Two-Hit Wonder Flo Rida Owns Charts, Reminds Us He Exists

Obviously, we need to talk about the new song that takes over the top of Billboard‘s Hot 100, and the mind-blowing record it sets.

But before we do that, let’s talk about Hilary Swank.

I find Swank’s movie career totally incomprehensible: She either wins Oscars, or she tanks. Not even Meryl Streep has won two Best Actress statues, yet in under a decade Swank has gone to that podium twice, like some kind of modern-day Katharine Hepburn. You’d think that would make her one of Hollywood’s biggest stars, or at least its most respected. Sure, she wins roles in some blockbuster-type stuff (The Core) or prestige-like stuff (The Black Dahlia), but these movies are invariably flops. Swank’s successes seem to have had no impact on her career, or the way she’s regarded by the general public. She’s some kind of metaphor for the in-and-out nature of post-millennial fame.

All this leaps to my mind when I consider Flo Rida, the rapper who reaches No. 1 on the Hot 100 for the second time, with the kind of sales total that you’d think would make Lil Wayne, Kanye West or Jay-Z bow respectfully.

But if I were them, I wouldn’t. Because after all, who is this clown? How did Flo Rida become the Hilary Swank of pop music?

As reported here on Wednesday, “Right Round,” the Dead or Alive–interpolating new single from Flo Rida and the leadoff to his forthcoming album R.O.O.T.S., didn’t just set a new benchmark for one-week digital sales: It obliterated the record. The song shifted more than 636,000 downloads in a week, 36% bigger than the previous mark.

Oh, and that prior record? It was set by Rida himself, during the week after Christmas 2007. That’s when “Low,” Billboard‘s No. 1 single of 2008 and the best-selling digital download in history (so far), sold 467,000 downloads in seven days. This time, with “Right Round,” he didn’t even need the artificial boost provided by Santa Claus to beat his own record. (I somehow doubt Valentine’s Day did anything to make this chirpy bit of Dr. Luke–produced dance-pop sell.)

We’ve now seen three No. 1 Hot 100 hits in a row by acts making some kind of chart comeback, hurtling to the top from outside the Top 40 on the strength of outsize digital sales. In late January, Kelly Clarkson set the record for debut-week sales by a female. Two weeks later, Eminem set the debut-week sales record for any gender. Now, the Sunshine State rapper makes words like “debut” and “gender” moot: his record beats any and all previous benchmarks, in week one or otherwise.

I think we can agree that “comeback” is a word better suited to Eminem or even Clarkson than Flo Rida. When Em made his predicted chart comeback last week, we were psychologically prepared for him to make a splash. This week, if you’re detecting some flat-footedness and gape-mouthedness among us pop critics and industry reporters, it’s because nothing Flo Rida has done in the year since “Low” suggested he would make a return like this.

To be exact, during that year, uncle Flo has given us one really boring followup semi-hit with Timbaland (“Elevator,” No. 16, March 2008), a short-lived mid-charting track with Sean Kingston (“Roll,” No. 61, April 2008), and one solid hit with the dreaded that managed to scrape the Top 10 briefly before tumbling down the charts two months later (“In the Ayer,” No. 9, Sept. 2008).

One-hit wonders in Rock Era history are a dime a dozen. And there have been a decent number of two-hit wonders (Jesus Jones leaps to mind…or, in America at least, Simply Red). But Flo Rida’s Swank-like ability to either utterly dominate the charts or fade into inconsequentiality is rare. Since he did score that short-lived extra Top 10 hit, we can’t call Flo Rida a two-hit wonder, exactly. But his two big hits are absurdly out of proportion with his also-rans.

More important, as with Swank, these intermittent successes are doing little for his career as an artist. Other than a couple of featured-artist credits alongside a slew of other acts like Pitbull on some southern hip-hop joints (DJ Laz’s “Move Shake Drop,” DJ Felli Fel’s “Feel It”), Flo’s cellphone doesn’t appear to be buzzing with fellow rappers rushing to line him up for a hook.

Worse, Mail on Sunday, his debut album that featured “Low” and “Ayer,” has sold 367,000 copies in just under a year. Let’s put that in perspective: in one week, Flo’s new single sold nearly two times as many copies as his full-length sold in 48. Sure, in the post–Soulja Boy era, we’re now accustomed to big iTunes hits divorced from album sales. But when an act comes back with a smash like “Right Round,” it usually means somebody—the kind of somebody who’d care about that act’s entire body of work—missed them.

So again, we’re left with the question: that unstoppable Pete Burns hook aside, how the hell did “Right Round” happen?

