to the mainstream.
Nowadays the fire of a hit single often burns faster and brighter. B.o.B. followed “Nothin’ On You” with three years of charting singles, but I can barely remember what he sounds like. When he made headlines earlier this year for arguing with Neil deGrasse Tyson and NASA about the earth being flat, my reaction was more “Oh, right, him” than “I can’t believe B.o.B. would fuck up his career like this.”
That’s not to underestimate T.I. He proved his ear for talent and number-ones again in 2014 by signing Iggy Azalea, who rode her debut single “Fancy” to the top of the Hot 100. Other than Wiz Khalifa, whose “Black And Yellow” debut went to number one in 2011 (and, like Iggy, was yet another case of mixtape successes not counting as a “first single”), “Panda” is the only debut rap song unaffiliated with T.I. to reach this level in the 2010s.
Wiz proved durable; his “See You Again” turned our Paul Walker tears into a number one last summer. He was the last rap artist to reach that level, yet Wiz represents a sort of traditional marketing success that Desiigner leaves behind. His number-ones have promotional tie-ins. They soundtrack movies and score NFL playoff runs.
Despite the success of his number-one precursor Rihanna, Desiigner mumbles too much to have his lyrics chanted in stadiums like Wiz. “Panda” achieved its success on the back of up-to-the-minute coolness. Lifting its chorus allowed Kanye to demonstrate how present his work has become, a central theme of The Life Of Pablo. What he listened to in the studio went right into the record, which came out days later.
Two days after MSG, OVO Sound played “Panda” on its Apple Music radio show. There’s your hit formula for 2016: cosigns from Kanye and Drake, two of the biggest artists in the world, at the same time.
“Panda” stayed on top for two weeks before Drake supplanted him with “One Dance,” marking the first number one of his career. That’s the other thing about chart toppers: some of the most successful artists don’t have many of them. It seems like Drake should already have a dozen at this point in his career, but his longevity was built off years of consistency, not bursts of hype.
Jay-Z, Outkast, Kanye, even T.I.—the other major rap artists of the last twenty years went number one after clawing their way up rather than emerging on high.
Why Desiigner’s story truly remains to be seen is how he differs from past novelty debuts which topped the charts. He isn’t an American Idol contestant like those who scored debut hits from 2002-2005. He isn’t part of the “Latin Explosion” in 1999 when we faced Y2K by collectively embracing Spanish-language stars. He isn’t Magic or OMI, artists that sound like they got lab funding to create a lone Song of the Summer before evaporating.
Really, in rap, we haven’t seen anything exactly like Desiigner’s immediate success. That should be reason enough to keep watching.