One of the most crucial decisions that an artist and his or her label must make during an album campaign is single selection. Before streaming, which has allowed albums to be kept a secret like musical mistresses, the lead single was the introduction―an audio first impression. As Frank Ocean once famously surmised, the single is rarely the album’s best record, but it always has potential to be the most known—the hit.
Every record company wants the big one, striking gold right out of the gate. Imagine Lil Wayne’s “Lollipop,” 50 Cent’s “In da Club,” or Migos’ “Bad and Boujee” as the launching pad for a huge breakout moment or a breakthrough project. The instantaneous commercial success surrounding any release can be solidified by a single’s impact.
Unfortunately, even the most golden, commercially-constructed singles often fail to reach their rightful position. How Calvin Harris’ “Slide” and Mac Miller’s “Dang!” both fell short of No. 1 will always baffle me. There are numerous instances throughout history where a follow-up single will surpass the fanfare of its lead; with most albums, there are second, third, fourth, and occasionally fifth chances to conquer commercially.
Once you have played an album numerous times, it's natural to wonder why certain songs weren’t selected as lead or follow-up singles. For every album deep cut there’s a hidden gem beloved by all, with the promise of soaring if given wings to fly. It’s as if every album is home to a quiet, overlooked record that never had the chance to be awarded the highest honor of doing on the airwaves what Pinky and Brain always plotted for the world.
Inspired by the idea of missed opportunities and fantasizing about what could’ve been, here are 10 would-be hits—if only they were given the proper push and single treatment.
Kanye West — "Hey Mama" (Late Registration, 2005)
Kanye has a near flawless track record of lead and follow-up singles. He has the ear and the vision to know what songs will work best in the wide world and what material is better suited as a deeper album cut. But even a genius can overlook something obvious, and 13 years after the release of Late Registration, Kanye overlooked “Hey Mama” as the universal classic that it has become. The love he expresses for Donda West is sweet, sincere, and generally relatable. As someone bold enough to release singles about Jesus, gold diggers, and touching the sky, encouraging airwaves to support a song appreciating mothers would have been game-changing. Sons, daughters, fathers, and mothers worldwide have attached themselves to this song, have made it apart of their lives at least one day during the year. It's possible Ye didn’t quite see the mass appeal—or he wanted to make it a song for her—but the record is so much more and seeing that would have given Late Registration an unexpected but truly impactful single.
JAY-Z — "U Don't Know" (The Blueprint, 2001)
The singles JAY-Z selected from The Blueprint are all soft and soulful, the kind of easy listening perfect for radio. "Izzo (H.O.V.A.),” Girls, Girls, Girls,” "Jigga That Nigga" and “Song Cry” are all safe, but by playing it cautiously the promise of “U Don’t Know” was sadly overlooked. Just Blaze created a true Frankenstein for Hov that needed to be unleashed, and "U Don't Know" is an explosion. The howling sample, triumphant trumpets, and boisterous drums all empower the spirit. “U Don’t Know” is like absorbing the tenacity of 300 Spartans marching toward victory; you can’t help but enter the mindset of someone capable of conquering the world. Jay’s rapping is immaculate, but he could have drooled across the bassline and the beat would be enough to warrant repeat listens. “U Don’t Know” is legendary, a Hov classic that still gets nightly play in NY clubs in 2018, but being billed as a single upon release should have catapulted its impact.
Eminem — "'Till I Collapse" ft. Nate Dogg (The Eminem Show, 2002)
“Till I Collapse” shocks the soul the way ramming a fork into a power socket electrocutes flesh. It's music for the underdog who refuses to stay under. Em inhales frustration and exhales resilience, rapping against all his naysayers over the kind of claps you hear when a stadium is filled with rabid fans cheering on their favorite team. Nate Dogg delivers a Ted Talk in the form of an inspiring hook; he sing-raps the kind of motivating sermon you need in the gym, before a big job interview, or anytime confidence is fleeting and a touch of positive reinforcement is needed to push forward. If it had been selected as a single off The Eminem Show, “Till I Collapse” would’ve been released five months prior to “Lose Yourself,” a similarly motivating song which would become not only Em's most popular song but one of the most famous rap songs ever.
Kendrick Lamar — "Money Trees" ft. Jay Rock (good kid, m.A.A.d city, 2012)
Released in October 2012, Kendrick Lamar’s good kid, m.A.A.d city came into our lives as autumn was on the cusp of being replaced by winter’s reign. Being from a state unphased by seasonal weather alterations, maybe TDE didn’t realize how the following summer deserved to be scored by “Money Trees.” This is the record that should be played as the final school bell rings indicating summer has begun, underneath palm trees, during pool parties, and as the smell of barbecue enter your nostrils. Despite grim lyrical content, "Money Trees" has, by far, one of Kendrick’s catchiest choruses and smoothest beats, and the Jay Rock verse is 24-carat flawless gold. An eternal fan favorite; imagine if it was pushed as a single? “Money Trees” had a chance to be everything “The Recipe” should’ve been.