One of the things we all love and hate in equal measure about Eminem, Kanye, or even 50 Cent is that, however obnoxious they might be from song to song or kerfuffle to kerfuffle, they are inimitably themselves. But Flo Rida is what mathematicians would call a null set. I remember hearing a radio interview with him last spring just before Mail on Sunday dropped, and he actually seemed sweet and decent—and utterly uninteresting as a person. He’s an empty vessel into which the hook du jour can be poured.

The flavor on radio 18 months ago was T-Pain-supported blippy R&B, and “Low” was an insipidly catchy version of that: insert ingredients, out pops hit. Since last summer, the Top 40 flavor has shifted toward a post–Katy Perry, stompy Europop sound we’ve been discussing (and bemoaning). And behold, along comes “Right Round.” As annoying as this latest Dr. Luke micro-genre has been, I would credit his songs like “I Kissed a Girl” and “So What” with a believable personality-meld with the acts singing them. But Luke could’ve given his reimagining of Dead or Alive to pretty much anyone; the fact that Flo Rida was between albums and needed a single feels like happenstance.

In a way, that malleability makes Flo Rida the ur-star of the iTunes era: none of the baggage of personality or chops, and hence, he stays out of the way of the hooks he’s delivering. He is perfect for consumption at 99 cents.

Which reminds me: If there’s one thing the record set by “Right Round” says to me, it’s that maybe the labels were right that the price of songs at iTunes needed to go up. Of course, for the industry, the intention of the forthcoming price increase to $1.29 for big hits is to earn bigger profits. But after all this recent download-sales froth, I’m hoping the effect is the opposite: maybe for the really stupid songs, like “Right Round,” sales will go down.

Basic economic theory tells you that if a “consumer good” is priced incorrectly, demand gets warped because motivations to buy are askew. At 99 cents, “Right Round” is an Aw, what the hell? purchase. At a buck-thirty, at least half of those 636,000 buyers have to think for a second before they click that button. Maybe that’s why Hilary Swank isn’t a bigger star: unless she’s up for an Oscar that year, moviegoers don’t think she’s worth 10 bucks.

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

• Who else is annoyed by Flo Rida’s leap to No. 1? I’m going to guess T.I. And he has no one to blame but his own label—if Atlantic hadn’t picked last week to drop “Right Round” at iTunes, T.I.’s “Dead and Gone” would be the new No. 1 single. As it is, the Justin Timberlake–supported cut doubles in digital sales, to an impressive 236,000 downloads, and leaps seven notches to No. 2.

The big sales jump for “D&G” was the result of the two guys’ performance of the song at last week’s Grammy Awards. This is getting to be a habit for Justin: two years ago this month, he sat behind a piano at the Grammys and gave a strong performance of his then-rising hit “What Goes Around… Comes Around”. Two weeks later, a post-Grammy digital sales burst sent that song to No. 1 for a solitary week. JT’s piano-tinkling would have worked the same magic for T.I. this year if it hadn’t been for ol’ Flo.

• The other big Grammy beneficiaries are Adele and Coldplay, each of whom both performed on the show, took home statues and saw their current singles multiply in sales.

Downloads of Adele’s “Chasing Pavements” nearly tripled to 109,000, and as a result the song officially becomes a U.S. Top 40 hit, hurtling 43 spots to No. 21. With little airplay and an inevitable cooling in sales, the song will probably tumble back down the chart next week, but it’s a feather in her cap in a week in which her album also tripled in sales.

As for Coldplay, the 10-month-old “Viva la Vida” yo-yos back up the Hot 100 for the umpteenth time, selling another 116,000 downloads (lifetime total: 3.3 million) and rising to No. 13. Chris Martin’s other Grammy-performed song, the Jay Z–supported “Lost!” gets the biggest digital boost of all, up 678% to 61,000 downloads. That’s enough for the song to reenter the Hot 100 all the way up at No. 40, a new peak, giving Coldplay its fifth career U.S. Top 40 hit. (The other four, in case you’re wondering: “Clocks,” “Speed of Sound,” “Violet Hill,” and the aforementioned “Viva.”)

• The R&B Top 10 has seriously come to life in the last couple of weeks. Last week saw 2009’s first new No. 1 single, as Beyoncé’s months-dominant “Single Ladies” succumbed to Jamie Foxx‘s “Blame It”; it’s his first-ever chart-topper as a lead artist (his 2005–06 hit “Unpredictable” stopped at No. 2; Kanye has taken him to No. 1 twice as a featured artist). Two other hits, by former supporting players, are rising fast. Keri Hilson, famed for the hook she sang on Timbaland’s “The Way I Are” as well as numerous writing credits, has her first-ever R&B Top 10 with “Turnin’ Me On” and is now threatening the top spot, with a three-week leap from No. 7 to No. 4 to No. 2. And writer-producer The-Dream (Rihanna’s “Umbrella” will be etched on his tombstone) has emerged as a remarkably consistent hit act in his own right: “Rockin’ That Thang,” the lead single from his forthcoming sophomore album, is his fourth consecutive Top 10 R&B hit since late 2007. All that, plus big leaps into the Top 10 for the latest singles from Bobby Valentino and Ne-Yo—this chart just got interesting.

