Are music genres a thing of the past? Steve Lacy’s ‘Bad Habit’ is No. 1 on the R&B and Rock charts—a first—but neither genre’s radio stations play it.

(September 12, 2022).  It’s biscuits, it’s gravy.  And it’s the number one song on this week’s Billboard R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart.

Oh, it’s also No. 1 on the Hot Rock and Alternative Rock songs charts, as well as the composite chart combining those two sub-genres (yes, music fans, rock is considered a sub-genre nowadays).

Steve Lacy’s breakthrough hit “Bad Habit” appeals to fans of many ages, races and genders

“Bad Habit” is the first song ever to top both (or all of these) R&B and rock lists, which before about ten years ago represented about as divergent a group of music fans as one could find on the musical spectrum.

For perspective, it would have been the past equivalent of Luther Vandross topping the Modern Rock charts or the group REM topping the R&B list…both events being unfathomable in the late 1980s and early ‘90s, but apparently a thing in the 2020s. 

But what’s even stranger about this occurrence is that “Bad Habit” doesn’t appear on either of those genre’s airplay-only charts.  One look at either the R&B/Hip-Hop or the Rock & Alternative Airplay lists—which sport 50 positions apiece—and “Bad Habit” is nowhere to be found.  It has yet to reach either of those surveys in the two-plus months since the song’s release.  

This means that either: 1) R&B and rock radio have yet to catch up to the popularity the song has attained through its exposure on platforms like TikTok (where more than 400,000 videos of “Bad Habit” have been created by users), or 2) neither genre’s radio programmers are willing to take a chance on a song they can’t decide is soul, R&B, hip-hop, pop, rock or alternative… or all of the above.

Steve Lacy’s “Bad Habit” has topped multiple genres’ charts in Billboard

One can deduce from these Billboard radio metrics that many traditional R&B or rock music fans have never even heard “Bad Habit,” especially if their music palette is fed by genre-specific terrestrial radio stations, a component that Billboard still lends a lot of importance when calculating its charts (which is a topic for another blog someday).

So how did “Bad Habit” top either of those composite R&B/Hip-Hop or Rock-based charts without those genre’s radio programmers backing it?

Well, the obvious easy answer is streaming and downloads.  These days a song doesn’t need much radio support to top the charts.  A hit can go viral on TikTok within weeks of its release or even years later and, from that exposure, build up enough streams and downloads to top the charts with little or no radio play backing it.  

But that doesn’t answer the genre-related question of how a song like “Bad Habit” was tagged by Billboard as rock or R&B when neither of those genre’s radio panels is giving the song the time of day.

That answer requires an understanding of how Billboard determines its genre-specific charts nowadays as compared to how they did it ten years ago before they made a major change that affected all of their composite (sales/streaming/airplay-based) genre-specific charts such as R&B/Hip-Hop, country, dance/electronic, rock/alternative and Latin songs.

Before October 2012, Billboard calculated each of those singles charts by using distinct, genre-specific panels that measured the tastes of those respective audiences.  Back then, a song essentially had to be a hit at R&B radio, for example, before it was reflected as a hit on the Billboard R&B chart.  Its status there was unaffected by whether fans of other genres were playing it in other formats.  

For their sales-based R&B charts, Billboard even went so far as to poll or monitor stores that specialized in R&B music—typically those located in urban areas—when brick-and-mortar stores were still the main means by which fans consumed their favorite jams (Obviously, this formula is useless in the digital and streaming era where a song’s consumption metrics can’t be broken down by who’sactually doing the streaming).

Genre charts were necessary in the 20th century

To use some really old-school examples of how the older methods affected things, songs like Lakeside’s “Fantastic Voyage”, “Burn Rubber” by Gap Band, “Juicy Fruit” by Mtume, or Stephanie Mills’ “I Feel Good All Over” could top the R&B list without even reaching the pop top 40 (on the Billboard Hot 100), because R&B fans were giving those songs love even when pop radio wouldn’t.  The songs could top soul and Black music lists without reliance on what they were doing in other formats. 

Back then it was important for the music industry to know which fans were buying which songs and albums for audience-targeting/marketing purposes, and Billboard accommodated the industry’s needs accordingly with its distinctly calculated genre-specific charts.

If a song or artist back in the day happened to hit multiple genre charts—often some combination that included pop—then it was because the song had crossed over (often with some delay), or because the artist was so huge that their hits would impact multiple formats simultaneously (think Michael Jackson, Prince, Lionel Richie, Daryl Hall & John Oates, Whitney Houston, Kenny Rogers, for example).  

Since October 2012, however, all of Billboard’s composite, genre-specific songs charts—those that combine sales, streaming and radio play—use the same formula, regardless of music type.  They all employ the formula that is used for Billboard’s all-inclusive Hot 100 chart, which measures performance across all formats.

This means that if a song is performing well on the Hot 100, and it is dubbed by Billboard as an R&B tune simply because the magazine’s chart department considered it so (even if R&B radio doesn’t play it), then the song will rank correspondingly on the Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart.  This goes similarly for rock, country and other music types.

Because of this methodology, such songs will rank in the exact same order on their genre-specific charts as they do on the Hot 100–again without regard for how the song is performing within the genre itself. 

