Kendrick Lamar may not be feeling so “Humble” this week. All of the tracks from his new album DAMN. charted in the Billboard Hot 100, including “Humble,” which has become the number one song in the country, and “DNA,” which debuted at an impressive #4 after the War Machine-starring video debuted earlier this week. Despite Kendrick’s overwhelming popularity in the past few years, “Humble” and “DNA” are only the first two Top 10 hits he’s had as a solo artist. As a featured artist, he also reached the Top 10 on a crappy Taylor Swift song, a crappy Maroon 5 song, and that song where he famously said, “girl, I know you want this dih.”
Kendrick Lamar, seven-time Grammy winner.
However, the biggest news in the Billboard might have to do with two other rap songs that are also first-time Top 10s for both of their respective artists. Future’s “Mask Off” and Lil Uzi Vert’s “XO TOUR Llif3” stand at numbers 5 and 10 on this week’s Billboard. What makes both songs unique is that both shot into the Top 10 last week despite little-to-no radio play, and that both surprise successes are the result of memes.
When the crowd start yelling perform panda pic.twitter.com/JLAbFXaM3C
— B R O C K ® (@troytheblackguy) March 13, 2016
No, not those kinds of memes. In fact, the songs’ popularity can be attributed to video memes: for Future, there’s the #MaskOffChallenge, which invites classical musicians to perform their own rendition of the now-ubiquitous flute riff from “Mask Off.” The results have been… surprisingly great.
— Brittney (@iRoyaltyDopex3) April 3, 2017
Besides providing the world with the greatest mash-up between trap rap and classical music since Migos did “Trap Symphony,” the #MaskOffChallenge has provided fun and easy exposure for some talented musicians, and given “Mask Off” a lot of free publicity (the song doesn’t even have a music video yet – if Future’s feeling cheap he could just edit some of the best fan videos together and call it a day). Future seems understandably happy with the results of this seemingly-random phenomenon – he even jumped on the craze himself, dancing to his own song in a poorly-filmed Instagram video.
Similarly, Lil Uzi Vert’s song “XO Tour Llif3” has risen to chart success because of the (less creatively-titled) #LilUziVertChallenge, where fans dance to the song in various locations. Needless to say, fans will jump at the opportunity to engage with their favorite artists and come up with some very creative ideas of their own.
However, neither song is the first or even the biggest example of memes having a palpable impact on the music charts. Back in November of last year, Rae Sremmurd’s song “Black Beatles” slowly rose to the top of the charts after being featured in the widely popular #MannequinChallenge, which even merited a positive response from one of the original Beatles.
— Paul McCartney (@PaulMcCartney) November 10, 2016
Earlier this year, Migos’ “Bad and Boujee” also hit #1 off the strength of memes related to the song’s production, which became so absurdly convoluted that even the Grinch was disturbed.
“The Grinch heard a sound rising over the snow…
it started in low…
and it started, ‘you know…'” pic.twitter.com/u5lGgZeZa0
— Pigeons & Planes (@PigsAndPlans) December 23, 2016
Some of the memes were so well-done they seemed like they were years in the making, like a Friends episode that surreally seemed to match the song.
I’m mad this fit so well pic.twitter.com/t8eHJgO5UE
— kung fu nati (@NathanZed) December 27, 2016
The phenomenon of meme-driven chart success hasn’t been limited to trap rap, nor even to songs released recently. A relatively unknown Australian band called Bag Raiders experienced sudden popularity earlier this year when their song “Shooting Stars” was featured in a bunch of trippy YouTube videos. The unusual part is, “Shooting Stars” was released nine years ago, in 2009.
“Shooting Stars” isn’t even the most extreme example of an older song suddenly resurfacing thanks to memes. In May 2016, Ghost Town DJs’ song “My Boo” suddenly re-charted twenty years after it was first released thanks to being featured in the #RunningManChallenge. And of course, we can’t forget about the original Internet meme.
Although the artists listed above haven’t complained about the sudden popularity of their songs, it’s worth noting that meme culture tends to turn a song into a sort of punchline for a joke, with Rickrolling being the obvious example. However, it’s safe to say that, for better or worse, no song is safe from the reach of the Internet (unless it’s only available on cassette tape). Any song can be repurposed, repackaged, and redistributed for a new audience. A popular meme can unearth a forgotten gem for younger listeners, and, more meaningfully, ensures that any song has a chance at living forever.
You know, until the next meme shows up.