Darius Rucker Leaves Hootie Behind, Shows Kanye The Way To Cross Over

When this column launched one year ago this week, Kanye West was locked in a mortal struggle for the top of Billboard‘s Hot 100, first defeating and then retreating from a smash by Soulja Boy.

Twelve months later, the smash holding down the No. 1 spot has changed—this time, it’s from a more seasoned hip-hop figure, T.I.—but the challenger is the same. West storms the ramparts again, this time with his all-singing hit “Love Lockdown.” An eye-popping iTunes debut gives West a No. 3 entrance on the big chart, the best start for a single in his career. It also gives him a clear shot at scoring his fourth career No. 1 single next week.

And while Kanye’s reveling in the reception his first straight-R&B joint is receiving, he can glance over to the new No. 1 single on Hot Country Songs. There, a guy 11 years his senior is showing chart historians how this whole crossover thing is done.

Let’s start with that guy and his country-chart feat, before we flip back to the Hot 100. Darius “Hootie” Rucker, lead singer on the 10th-biggest-selling album of all time, reaches No. 1 with his first country single, “Don’t Think I Don’t Think About It.” While he’s at it, Rucker also starts at the top of the Country Albums chart with his corresponding Capitol Nashville debut, Learn to Live.

As Billboard’s Fred Bronson points out, it’s been a good year in general on the country charts for refugees from other genres—just last week, Jessica Simpson was No. 1 on Country Albums with her Nashville debut, and both the Eagles and Jewel have done the same in the last year. So that’s one trend Rucker is latching onto.

But let’s address the elephant in the room—Rucker’s biggest chart accomplishments all have to do with his race, at a radio format that for much of its history has been perceived as a bulwark against black-based musical forms (even as it has borrowed liberally from them). Allow me to run down the big headlines:

Third African-American ever to reach No. 1 on Hot Country Songs: Rucker joins country legend Charley Pride, with 29 No. 1’s, and R&B legend Ray Charles, who scored just one. Speaking of which…

First African-American chart-topper since 1985: If you’re a Ray Charles fan, you’d probably guess that his sole Country No. 1 came in the early ’60s, when he recorded Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music, perhaps the all-time greatest genre-crossover album. But while it did bring Charles to No. 1 on both the pop singles and album charts, back then, he didn’t make the regimented country format at all. Instead, for one week in March 1985, Charles scored his fluke Country No. 1 with “Seven Spanish Angels,” a duet with Willie Nelson. So Rucker ends a 23 1/2–year drought for black artists atop the list. But if we’re being strict about it…

First African-American solo chart-topper in a quarter-century: It’s arguable that Charles’s mid-’80s single went to No. 1 thanks largely to Nelson, and inarguable that “Angels” doesn’t count as a solo record. That leaves Pride, who scored his 29th and final No. 1 hit, “Night Games,” in September 1983, exactly 25 years ago this month. Rucker is the first black artist to do the same, without an assist from a white country mainstay, since then.

Of course, the “assist” Rucker received in his crossover triumph came not from a duet partner, but from lingering affection in the heartland for his decade-old pop career fronting a freakishly successful bar band. Thirteen years after Hootie and the Blowfish’s “Only Wanna Be With You” became a between-innings sports staple, it’s not a stretch to imagine country-radio listeners warming to the 42-year-old Rucker’s guttural voice. Also, the midtempo “Don’t Think I Don’t Think About It” is an easy sell as assembly-line Nashville product goes, no matter who’s singing it. Still, credit Rucker for not being totally cynical: this is his second attempt to cross to a new genre, after his failed 2002 R&B album Back To Then. I read the last decade of Rucker’s career as a genuine post-Blowfish What do I do now? soul-search, rather than a calculated gameplan.

Calculation is more Kanye West’s thing, and “Love Lockdown” is a clear ploy to make himself larger than hip-hop. The growing-on-us-all-the-time, minor-key lament probably won’t cross him over to any new radio genres per se—I don’t see it pulling a “Hey Ya!” and getting West on modern-rock radio—but it will cement his growing reputation as a centrist pop act.

Of West’s 15 total charting songs on Billboard’s two big lists, all but two have done better on Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs than on the Hot 100. The only two that did better on the pop chart are “Love Lockdown,” and last year’s Daft Punk–sampling “Stronger.” (You could also count a third, 2005’s “Gold Digger,” which went to No. 1 on both lists but stayed on top of the pop chart more than twice as long as it did at R&B/Hip-Hop.) “Lockdown” could still become an R&B/Hip-Hop smash; it appeared on that chart first, debuting at No. 97 last week and rising to No. 80 this week. But—besides the fact that the song sounds to me more like a dark dance song than an R&B jam—it’ll take longer to move up the R&B/Hip-Hop list, which has no digital sales component.

