While Atlanta, GA has served as a well of inspiration for both hip-hop and mainstream pop, its stars have rarely been elevated to figurehead status. Son Raw investigates why it’s taken memes and fan engagement to propel Migos, Rae Sremmurd and Future to the top of the Billboard charts.

Despite fueling both rap’s most creative developments and a seemingly endless stream of commercial prospects, Atlanta has rarely produced the biggest rap star of any given era. Popular local duo Outkast were marketed as alternatives to mainstream rap titans like Jay Z and 50 Cent, and they faded from visibility just as those New York holdovers began to go stale; T.I. proclaimed himself King in 2006 and seemed poised to take the top spot, only to be leapfrogged by crossover-savvy Northerner Kanye West and New Orleans’ Lil Wayne, who’d channel Southern creativity into chart and media dominance.

Even now, when Atlanta’s unmistakable TR-808 drum patterns have become completely ubiquitous in pop, the mainstream continues to favor acts like Kendrick Lamar, Drake, Chance the Rapper and even A$AP Rocky over the city’s bursting roster of stylistic innovators. Whether it’s Atlanta’s emphasis on street-level topics or plain old inertia, the entertainment industry is all too happy to use Atlanta as a creative engine, but it remains reluctant to promote its stars as the figureheads of contemporary rap.

It’s not for a lack of hits, either. Going back over a decade, Young Jeezy scored two consecutive number one albums in an era of declining sales, but was unable to leverage this success and reach genuine mainstream acceptance. Tellingly, Kanye West invited the rapper to feature on his pop-rap magnum opus Graduation, but only to deliver his signature ad-libs. Jeezy’s mush-mouthed coke raps – that divided rap fans and confused the mainstream – were conspicuously absent.

Despite its innovation, Atlanta rap was positioned as a novelty – a fad to be absorbed by more pop-savvy acts. This dynamic also worked the other way when ATLiens aimed for crossover status. Despite netting a number of chart topping singles and albums, T.I.’s greatest commercial success came off the back of tracks like ‘Dead and Gone’ and ‘Live Your Life’, which sanded down the rapper’s localized drug talk with hooks from Justin Timberlake and Rihanna. This wasn’t unique to Atlanta – the era was a re-calibration period for hip-hop after rap tropes dominated pop in the early ‘00s, but the subsequent decline made mainstream radio more conservative, meaning Atlanta’s artists consistently hit a glass ceiling when promoting an authentic sound beyond urban radio.

‘Live Your Life’ however, quite unintentionally, pointed towards a new approach. The song was built around a sample of Moldovian boy band O-Zone’s bargain bin Euro-pop hit ‘Dragostea Din Tei’, but listeners undoubtedly recognized the melody from the then-popular Numa Numa meme, in which proto-YouTuber Gary Brolsma lip-synced O-Zone’s track to comedic effect and millions of views (at its peak, the video was hosted on pre-YouTube platform Newgrounds, making exact play counts impossible to determine). So while Rihanna provided the star power to crack pop radio, the sample circumvented the mainstream entirely, tapping directly into a burgeoning internet culture that young rap fans lived and breathed.

T.I.’s hit wouldn’t be worth remembering as anything more than a pop oddity had it not predicted our current era so significantly. While sampling memes has mercifully never become a trend, contemporary Atlanta rap is in the midst of a breakout moment powered by viral success. Over the past six months alone, Rae Sremmurd, Migos and Future each delivered the biggest hits of their careers so far, and in each case their singles’ acclaim and popularity came not off the back of hooks from more established pop stars, but fan-generated memes.

Rae Sremmurd’s ‘Black Beatles’ hit first, dropping as part of their Sremmlife 2 album in mid August 2016, getting released as a single in September, and reaching number one on the pop charts the week of November 26. This type of slow ascent is atypical in a listening environment dominated by streaming and the constant turnover of new releases, so at first it seemed as if ‘Black Beatles’ would be a missed opportunity for the group. While it was an instant favorite with fans, the song languished in the middle of the charts until it became the de-facto soundtrack to the Mannequin Challenge, a completely unrelated craze where participants stood still while a camera panned around them. After the group was filmed participating in the meme mid-concert, the song became the challenge’s anthem, helping it rocket up the charts to five-times platinum status.

