I’ve never been a huge fan of the expression: “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” In my experience, it’s used less by people who’re passionate about minimalist engineering, than it is by lazy people seeking to justify their complacency. While I get the argument against needlessly overcomplicating functional solutions, to suggest no one should ever strive to innovate upon functionality is ridiculous.
Think of the world we’d be in if the person who invented the modern toilet had neglected to do so because, “Technically, burying our waste in our gardens works fine.” Full disclosure: I’ve been using a cell phone with a cracked screen for over three years now, so perhaps I’m not the best ambassador for this message.
In the world of music, this apathetic mantra rears its head most frequently in reference to artists with established formulas for success. It pops up when you suggest that, maybe, Wiz Khalifa could stand to benefit from diversifying his subject matter away from weed. Or, perhaps, The Weeknd could reinvigorate his music by gravitating away from his hedonistic worldview. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” someone will invariably reply, arguing against disruption of the status quo that has brought these artists so much success.
In cases like these, where artists have built their careers around a set of defining characteristics, the usage of this phrase makes some sense. Just as Wiz’s most loyal fans support him because of his material’s obsession with weed, it would be jarring to hear a Weeknd song cautioning against the dangers of sexually transmitted diseases.
More bafflingly, however, are artists who apply this approach on a song-by-song basis. Buoyed by the success of one particular song, they convince themselves this is what their fans want to hear and, thus, go back into the studio to create a redux. Rather than ask questions like, “How can I show off my artistic range?” or “How can I push this genre in new directions?” they ask cynical questions like, “What was it about this song that resonated widely?” and then shamelessly try to replicate this recipe.
Because the ingredients of these recipes vary from song to song, this phenomenon is a bit difficult to pin down. The clearest definition I can offer is that which U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart provided in 1964, during his ruling on what constitutes obscene content: “I know it when I see it.”
Relatedly, here are five noteworthy examples of rappers running back the formulas of their biggest hits:
Tyga — “Taste,” “Swish”
Leading up to the release of “Taste” in 2018, Tyga had been reduced to little more than a walking punchline. He was known more for dating an underage Kylie Jenner and for inexplicably bragging about his parents’ Range Rover on the MTV competition show Bustas than he was for “Rack City.”
As such, nobody wanted to like “Taste.” Rap fans listened to the song begrudgingly, because its fetching vocal sample, smooth tempo, and whispery, repetitive chorus made it impossible to resist. We even looked past the song’s ridiculous music video—which is nearing one billion views—despite Tyga’s best efforts to spend every single frame reminding us what a juvenile cornball he is.
Aware this song had improbably resuscitated his career, Tyga wasted no time in releasing a direct retread. Featuring the same producer as “Taste” (D.A. Doman), an identical flow, a knockoff vocal sample, and a whispery chorus, “Swish” felt a bit like the generic brand Fruity O’s to “Taste”’s Froot Loops.
Maddeningly, this ploy worked. “Swish” wasn’t quite the hit “Taste” was, but it racked up hundreds of millions of plays and ultimately paved the way for Tyga’s return to the mainstream in earnest. His latest redux? The fucking “Macarena.” God help us all.
Eminem — “Love The Way You Lie,” “The Monster”
It’s ludicrous, looking back, that some of Eminem’s most well-known hits were ever played on the radio. Imagine the genuine possibility of getting into your car in 2002, flipping on a Top 40 station, and hearing Enrique Iglesias’ “Hero,” followed immediately by Eminem’s “Cleaning Out My Closet.”
By 2010, Eminem no longer had the requisite buzz to release singles detailing his traumas and still garner radio play. So he did what all the other A-list rappers of this era did when they needed a hit: He enlisted Rihanna. Rihanna’s chorus on “Love The Way You Lie” was just catchy enough to compensate for the song’s otherwise uncommercial nature. For some, it was all they focused on, allowing them to overlook the lyrical monstrosity that was: “Now you get to watch her leave out the window / Guess that’s why they call it window pane.”
