A hip-hop song that just completed a four-month journey to Number One will likely be remembered as one of 2018’s best, if not the best. Its rise to the top is a culmination of several feats for the song whose legacy will likely have as many ups and downs as the rollercoaster ride that the track itself is.
Travis Scott’s “Sicko Mode” – the complex three-part, beat-changing mini-suite from his current No. 1 album Astroworld – finally topped the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart this past week…after 17 weeks on the list.
To put that long No. 1 climb into perspective, only two other hip-hop songs have taken longer to reach No. 1 on the Hot 100: OutKast’s “The Way You Move” in 2004, and Wiz Khalifa’s “Black And Yellow” in 2011. They both first reached the summit in their 21st weeks on the chart.
Interestingly, all seventeen of the Hot 100 chart weeks for “Sicko Mode” have been inside the top ten, with the song never ranking lower than No. 9. It’s the first time ANY song reached the pinnacle with that many top-10 weeks already under its belt.
The final push to No. 1 was a classic case of persistent marketing by La Flame and the people at his labels Cactus Jack Records, Grand Hustle and Epic Records. After its début at No. 4 in August, “Sicko Mode” appeared as though it might never get any higher after languishing at No. 6 or lower for more than two months.
But “Sicko Mode” was like one of those diseases that just wouldn’t go away. It lingered in the top ten, slowly building its following beyond the confines of hip-hop while gaining pop airplay. Then in October, the song’s official video was released, which propelled it to No. 2 – where it remained – behind pop hits by Maroon 5 and Ariana Grande.
Finally, a hot remix by the talented DJ Skrillex was issued on November 28, which gave the song the shove it needed to top the chart. That move capped a chart ride that saw six different shifts in direction up and down the top ten before Scott finally got his first No. 1.
The ascension of “Sicko Mode” to No. 1 on the Hot 100 is not only a crowning achievement for Travis Scott, it also validates what many have called 2018’s most creative and perhaps best single – hip-hop or otherwise. Each distinctive part of the song could have been a full jam itself. This listener has often wondered how Part One would have flourished as a full song in its own right before being abruptly cut off at the 1:00 mark.
Billboard Magazine recently compared the three distinctive parts of “Sicko Mode” to another No. 1 hit from 44 years ago – Paul McCartney’s “Band On The Run” – which also famously had three musically different sections that were blended together for one epic five-minute track.
In McCartney’s “Band On The Run” – technically by his second group Wings – the three parts were equally distinctive, with the first section being a slow ballad, followed by a funkier, rock-leaning second segment, and finally the more acoustic guitar-driven, folksier coda. Only “Band’s” lyrics, which throughout spoke of the desire for freedom and the need to escape, were more cohesive (perhaps more so than “Sicko Mode’s”).
By comparison, in Scott’s case, each section of “Sicko Mode” was marked by an abrupt neck-whipping shift to the next beat just when listeners were getting amped for the one in play. Different producers also helmed each part, further giving them their stand-alone worthiness. An uncredited but very prominently featured Drake in the first and third segments didn’t hurt the song’s chances of success either, nor did some well-placed ad-libs by Rae Shremmurd’s Swae Lee and samples by Uncle Luke and the Notorious B.I.G. (Btw, Drake’s verses in “Sicko Mode” are arguably better than anything on his own Scorpion album.)
In either case, being compared to an ex-Beatle (and pop music’s most accomplished songwriter) as having one of only two such songs to top the chart is an accomplishment in and of itself, particularly for a rapper who before 2018 was rarely included among hip-hop’s A-listers… a status that may have changed with the success of “Sicko Mode” and its parent album Astroworld.
As with any rollercoaster ride, however, there’s a downside for every upside.
While there is no denying both the album’s and the single’s commercial success, people still accuse Scott of shady tactics to get his song and album to the top. They’ll argue that “Sicko Mode” couldn’t get to No. 1 on its own merits and that it needed the Skrillex remix to put it over the top. My reaction: so what? Remixes are part of the hip-hop culture. They used to permeate hip-hop even more frequently and, in fact, probably should be used more often.
As for Scott’s critical acclaim this year (Astroworld scored a Metacritic rating of 85 based on the aggregate reviews of 19 critics), the ultimate measure of success – face it folks, whether we like it or not – are the Grammys. And both “Sicko Mode” and Astroworld got snubbed in the biggest categories for 2019’s nominations (announced Friday).
Industry watchers and the trade press got wrapped around the axle about the snubbing of artists like Taylor Swift and Ariana Grande, whose nominations were limited to the pop field, but no such reaction was showered upon Travis Scott for his equally niched nominations. Both “Sicko Mode” (Best Rap Performance and Best Rap Song) and Astroworld (Best Rap Album) were limited to the rap-specific categories. Neither was given nods in any of the general field categories of Album of the Year, Record of the Year or Song of the Year. The production on “Sicko Mode” alone would seemingly qualify it for ROTY status.
Instead, four other hip-hop songs (comprising half of the eight slots available) were nominated for Record of the Year: “I Like It” by Cardi B (feat. Bad Bunny & J. Balvin), “This Is America” by Childish Gambino, “God’s Plan” by Drake and “All The Stars” by Kendrick Lamar & SZA. Arguably, all four of the principle artists in those songs are high-profile stars whose names have been engrained in the collective psyche of the mainstream – at least more so than Travis Scott’s has – lending to the notion that name recognition has as much to do with these awards as anything, and that – despite their best attempts at relevancy – the Grammys once again missed the mark.
As for Song of the Year, which is a composers award for songwriting, three of the four ROTY-nominated songs are also included here (the exception being Cardi’s track). And while no one should have any delusions that a song like “Sicko Mode,” with its 31 credited songwriters, multiple sampled old-school rap hits and lyrical references to “bitches” and “pussy” and “crackers” (not the edible kind) would ever see the light of day in a Grammy songwriting category, there have been worse songs – even hip-hop ones – that were so nominated.
Perhaps then the only valid criticism of “Sicko Mode” is some of its subject matter. In order to keep things light, Travis decidedly stayed away from the weightier topics that consume more thoughtful records like those nominated in this year’s general Best Song category. ”Sicko’s” many references to controlled substances, cars and (unflatteringly) women will forever subject it to the same criticisms that dog most hip-hop records.
But the song’s many twists and turns place it a cut above the rest, and “Sicko Mode” was never really about social consciousness anyway. It was mainly about a young hip-hop artist being in “beast” mode with his most compelling work yet.
And now despite some of the dubiousness of it all, “Sicko Mode” – the No. 1, Grammy-nominated, record-setting single by Travis Scott – has the credentials to go along with its status as one of 2018’s best!