How “HUMBLE.” Became Kendrick Lamar’s Biggest Single So Far

The success of “HUMBLE.” can be attributed to a perfect storm of factors.
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Kendrick Lamar’s new single “HUMBLE.” not only left the whole industry on an ice pack, it made an equally huge impact on the Billboard charts, too.

As reported yesterday, the first single from Kendrick’s new album (which we now know is called DAMN.) debuted at No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100, denied only by Ed Sheeran (aka the male Adele) and his massive hit single “Shape of You.” “HUMBLE.” was actually streamed (49.8 million) and downloaded (111,000 sales) more times than “Shape of You” in the last week, but Sheeran’s significantly higher radio airplay proved to be the difference.

In spite of that, “HUMBLE.” gives Kendrick no reason to sit down and be humble. It’s already the Compton rapper’s highest-charting solo effort on the Billboard Hot 100 to date—by a long shot: his second-highest, “Swimming Pools,” peaked at No. 17—his first No. 1 single on the Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart, and the highest-debuting rap song on the Hot 100 since Eminem’s “Not Afraid” in 2010.

By all accounts, “HUMBLE.” is the most successful single of Kendrick Lamar’s career so far. Here’s why…

“From a Peasant to a Prince to a Motherfuckin’ King”

When “Swimming Pools” cracked the top 20 of the Billboard Hot 100 in 2012, it was a huge milestone for Kendrick Lamar and helped to validated his early hype, but a lot’s changed since then. With multiple GRAMMY wins, two Platinum albums, an endorsement deal with Reebok and respect that extends far beyond rap music, Kendrick is a bona fide star in 2017. Moments like “Control” and “The Heart Part 4” don’t hurt, either.

Although Kendrick Lamar has struggled to match the commercial success of Drake and J. Cole, his trajectory is nothing to sniff at. To Pimp a Butterfly outsold good kid, m.A.A.d city by more than 100,000 copies in spite of its less radio-friendly sound (“i” peaked at No. 39, compared to “Swimming Pools” at No. 17) and even his leftover cuts, released out of the blue last March, topped the charts with just shy of 180,000 in first-week sales—more than Kanye West, Future and Childish Gambino.

Kendrick Lamar is one of the highest selling rappers in the game, and arguably the most critically acclaimed artist of any genre, so it was only a matter of time before “HUMBLE.” happened.

“HUMBLE.”’s Mass Appeal

After dropping back-to-back classics with good kid, m.A.A.d city and To Pimp a Butterfly, the question on everybody's lips was: where will Kendrick go next? The answer, it appears, is back towards a more contemporary sound.

Featuring speaker-slapping production from seasoned hitmaker Mike WiLL Made-It and an earworm hook (“Bitch be humble, sit down!”), “HUMBLE.” is Kendrick Lamar’s catchiest, most commercially appealing music since good kid, m.A.A.d city — except now he’s a much bigger star, of course.

Sure, “i”—the lead single from To Pimp a Butterfly—was a palatable song that performed well at radio (it peaked at No. 5 on the US Rhythmic chart), but it was also accused of pandering to radio. “HUMBLE.” has drawn a different kind of criticism, which brings me to my next point.

Attention Is Currency

If a major artist releases a new song and Twitter doesn't totally freak out, did it even happen? In today’s social media age, music isn’t simply released by the artist and received by the people; it becomes the trending topic that takes over your timeline, the Twitter Moment that'll give you serious FOMO.

Kendrick Lamar’s “The Heart Part 4” did just that. The song, armed with several subliminal disses aimed at potentially multiple targets (Drake? Big Sean?), became the biggest debate of that week and, in turn, became Kendrick’s third highest-charting single, debuting at No. 22 on the Billboard Hot 100.

“HUMBLE.,” released the following week, no doubt benefitted from the buzz surrounding “The Heart Part 4,” but the single—and video—became its own conversation topic. Yo, this new Kendrick slaps! Have you heard it? Man, this video is amazing! Have you seen it? Oh shit, is that “lil bitch” line another dig at Big Sean?

Beyond the immediate excitement, however, “HUMBLE.” also sparked a debate about natural beauty, especially when it comes to black women. Kendrick admitting he’s “so fuckin’ sick and tired of the Photoshop” and wants to see “ass with some stretch marks” were no doubt sincere—and perhaps more calculated than he’d like to admit—but the backlash only added fuel to the fire. “Why Kendrick Lamar Deserved The Twitter Drag From Black Women,” read one headline.

Wherever you sit on the evidently heated debate of natural beauty, the point is, Kendrick Lamar’s “HUMBLE.” was at the heart of it. To quote Yoh, “if attention is currency, Kendrick robbed the bank with ‘HUMBLE.’”

The Power of Streaming

It’s hard to say whether “HUMBLE.” will remain the biggest song of Kendrick’s career, but perhaps the main reason it’s his highest-charting song is because of streaming.

According to Billboard, 66% of “HUMBLE.”’s chart success is due to streaming (of the song’s 49.8 million streams, 33.2 million came from on-demand services and 15.6 million came from YouTube). This falls in line with how most people consume music these days, and also where the music industry as a whole is heading.

In 2016, streaming accounted for 51% of all music industry revenue—significantly more than downloads and physical sales—and wields similar power on today’s Billboard charts. “Roughly speaking, streaming is now just shy of 50 percent of the chart, whereas it was something like a quarter of the chart just a couple of years ago,” writer Chris Molanphy said during a recent episode of The New York Times’ Popcast.

In many ways, streaming is a better reflection of how popular the artist is, rather than the individual song. It’s why megastars like Drake, Beyoncé and Justin Bieber flood the charts with every song from their newest albums, leading to an artificial system that, according to Forbes, “can best be described as fake hits, songs aggressively and collectively played that aren’t actually singles.” Not that “HUMBLE.” isn’t a great or popular song, but it’s worth remembering that the Billboard Hot 100 is still a work-in-progress.

"What is Competition?"

Despite Ed Sheeran denying Kendrick his first-ever No. 1 single as a lead artist, it’s been a relatively quiet week in music. The dust has settled on Drake’s More Life, whose biggest hit, “Passionfruit,” sits at No. 23 on the Hot 100—modest by Drake’s standards. Meanwhile, other top 10 hits like Bruno Mars’ “That’s What I Like” and The Chainsmokers’ “Something Just Like This” are weeks’ old at this point. The path was wide open for Kendrick Lamar to climb the Billboard Hot 100, only to find himself stuck behind the immovable object known as the white pop singer—not for the first time in his career.

The Perfect Storm

From the song’s commercial appeal to the anticipation surrounding his new album to the way it dominated online chatter all the way to its impeccable visual release—the kind of video you can’t help but watch at least 29 times in one sitting—Kendrick Lamar’s “HUMBLE.” was a perfect storm that arrived at just the right time (well, almost).

As everyone rushes to stream his new album this Friday—and over the course of the next week—DAMN. is poised to make its own mark on the Billboard charts later this month. With only John Mayer's The Search for Everything—two-thirds of which has already been released to the public in the form of two EPsposing any serious competition, Kendrick Lamar should cruise to his third consecutive No. 1 album.

No need for humility.

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