From the outside looking in, this was a case of pure fan enthusiasm, but it was also a tad unlikely: what did standing still have to do with a pop rap song name-checking Paul McCartney? As it happened, Interscope, the act’s label, had hired Internet marketing firm Pizza Slime to push the song to notable Instagram influencers, linking the unrelated song and meme just as the challenge was going viral. On one hand, this raises uncomfortable questions regarding the authenticity of “organic” hits, particularly in a media environment full of fake news and audience manipulation. On the other hand, the ‘Black Beatles’ campaign could also be seen as the platonic ideal of music marketing: a great song that found its audience and mainstream acceptance not through paid radio play listing and a copycat approach, but through direct engagement with its audience’s interests. While that may have required a bit of wheel-greasing by a marketing firm, at least it resulted in an outsider hit.

But while ‘Black Beatles’ was topping the charts, another Atlanta group’s single was already capturing Twitter’s imagination. Released on October 28, Migos’ ‘Bad and Boujee’ was even less likely to be a chart topper than ‘Black Beatles’. Despite achieving moderate success with club breakout ‘Versace’ and its follow-ups, Migos’ attempts to translate their sizeable core fanbase into a bonafide crossover hit hadn’t panned out, and their do-or-die sophomore album Culture had been delayed throughout 2016. A dark, uncompromising, minor key ode to conspicuous consumption, ‘Bad and Boujee’ initially seemed to follow in the footsteps of previous single ‘Cocoon’ – a great song whose mainstream impact was so muted it doesn’t even have its own Wikipedia page.

Instead, ‘Bad and Boujee’ found a home on Twitter, where its intro birthed thousands of reaction gifs of fans riffing on Offset’s imaginative lyrics. Further fueling enthusiasm, a video of the group performing the track in Nigeria highlighted just how strong their cult following was. This still wasn’t nearly enough to get them on primetime TV, as their manager noted, but the track was a hit nonetheless. Then Atlanta-creator Donald Glover shouted the group out at The Golden Globes, sending both the song and memes into overdrive.

Immediately, countless confused adults – typified by Globes attendee Jake Gyllenhall – were asking what a Migos was, powering the song’s ascent. It was yet another example of an Atlanta act breaking through thanks to a well-timed social media burst and Migos finally got access to mainstream outlets like Jimmy Kimmel Live.

But while both ‘Black Beatles’ and ‘Bad and Boujee’ were designed as singles to push a larger project, Atlanta figurehead Future was in a different position when ‘Mask Off’ became his highest charting solo single to date. The track seemingly owes its entire success to the internet, succeeding despite tepid label enthusiasm. After Future dropped two back-to-back albums, one trap-oriented and the other dedicated to relationship anthems, critics flocked to his sensitive material while the rapper released videos for his absolute hardest tracks, but nothing appeared to be greasing the wheels for a mainstream breakout.

Instead, ‘Mask Off’, a mid-tempo curio built around an infectious flute sample and an earworm chorus, became an unexpected hit, fueling its own viral challenge where fans recreated, twisted and parodied the track’s loop across social media. The buzz surrounding the track clearly caught both Future and his label Epic off guard: by the time they mustered a puzzlingly dark and needlessly slick video for the track over a month after interest peaked, it was already old news. A full five minutes of Future’s own Instagram response would have been a better look than a lackluster video that didn’t even hint at the challenge that made the song what it was.

The sort of people power that made these songs hits presents incredible opportunities for a label nimble and reactive enough to embrace a sudden fan favorite (or to spur one via marketing initiatives) but it’s also a challenge for the old order. Commercial radio’s increased consolidation and risk-averse nature means breaking a leftfield song through traditional channels is next to impossible, but singles dictated to radio are also inevitably the ones that get video treatments, regardless of whether they catch on or not.

On the flip side, if a label can’t capitalize on an unexpected hit like Lil Uzi Vert’s ‘XO TOUR Llif3’ or Playboi Carti’s ‘Magnolia’ in a timely manner with a marketing campaign or video, the moment might pass. Ultimately though, whether labels can turn hype into sales or not, enthusiastic rap fans grabbing the power to propel songs up the charts offers a glimmer of hope, skewing rap hits younger, weirder and far less formulaic than conventional wisdom might expect. Plus, it makes for some great memes.

Son Raw is on Twitter

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