More important, it won’t take much for West to top the Hot 100 in a week or two. With 218,000 downloads sold in the tracking week for this week’s charts, “Lockdown,” which appeared on digital-music services last Thursday, came within a hair’s breadth of beating best-selling buck-a-song “So What” by Pink—and he pulled that total with only a couple of days of sales, versus Pink’s full week. At this writing, with more than a week of sales behind him, West remains locked down on top of the iTunes Store’s chart, so he’s a near-shoo-in to have the best-selling digital single next week.

The only thing West lacks is serious radio airplay, and the two records above him on the Hot 100 have plenty of it. Pink’s hit is still rising fast at radio and now ranks just outside the top 20 on the airplay list. But on the Hot 100, she drops to No. 2, foiled by the song that’s now also the most-played track nationwide: T.I.’s “Whatever You Like” returns to No. 1 for a fourth non-consecutive week, thanks largely to radio. “Whatever” simultaneously moves into the penthouse at Hot R&B/Hip-Hop, too.

So the top of next week’s Hot 100 will likely be a jump ball between these three records, all with different combinations of sales and airplay: West with blockbuster sales and minimal airplay; Pink with strong sales and growing airplay; and T.I. with solid sales and blockbuster airplay. I give the edge to Kanye, because the Hot 100 skews more toward sales than radio these days, but it’s really anybody’s game. Stay tuned.

Here’s a rundown of the rest of this week’s charts:

• Before we leave the topic of multi-genre crossover: The weird disconnect between Taylor Swift’s pop-chart and country-chart performance continues. A month after she scored her first Top 10 pop hit with a song country radio wasn’t even playing much (“Change,” No. 10 in August), the digital release of her next single, “Love Story,” instantly vaults that song into the pop Top Five. Mind you, “Love Story” isn’t doing shabbily on the Country list: it’s already up to No. 18 in its second week on the slow-moving, airplay-only chart. But the inclusion of sales on the Hot 100, and Swift’s rabid fanbase, helped the song debut all the way up at No. 16 last week. This week, powered by 159,000 downloads, the song shoots to No. 5. If these two singles’ sales performances are any indication, the teen star’s sophomore album Fearless will be a monster when it drops in November.

• Back in the day, you may recall Casey Kasem popularizing the phrase “No. 1 with a bullet.” That might’ve sounded like a euphemism, but in Billboard, bullets (represented by a circle around the number in the magazine, or a yellow-shaded box on actually mean something—they’re an indicator of songs that show better-than-average sales or airplay gains that week. That’s regardless of how many spaces a song is moving up or down; it’s possible for a song to hold its position or even fall a few slots while retaining its bullet (or to move up the chart without one).

This week, an unusual number of hits in the Top 20 experience “backward bullets,” pushed back a spot or two even as their chart points grow. These include M.I.A.’s “Paper Planes,” down to No. 6 from No. 4 last week; Estelle’s “American Boy,” No. 10 from No. 9; Lil Wayne’s “Got Money,” No. 12 from No. 10; and Jordin Sparks’s “One Step at a Time,” No. 19 from No. 17. There’s no telling if any of these songs will reverse course next week, but I did notice on my local Top 40 station that Sparks’s song has a new dance remix, which has been a chart catalyst for countless floundering hits in the last decade.

• If I were to ask you to guess the Offspring’s three career No. 1 hits on the Modern Rock chart, I’ll bet you could name only one. That would be their chart debut, 1994’s immortal “Come Out And Play (Keep ’Em Separated),” which topped the chart for two weeks. The second was… nope, not “Self Esteem,” “Gotta Get Away,” or “Pretty Fly (for a White Guy)”—rather, it was 2004’s “Hit That,” of which I couldn’t sing you even a note if my life depended on it. I’m also a little hazy on their third chart-topper, “You’re Gonna Go Far, Kid,” which achieves pole position this week. These guys are up there with Radiohead in the category of unrepresentative chart careers.

Further down, we have an additional piece of evidence for Al Shipley’s ongoing theory of “the increasingly blurred line between alternative and active rock radio playlists”: the debut of AC/DC—yes, that AC/DC—on the Modern Rock chart. “Rock N’ Roll Train” appears at No. 38 on the chart that once welcomed Goths and Euroweenies and eschewed bruiser-rock. (Man, why not just start playing the Eagles and get it over with?) On the other end of the testosterone spectrum, M.I.A.’s charmed run at Modern Rock appears to be over: “Paper Planes” drops to No. 14.

• Even as the leaves begin to turn, there’s now a third hit version of Kid Rock’s “All Summer Long.” The original, still relying only on airplay, is down to No. 29 on the Hot 100, after peaking at No. 25 two weeks ago. The best-selling insta-cover by the Hit Masters drops off this week. But it’s replaced on the chart by a new iTunes-fueled cover, which comes from a gang on the Big Eye label calling themselves the Rock Heroes; their “Summer” debuts at No. 38, less than 10 spots below the original.

