Two new singles dropped recently that revived an age-old conversation around what was once one of the most highly coveted, though unofficial, titles in music: song of the summer.
The first was Baby Keem and Kendrick Lamar’s “The Hillbillies.” The other was Latto and Cardi B’s “Put It On Da Floor Again.” Both are fun records, with cousins Baby Keem and Lamar creating the most carefree collaboration of their Grammy-winning catalog — the Pulitzer Prize winner claiming he’s rap’s best dressed and that he’s too high-profile to access. Meanwhile, Latto’s record received a stimulus package in the form of a Cardi B guest verse. On it, the Bronx native aggressively proclaims, “I been ballin’ so hard, could’ve went to LSU” with the video including a guest appearance from LSU star Angel Reese.
With star power, infectiousness and quotables, both records boast characteristics that suggest summer staying power. They join other notables, including Ice Spice and Nicki Minaj’s “Princess Diana,” Janelle Monáe’s “Lipstick Lover,” Sexyy Redd and Tay Keith’s “Pound Town,” KAYTRAMINÉ, Anime, Kaytranada and Pharrell’s “4EVA,” The Weeknd and Future’s “Double Fantasy” and more. Though summer has only just begun, there’s also still no clear-cut anthem.
Therein lies a conundrum for hip-hop and Black music at large. Summer hits still exist, but for the first time in 30 years, there has yet to be a No. 1 hip-hop song or album this late into the year on Billboard’s charts. Do undeniable summer anthems still exist? And if so, what’s changed over the years that makes picking (or even identifying them) so difficult now?
To start, music consumption is adjusting to a post-pandemic world dominated by streaming and an endless onslaught of new releases. This makes determining the song of the summer far different from what it was even a decade ago.
DJ Meel, a Los Angeles DJ and music supervisor, said he’s not exactly thrilled with the state of music right now. While speaking with a colleague about the topic in the spring, DJ Meel relayed his difficulty in finding which new songs should be played in clubs or at day parties — the usual proving grounds for summer anthems — because of just how splintered our consumption is these days.
“Social media lightweight determines what the song of the summer is,” DJ Meel told Andscape. “Whatever drives the most traffic or what people are turning up to the most in videos. That’s how we determine what the song of the summer is now.”
DJ R-Tistic agreed. “It’s definitely social media and the club more than radio or TV. There are no shows like 106 & Park or Video Soul or any of those countdowns [anymore],” he said. For the past few years, DJ R-Tistic has been making a name for himself, dropping mixes online and deejaying for celebs such as actor Issa Rae and singer Beyoncé.
“I was doing a pool party in the Dominican Republic in 2018 and there were DJs from all over the country there. Four DJs played Ella Mai’s ‘Boo’d Up.’ To me, when a song is that big, you can’t escape it,” DJ R-Tistic said. “It was guys singing that song, and you rarely get R&B songs in the club, let alone a song the guys are singing. So I feel like the club is the main way” to determine what’s a hit.
Yet, even that comes with caveats. The coronavirus pandemic altered every facet of daily life, including how people live with the music they consume. A 2022 study by the National Library of Medicine revealed that the pandemic and the slow return to normalcy were a boon for music streaming platforms. However, consumers spent 50% less each month on music. This was partially due to canceled live events and a lack of physical sales. Interestingly, overall music consumption during the stay-at-home period of the pandemic also dropped, despite folks being stuck in the house.
There’s been a gradual shift in the last decade that’s lessened how massive hit records have become and how authentic their staying power is for a summer (or longer). However, before the pandemic, DJ R-Tistic said, songs still spread organically, despite prominent social media pushes and trends.
“Before the lockdown, it was still a little more uniform. It was still slightly more controlled and not as segmented,” he said.
According to DJ Meel, clubs and parties used to be the proving ground for whether a song was a hit. “As a DJ, you kinda saved those ‘songs of the summer’ or big hits for primetime club hours. And you’d determine those by what songs you got the biggest reaction to.”
In the past, that sort of real-time case study would be based on sprinkling in new records until they became the in-demand hits that would turn clubs and parties upside-down. The same is still somewhat true today, but with a far greater selection of available music. On the surface, it sounds like an ideal scenario — but a glut of new options can lead to chaos.
According to Music Business Worldwide, 60,000 new tracks are uploaded to Spotify daily. This equates to a startling 22 million songs annually, a new song every 1.4 seconds.