In the years that followed, Eminem released single after single, spanning several styles, but he couldn’t quite crack the nut that was radio play. When it came time to release The Marshall Mathers LP 2 in 2013—the sequel to his classic 2000 album—it seems he got tired of taking chances, so he called up Rihanna once again. Unsurprisingly, their resulting collaboration, “The Monster,” was a hit, not quite on the magnitude of “Love The Way You Lie,” but it did the trick.
Hardly the first rapper to re-team with a former collaborator to recreate the commercial magic of a past hit, Eminem joined a long line of artists—including Ja Rule (Ashanti), Eve (Gwen Stefani), and Ludacris (Usher and Lil Jon), to name a few—who’ve all pursued this strategy.
JAY-Z — “Hard Knock Life,” “Anything”
It’s no secret that JAY-Z didn’t experience genuine crossover success until the release of his 1998 single, “Hard Knock Life (Ghetto Anthem).” That so much of the song’s success can be attributed to its unorthodox sample—sourced from the musical Annie—and yet it managed to avoid feeling like a gimmick, is a testament to the strength of Jay’s writing.
Conversely, it could not have felt more like a gimmick two years later, when JAY-Z dipped back into this well, sampling the musical Oliver for his 2000 single, “Anything.” Listening to the way Sam Sneed’s beat knocks and the way he chops up a distinctly childish singing voice on the chorus, it’s impossible not to note the similarities between the two songs. It’s as if Hov walked into the studio one day and said to Sneed, “The fans really liked it when I sampled the production about the girl orphan, I wonder if they want me to sample the show about the boy orphan now, too.”
Swae Lee — “Unforgettable,” “Guatemala”
With the benefit of hindsight, I think we can all admit French Montana had very little to do with the commercial success of 2017’s “Unforgettable.” The song, in all its glory, belongs to Swae Lee, whose warm chorus constitutes an earworm for the ages. Hell, with the song’s irresistible beat and chorus, you could swap out French Montana for Mayor Bloomberg, and it’d still be a hit.
[Editor’s Note: French Montana literally purchased the record for $600,000.]
Swae Lee must’ve seen a lane for himself in the song’s dancehall/afrobeat-inspired production. When he was searching for a single to promote Rae Sremmurd’s third studio album, SR3MM, one year later, he put together “Guatemala,” a song that sounds like “Unforgettable”’s spiritual twin. From the overlapping drum patterns to the gently tropical melodies, the similarities are too many to enumerate. As if to further drive home this comparison, even the song’s music video took its cues from “Unforgettable,” as it was shot similarly on location in a developing nation.
Pusha-T — “Numbers on the Boards,” “Lunch Money”
I’ll admit to being confused the first time I heard Pusha-T’s 2013 hit “Numbers on the Boards.” The beat, simultaneously visceral and discordant, knocked, unlike anything I’d ever heard. Before I knew it, I grew obsessed. I kept revisiting the song to marvel at Pusha’s ability to carve out rhythmic pockets in this unorthodox production—courtesy of Don Cannon, Kanye West, and 88 Keys—and then ride them into oblivion. Today, the song is a crowd favorite among Pusha’s fans, and it’s known as one of his signature solo tracks. I hate aging, yet I can’t wait to eventually turn 36 so that I can authentically growl along to the song’s closing line: “36 years of doing dirt like it’s Earth Day. GOD.”
Despite featuring a similarly confounding beat, Pusha’s song “Lunch Money”—released one year later and also produced by Kanye West—didn’t quite achieve the same results. Like “Numbers on the Boards,” it was amelodic and unlike anything I’d ever heard, but it lacked the minimalism that made its predecessor so effective. In the words of my colleague, Matt Wilhite, it “sounded like someone turning on the motor in a fish tank.”
While there’s no shame in trying and failing to recreate an excellent song recipe, doing so in this instance puts Pusha in the company of people like the incredibly lame Big Shaq. If you recall, in 2018, Big Shaq released the terrible “Man Don’t Dance,” hoping to cash in on the success of his adlib-filled “Man’s Not Hot.” For Pusha’s sake, he should do everything in his power to avoid being grouped in with artists of this ilk in the future.