Unlike the Hit Masters, who cover a wide range of pop hits, the Heroes have released an entire digital album dedicated solely to the oeuvre of The Kid—their top sellers on iTunes include “Only God Knows Why,” “Cowboy,” and “Bawitdaba.” Clearly, these Heroes are more dedicated to their life’s purpose. Can a full-album collection of Back in Black remakes be far off?

Top 10s Last week’s position and total weeks charted in parentheses (Digital Songs chart includes total downloads/percentage change in parentheses):

Hot 100 1. T.I., “Whatever You Like” (LW No. 2, 7 weeks) 2. Pink, “So What” (LW No. 1, 5 weeks) 3. Kanye West, “Love Lockdown” (CHART DEBUT) 4. Rihanna, “Disturbia” (LW No. 3, 14 weeks) 5. Taylor Swift, “Love Story” (LW No. 16, 2 weeks) 6. M.I.A., “Paper Planes” (LW No. 4, 10 weeks) 7. Ne-Yo, “Closer” (LW No. 7, 23 weeks) 8. T-Pain feat. Lil Wayne, “Can’t Believe It” (LW No. 8, 8 weeks) 9. Katy Perry, “Hot N Cold” (LW No. 12, 8 weeks) 10. Estelle feat. Kanye West, “American Boy” (LW No. 9, 23 weeks)

Hot Digital Songs 1. Pink, “So What” (LW No. 1, 218,000 downloads) 2. Kanye West, “Love Lockdown” (CHART DEBUT, 218,000 downloads) 3. T.I., “Whatever You Like” (LW No. 2, 202,000 downloads) 4. Taylor Swift, “Love Story” (LW No. 8, 159,000 downloads) 5. Rihanna, “Disturbia” (LW No. 3) 6. M.I.A., “Paper Planes” (LW No. 5) 7. Katy Perry, “Hot N Cold” (LW No. 6) 8. Jason Mraz, “I’m Yours” (LW No. 7) 9. Estelle feat. Kanye West, “American Boy” (LW No. 9) 10. David Archuleta, “Crush” (LW No. 22)

Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs 1. T.I., “Whatever You Like” (LW No. 2, 10 weeks) 2. T-Pain feat. Lil Wayne, “Can’t Believe It,” (LW No. 4, 11 weeks) 3. Jazmine Sullivan, “Need U Bad” (LW No. 1, 21 weeks) 4. Jennifer Hudson, “Spotlight” (LW No. 3, 19 weeks) 5. Lil Wayne feat. Bobby Valentino, “Mrs. Officer” (LW No. 6, 12 weeks) 6. Ne-Yo, “Miss Independent” (LW No. 5, 9 weeks) 7. Young Jeezy feat. Kanye West, “Put On” (LW No. 8, 20 weeks) 8. Robin Thicke, “Magic” (LW No. 7, 18 weeks) 9. Lil Wayne feat. T-Pain, “Got Money” (LW No. 12, 19 weeks) 10. Keyshia Cole, “Heaven Sent” (LW No. 9, 26 weeks)

Hot Country Songs 1. Darius Rucker, “Don’t Think I Don’t Think About It” (LW No. 3, 23 weeks) 2. Kenny Chesney, “Everybody Wants to Go to Heaven” (LW No. 4, 8 weeks) 3. Jimmy Wayne, “Do You Believe Me Now” (LW No. 1, 26 weeks) 4. Kid Rock, “All Summer Long” (LW No. 5, 19 weeks) 5. Toby Keith, “She Never Cried in Front of Me” (LW No. 6, 13 weeks) 6. Brad Paisley, “Waitin’ on a Woman” (LW No. 2, 15 weeks) 7. Carrie Underwood, “Just a Dream” (LW No. 8, 11 weeks) 8. George Strait, “Troubadour” (LW No. 7, 17 weeks) 9. The Lost Trailers, “Holler Back” (LW No. 10, 31 weeks) 10. Keith Urban, “You Look Good in My Shirt” (LW No. 9, 18 weeks)

Hot Modern Rock Tracks 1. The Offspring, “You’re Gonna Go Far, Kid” (LW No. 2, 9 weeks) 2. Staind, “Believe” (LW No. 1, 13 weeks) 3. Weezer, “Troublemaker” (LW No. 4, 11 weeks) 4. Carolina Liar, “I’m Not Over” (LW No. 5, 21 weeks) 5. Rise Against, “Re-Education (Through Labor)” (LW No. 8, 5 weeks) 6. Metallica, “The Day That Never Comes” (LW No. 7, 5 weeks) 7. Foo Fighters, “Let It Die” (LW No. 3, 25 weeks) 8. Apocalyptica feat. Adam Gontier, “I Don’t Care” (LW No. 9, 12 weeks) 9. Coldplay, “Viva la Vida” (LW No. 6, 16 weeks) 10. Disturbed, “Inside the Fire” (LW No. 11, 26 weeks)

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