Drake — "Know Yourself" (If You're Reading This It's Too Late, 2015)
The summer of 2015 was ruled by Drake’s "Know Yourself." No one could resist running through the 6 with their woes. If You're Reading This It's Too Late is a golden goose full of golden eggs with no effort put into hatching them. "Preach" and "Energy" were the only officially released singles, while surefire smashes like "10 Bands," "Legend," "6 Man" and more sat untapped, played around the country by fans but never given the promotional push to truly skyrocket. "Know Yourself," with a chorus that embeds itself in your brain and a monstrous beat switch, should have been the biggest of all; the kind of record that should have been played constantly on every station. Along with the entire If You're Reading This It's Too Late album, "Know Yourself" was instead treated like Arnold and Willis Jackson before Mr. Drummond.
J. Cole — "G.O.M.D." (2014 Forest Hills Drive, 2014)
If you believe Wikipedia―an untrustworthy source―”G.O.M.D.” was supposed to be 2014 Forest Hills Drive's first single instead of “Apparently.” If this is true, Cole missed a big opportunity to make the lead single from his biggest album to date a festive record. It's overcooked; he could’ve easily crafted three different songs with the cluster of ideas injected into the record’s arrangement. But despite being overweight and bloated, “G.O.M.D.” is overflowing with fun lyrics, some of Cole’s best tricks, a hilarious interpolation of Lil Jon’s “Get Low,” and production ready to torch the roof off any club. Cole gets flack for being a “boring” rapper, but “G.O.M.D.” shows he’s able to be loose and silly, but still Cole. With a pretty stellar music video, the proper push changes the song from an album favorite to the most requested on the radio.
Lil Wayne — "Let the Beat Build" (Tha Carter III, 2008)
Tha Carter III was as big as Shaquille O'Neal standing on the shoulders of Yao Ming and hit hip-hop harder than Thanos punching Iron Man. Wayne dominated radio―every station―and even a song without a hook in the era of ringtones became a top-10 single. The success of “A Milli” inspires the thought that “Let the Beat Build” could have been similarly embraced. The Kanye West and Deezle production is the album’s best, starting with a soulful loop of Eddie Kendricks’ “Day By Day” and slowly growing into church claps, Chun-Li kicks, and rugged 808s perfect for a trunk with quality speakers. Wayne is lyrically in mixtape form, going from thought to thought with the power and eloquence of Tarzan swinging from vine to vine. “Let the Beat Build” would’ve been the perfect, triumphant follow-up to “Lollipop” to calm fans worried that the underground rapper eater had pivoted to Auto-Tune candy corniness.
Future — "Fresh Air" (HNDRXX, 2017)
When I first heard Future’s “Mask Off,” I didn’t foresee a future where it climbed the Billboard charts the way King Kong scaled the Empire State Building. I’m still fascinated by its quick climb and rapid fall, but I'm even more transfixed by how a song like “Fresh Air” failed to follow in the footsteps leading toward the mountaintop. Future’s brand of pop/R&B isn’t conventional, you never know what will work, but “Fresh Air” sounds like the kind of certified hit that would allow Nayvadius to do his best Scrooge McDuck dive into a vault of plaques. Just listen to the melody, the hook, and the tropical trap production; “Fresh Air” is sweet enough to rot Cardi B’s new teeth. In a universe where Drake’s “One Dance” and French Montana’s “Unforgettable” were able to go the distance, not betting the entire house on “Fresh Air” buried one of Future’s most crossover-worthy records on a mishandled stellar album.
Nas — "N.Y. State of Mind" (Illmatic, 1994)
Nas and DJ Premier conjured a magical experience with “N.Y. State of Mind.” It’s more than a song; it's a transportation spell into the harrowing underbelly of a city where handguns defeat foes, stick-up kids run rampant in broad day, and clutching E&J bottles eases the stress of bullet holes left in peepholes. You see, feel, and nearly smell the New York that Nas illustrates—there’s a surreal vividness captured that speaks to all senses. Rightfully considered one of the greatest rap songs ever made, the ball was dropped not making Illmatic’s crown jewel the album’s lead single.
T.I. — "Ride Wit Me" (King, 2006)
What’s so impressive about T.I.’s early career is his flawless selection of singles. "Bring Em Out," "U Don't Know Me," "ASAP"—he was the former dope boy turned rapper who produced anthems for the toughest streets and livest clubs. 2006's “Ride Wit Me” wasn’t picked as an official single from King, but it has all the making of a T.I. hit. The production is summer lush, with immaculate horns and a bounce built for candy-coated Cadillacs. T.I.’s verses showcase his ability to dance in the pocket; he’s smooth as a Jaden Smith moonwalk without losing the tough guy exterior. He gives a nod to various Atlanta hoods; the entire song feels like riding passenger with T.I. as the ATL tour guide. Technically one of three promo singles, “Ride Wit Me” deserved much more, and despite my love for the Mannie Fresh-produced “Top Back” and its remix, “Ride Wit Me” was the stronger choice.
By Yoh, aka Y.O.H. State Of Mind, aka @Yoh31