“Music is definitely weird now. It isn’t as memorable and I think it’s because of streaming,” DJ Meel said. “You don’t have time to sit with a song and let it become your favorite. It’s like you’re on a song on Friday and then next Friday, a whole new project comes out. Artists aren’t letting the songs live. There’s no promo or anything.”
The lack of definitive hits makes DJs’ jobs even harder. “As a DJ, we’re in a tough spot. We’re based on reaction. We’ll play all these new songs and people don’t know them,” said DJ Meel. “So we tend to go back to older songs that people know. That’s what’s keeping songs from popping. It’s the way music is released now.”
For DJ R-Tistic, trying out new songs in clubs comes with inherent risks. All it takes is one wrong record to lose a crowd. But throwing on the right song with the right crowd can also take things into the stratosphere. Before TikTok harnessed the power to make hits, club DJs (and later bloggers) wielded this power.
“2021 was the first summer since the pandemic started. Most of us would probably say WizKid and Tems’ ‘Essence’ was the song of the summer,” DJ R-Tistic said. “But at the first day party I did in May, I could tell the crowd didn’t know it, but they responded great. Other DJs were coming up asking what the song was. But ‘Essence’ came out in 2020. We were locked down, so it really didn’t count anyway. It took a long time for it to grow.”
Yet, not every catchy record will result in a massive hit like “Essence” — a cut that made WizKid a star in America and introduced Tems to the masses. Or even Megan Thee Stallion’s “Thot S—,” which dropped the same summer. Music is far more segmented now, and crowds don’t listen to all the same songs. Moreover, most people these days have their own playlists, making the decentralization of music all the more challenging to navigate. This is especially true when the conversation turns to the song of the summer.
“In the last couple of months, I feel like it’s been a lot of dope songs, like ‘Pinot Noir’ from IDK featuring Saucy Santana and Jucee Froot. It’s one of those songs with a straight vibe,” DJ R-Tistic said.
But therein lies the central issue of why many records don’t have the commercial reception to match the artistic adulation they may receive.
“Everybody who knows it loves it. But you gotta know it! And if only 5% of the crowd knows it, then it’s not gonna have the same impact. Even beyond the summertime songs, the best example is how segmented stuff is and how it grows based on who the artist is. Not even last year, this was 2021 when Devin Morrison and Masego dropped ‘Yamz,’ everybody who knew it loved it. But you had to at least know Masego because Devin Morrison is less known than him. Then Fetty Wap got a hold of it and everybody who knew the original was like, ‘This is trash.’ But Fetty Wap was still big because he had that huge year eight years ago. The song blew up from Fetty even though most of us feel his version wasn’t as good.”
Last summer — the first summer people felt really comfortable being back outside since the pandemic began — there were bona fide summer anthems. Summer 2022 featured a trio of hits that helped cut through an overwhelming surplus of music.
“For hip-hop, it was GloRilla’s ‘F.N.F.’ For Afrobeats, it was Burna Boy’s ‘Last Last.’ For R&B/house, it was ‘Break My Soul.’ And you really don’t hear ‘Break My Soul’ as much because once ‘Cuff It’ dropped, that’s the main Beyoncé song you hear from Renaissance now,” said DJ R-Tistic.
Aside from artists’ bragging rights, the title of song of the summer matters because of the emotional connection fans have to music. These records played a role in creating experiences charted the course of lives, relationships and opportunities. That still holds true today.
That being said, there are several contenders for the crown this summer.
“I had a poll last week about the contenders. People still feel like [Sexyy Red’s] ‘Pound Town’ is one. Doechii and Kodak Black’s ‘What It Is’ is up there. For LA, I thought Blxst’s ‘Ghetto Cinderella’ would’ve been a lot bigger, but it’s not really getting any play at all,” said DJ R-Tistic. “As far as the straight club/house party scene, I think Lil’ Vada’s ‘Rack City’ is probably gonna be a big one even though it’s probably not gonna spread like that nationally. For Atlanta, that ‘Peaches and Eggplant’ song from Young Nudy and 21 Savage seems to be getting big. It’s not a great, great song to me. It’s very trappy and strip club-ish, but it’s catchy enough to get some play. Everybody from Afrobeats said it’s a new Davido song, ‘Unavailable.’ That’s supposed to be a candidate.”
Perhaps that’s what the song of the summer discussion will resemble from here on out — a massive field with candidates from all parts of the world, but no clear-cut front-runner. So maybe Baby Keem and his cousin Kendrick and Latto and Cardi B have a shot at the title after all.