That is the case this week for Steve Lacy’s “Bad Habit,” which sat at No. 2 behind Harry Styles on the Hot 100 last week and was thereby the top performing R&B song (hence its No. 1 ranking on the R&B chart).

Right behind Lacy on the pop-oriented Hot 100 is Lizzo’s “About Damn Time,” which Billboard also considers an R&B/Hip-Hop track, so it ranks No. 2 on the R&B/Hip-Hop genre-specific chart (that song, however, happens to be performing well on R&B radio).

The flaw in this methodology is that, by extending the all-format points system to each of the genre-specific charts, those charts no longer reflect the tastes of their unique fan bases.  The song’s genre-specific popularity is now diluted by the tastes of fans of (all) other genres.

It would be like saying that because Chuck Berry’s “My Ding-a-Ling” topped the pop chart in 1972, and because Berry was also getting minimal R&B play, that the song should have been concurrently ranked at No. 1 on Billboard’s Soul chart (it appropriately peaked at No. 42 there).

Chuck Berry’s “My Ding-a-Ling” would’ve been a No. 1 R&B/Hip-Hop chart hit under today’s Billboard rules.

This phenomenon explains how, under the current methodology, many country songs spent record-breaking weeks atop the Hot Country Songs list long after country radio had given up on them and moved on to another track by the same artists.  Or how the duo of Macklemore and Ryan Lewis was able to top the Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs list in 2013 with the songs “Thrift Shop” and “Can’t Hold Us”—the former for 14 weeks(!)—despite neither of those songs even reaching the top 30 on that genre’s airplay list.

“Thrift” and “Hold” were big pop hits and, given their massive fan reception outside of R&B/Hip-Hop, the songs were duped to the top of the genre-specific chart despite not resonating with many R&B and hip-hop fans.  Because Billboard used (and still uses) the all-format airplay and streaming/sales components for the genre-based charts, rather than using the genre-specific airplay chart for example, the Macklemore and Ryan Lewis songs’ R&B /Hip-Hop rankings basically mirrored their placements on the Hot 100.

The arbitrary way in which Billboard decides what does and does not constitute R&B/Hip-Hop has come back to bite the trade publication as well.  

As another example from 2013, Norwegian singer Lorde had a massive pop hit with “Royals,” a song that happened to also get massive R&B/Hip-Hop radio play (peaked at No. 3 on the R&B/Hip-Hop Airplay chart).  However, “Royals” was excluded from Billboard’s main composite Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs list (which, again, adds sales and streaming to the mix) because the magazine didn’t consider Lorde an R&B artist, even though R&B radio was all over it at the time.

Lorde’s “Royals” reached No. 3 on Billboard’s R&B/Hip-Hop radio monitor in 2013, but was excluded from the Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart for reasons that are inexplicable

In fact, based on its Hot 100 performance and using current rules, “Royals” would’ve been a No. 1 tune on the composite Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart had Billboard appropriately handled its multi-format designation back then.  That labeling would’ve made “Royals”—not Steve Lacy’s current smash—the first such song to top both the R&B/Hip-Hop and Rock/Alternative charts.

Don’t get me wrong, Steve Lacy’s “Bad Habit” is a great tune (I’ve had it on repeat since the first time I heard it), and it’s the multi-format appeal of the song that has made it a huge hit, particularly on the Hot 100 where it is poised to move up to No. 1 when the new charts are released later today (Monday, September 12).

Lacy has created the kind of ear worm that young music fans (far younger than me) have gravitated towards.  It has a catchy melody, an undeniable hook in the “I wish I knew you wanted me” line, and subtle hip-hop elements (namely a modern-day human beatbox) in the song’s bridge.

Even the lyrical twist—about a guy who’s having mixed feelings about a love interest who never gave him the time of day…until now—is compelling.

(Pic of tweet)

The fact that Billboard felt the song had to be categorized in a genre like R&B at all when those stations aren’t even playing it speaks more to the dubiousness of Billboard’s policies and less about the song’s style or Lacy’s true fan base.

Sometimes those policies have more to do with stereotypes about race than they do about the music itself.  It’s why Lacy—a Black man from Compton, California—is tagged to the magazine’s R&B charts without R&B support while Lorde—a white Norwegian female with major R&B play at the time—was excluded from that genre’s list.

Alternative/R&B artist Steve Lacy

Kudos to Billboard, however, for including Lacy’s “Bad Habit” in their Alternative and Rock charts.  Considering the song’s multi-format nature, it’s a bold decision that’s a testimony to Lacy’s non-categorizable style and has obviously worked to the artist’s benefit.

But—like R&B—rock and alternative stations aren’t really playing it, so calling it the No. 1 song on either genre’s list is a stretch.

Which gets back to the original question: are genre and sub-genre charts even necessary in this day and age?

Today’s music consumer is more likely to be exposed to new (or even old) music through social media platforms—like TikTok—that will make a song a hit before record labels even begin marketing it to specific genre’s radio stations or before radio programmers have even heard the song.  

To that end, and it’s record-breaking multi-genre chart-topping status aside, people have gravitated towards “Bad Habit” because it’s a great song—not because it’s a great R&B/Hip-Hop or Rock/ Alternative one.

DJRob

DJRob

DJRob (he/him/his) is a freelance music blogger from somewhere on the East Coast who covers R&B, hip-hop, pop and rock genres – plus lots of music news and current stuff!  You can follow him on Twitter at @djrobblog.

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