Why Has Mainstream Radio Abandoned Beyoncé?
It’s been a decade since her last ubiquitious solo smash.
With Lady Gaga generating bigger buzz than any other female pop star on the planet right now because of her lead role in A Star Is Born, it’s hard not to think of the big-screen fortunes of her “Telephone” duet partner Beyoncé. Back in 2010 when they were sharing video space, Beyoncé seemed like the one more destined to become a major movie star.
She’d already appeared in several hit films, including the big-screen version of the Broadway musical Dreamgirls, and she’d soon be attached to star in the third remake of A Star Is Born in the role that ended up going to her one-time collaborator.
Though Gaga got the gig and the glory, it’s not like Beyoncé needs career resuscitation. Still, she’s had her rough spots this decade — well, one.
Ten years ago, she was on the verge of being more ubiquitous than ever. The release of her third solo album, I Am… Sasha Fierce, was three months away, and it would put her all over the map. “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)” and other Sasha Fierce hits would make her a constant presence on MTV, on BET, on the pop charts, on the R&B charts, at awards ceremonies, and, most inescapably, on the radio.
Fast forward to 2018. Beyoncé is an even bigger star than she was in 2008. Few albums in recent memory have impacted pop-cultural consciousness with the blunt force of 2016’s Lemonade. When Adele’s 25 won Album of the Year over it at last year’s Grammys, even the British singer declared Lemonade more deserving than her equally successful third opus.
Everyone loves Beyoncé, so why has pop radio all but ignored her for the better part of a decade? Her albums continue to do well — Lemonade was the third biggest seller of 2017, with 2,187,000 units sold, according to Nielsen Music — and R&B radio still has a soft spot for her. But although she’s released strong solo singles in the 2010s (“Party,” “Partition,” “Formation”…), some of which have been sales and streaming hits, she hasn’t had a bonafide can’t-get-it-out-of-my-head-because-it’s-playing-everywhere solo radio smash since her Sasha Fierce run.
“Apeshit,” the first single from Everything Is Love, her new collaboration with her husband Jay-Z (they’re known collectively as The Carters) was critically acclaimed, and the video was up for eight MTV Video Music Awards and racked up more than 122 million YouTube views in three and a half months. But commercial response to the song itself was rather meh. Casual non-Beyhive radio listeners might be forgiven for not even knowing it exists.
Released on June 16, the track failed to land among the top 30 radio airplay songs across all genres in any given week. That was long way from “Crazy in Love,” another Jay-Z duet that was Beyoncé’s first post-Destiny’s Child smash and was probably playing on every radio near you for much of 2003. While Maroon 5 featuring Cardi B’s “Girls Like You,” which came out 11 days before “Apeshit,” was firmly entrenched in the number-one spot at radio for weeks and perched in the top three on iTunes and YouTube, “Apeshit” was hanging out in the eighties on iTunes, if it was hanging in at all.
With Cardi B’s “I Like It” simultaneously racking up top-five radio airplay just below “Girls Like You,” the female rapper was easily to the summer of 2018 what Queen Bey was to 2008. Then again, Cardi B’s breakthrough hits have been as catchy and accessible as rap gets these days.
Despite the musical royalty attached to it (Beyoncé, Jay-Z, and producer Pharrell Williams), “Apeshit,” unlike “I Like It,” which samples the familiar boogaloo classic “I Like It Like That,” was not such an obvious smash. Beyoncé doesn’t even sound like herself on it. Her voice is altered to the point that non-Beyhivers would be excused for not knowing who was singing even if they were aware the song existed.
A decade of diminishing airplay
The superstar’s radio dive, however, didn’t begin with “Apeshit.” She released five singles from Lemonade — two of which, “Formation” and “Sorry,” were among the most talked-about songs of 2016 and 2017 — but none of them were major radio hits.
The highest-charting single from a Beyoncé album in the last 10 years was yet another Jay-Z collaboration, “Drunk in Love,” which went to number two on Billboard’s Hot 100 after they performed it at the 2014 Grammys. That song owed its one-week peak mostly to a 94 percent sales surge to 151,000 downloads and a 42 percent streams increase to 2.3 million, not to major airplay. It’s radio audience of 68 million that week was about 33 million less than what “Girls Like You” was pulling in over one week when it was number three on the Hot 100.
One might be tempted to chalk up Beyoncé’s drop in radio support as collateral damage from her insistence on releasing increasingly challenging material and veering away from a mainstream pop and R&B sound. But as Beyoncé has been embracing a more hip hop musical approach, hip hop has been morphing into the new R&B, and it’s now the most popular music genre in the U.S.
Rap so dominates the sound of R&B that “hip hop” has become virtually synonymous with “R&B,” as the likes of Cardi B, Drake, and white rapper Post Malone, who among them accounted for five of the 12 biggest radio songs one week this past summer, hog sales, streams, and airplay.
So why isn’t radio’s love affair with hip hop extending to Beyoncé? Part of it might be its now-decade-long resistance to black singing divas. In recent years, mainstream radio has been embracing fewer black female vocalists. In Beyoncé’s Sasha Fierce radio heyday, Alicia Keys, Mariah Carey, Mary J. Blige, Keri Hilson, Keyshia Cole, and Rihanna were among the other sisters with voices who were moving both units and radio audiences.
Can Black Divas Rise Again?
Despite the superstardom of Beyoncé and Rihanna, the 2010s have been rough for black female singers.
In the years since, only Beyoncé and Rihanna have retained their commercial clout, and Rihanna is the only one with more or less unwavering radio love. And while several black female vocalists have enjoyed moderate crossover success this year — including Ella Mai, Queen Naija, and SZA— the two biggest black or biracial female breakthroughs of the past decade, Nicki Minaj and Cardi B, are both rappers.
Although teaming up with the rapper she happens to be married to hasn’t returned Beyoncé to the top of radio playlists, she’s enjoyed her biggest radio successes this decade as one half of superstar summits. “Telephone,” her duet with Lady Gaga, was unavoidable in 2010, and last December, “Perfect,” her confab with Ed Sheeran, became her sixth number-one hit on Billboard’s Hot 100 outside of Destiny’s Child and her first since “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)” at the end of 2008.
Although teaming up with the rapper she happens to be married to hasn’t returned Beyoncé to the top of radio playlists, she’s enjoyed her biggest radio successes this decade as one half of superstar summits.
Initially recorded as a solo track on Sheeran’s 2017 album ÷, the song was revamped and released as a duet in December of last year, and in its first week as a Sheeran/Beyoncé single, it racked up 181,000 downloads, according to Nielsen Music, 34.9 million streams, and a radio audience of 102 million.
“Perfect” re-established Beyoncé as a pop draw, able to attract downloads, streams, and with the right collaborator, radio airplay. But are her days of being equal parts solo radio star and solo video star done for good?
Don’t even dream she’s over. Everything Is Love might be the least commercially successful and buzzed about release in the Beyoncé and Jay-Z trilogy that also includes Lemonade and Jay-Z’s 4:44, but the Beyhive continues to cling to their queen for dear life. Radio support may come and go, even for the biggest stars, but a new hit as earwormy as “Single Ladies” was back in the day would be all it takes for pop DJs to come back around to Beyoncé.
The biggest question is this: With her approach to making music growing more unconventional and uncompromising by the album, does Beyoncé even care that they’ve left her in the dust?