• The Country Top 10, meanwhile, remains snoozier, but there have been a couple of notable achievements. In his weekly Chart Beat column, Billboard trivia guru Fred Bronson describes how Mac McAnally, a 51-year-old singer-songwriter and session musician who started as a pop act in the ’70s and migrated to country by the ’90s, scores his first No. 1 hit on any chart this week. He has the indomitable Kenny Chesney to thank—for recording a cover of McAnally’s old 1990 hit “Down the Road,” and inviting him to duet on it.

A bit further down, Darius Rucker is going to make us drop those Hootie jokes if it’s the last thing he does. He has a second Top 10 hit, proving his No. 1 smash last fall, “Don’t Think I Don’t Think About It,” wasn’t a fluke. The equally wordy-titled “It Won’t Be Like This for Long” moved into the winners’ circle last week and holds at No. 8 this week. In about five months, Rucker’s album has sold nearly half a million copies and is already certified gold, making his detour through Nashville look like more like a permanent trip than the drive-bys achieved by Jewel, Bon Jovi, or Jessica Simpson.

• While we were off last week, Incubus spent a solitary week at No. 1 on the Modern Rock list with their late-blooming hit “Love Hurts.” (Shinedown takes back the penthouse this week.) It’s Incubus’ fourth Modern Rock No. 1, and it makes the now-ancient 2006 album Light Grenades the band’s first to produce two chart toppers (the other being “Anna-Molly”); previously, Make Yourself and A Crow Left of the Murder each produced just one chart-topper. Message from radio programmers to Incubus: Release another album, and whatever’s on it, we will play it.

• This week, Lily Allen has a couple of new songs debut on the Hot 100, but the highest-charting isn’t her new album’s first single “The Fear,” which starts at No. 91. That honor goes instead to the No. 68 debut “Fuck You,” which, as far as I can tell, is the first song with that pithy title to appear on the big chart, ever. Dr. Dre did release a “Fuck You” in 1999 featuring Snoop Dogg and Devin the Dude, but it never made the Hot 100 or any other chart.

Since Allen’s perky, Motownesque “Fuck You” isn’t being promoted actively to radio, and it apparently charted thanks solely to curiosity-seeking downloaders (38,000 sold, vs. 20,000 for “The Fear”), it’s further proof that nothing sells like a provocative title. Maybe Britney Spears’ “If You Seek Amy” was too subtle?

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. Flo Rida, “Right Round” (LW No. 58, 3 weeks) 2. T.I. feat. Justin Timberlake, “Dead and Gone” (LW No. 9, 11 weeks) 3. Eminem, Dr. Dre and 50 Cent, “Crack a Bottle” (LW No. 1, 5 weeks) 4. Kanye West, “Heartless” (LW No. 2, 15 weeks) 5. Lady GaGa feat. Colby O’Donis, “Just Dance” (LW No. 3, 28 weeks) 6. All-American Rejects, “Gives You Hell” (LW No. 6, 14 weeks) 7. Taylor Swift, “Love Story” (LW No. 7, 23 weeks) 8. Kelly Clarkson, “My Life Would Suck Without You” (LW No. 4, 5 weeks) 9. Beyoncé, “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)” (LW No. 5, 18 weeks) 10. Lady GaGa, “Poker Face” (LW No. 12, 9 weeks)

Hot Digital Songs 1. Flo Rida, “Right Round” (CHART DEBUT, 636,000 downloads) 2. Eminem, Dr. Dre and 50 Cent, “Crack a Bottle” (LW No. 1, 255,000 downloads) 3. T.I. feat. Justin Timberlake, “Dead and Gone” (LW No. 9, 237,000 downloads) 4. Lady GaGa, “Poker Face” (LW No. 8, 164,000 downloads) 5. All-American Rejects, “Gives You Hell” (LW No. 3, 160,000 downloads) 6. Kelly Clarkson, “My Life Would Suck Without You” (LW No. 2, 144,000 downloads) 7. Kanye West, “Heartless” (LW No. 7, 127,000 downloads) 8. Lady GaGa feat. Colby O’Donis, “Just Dance” (LW No. 6, 126,000 downloads) 9. Coldplay, “Viva la Vida” (LW No. 23, 116,000 downloads) 10. Adele, “Chasing Pavements” (LW No. 37, 109,000 downloads)

Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs 1. Jamie Foxx feat. T-Pain, “Blame It” (LW No. 1, 10 weeks) 2. Keri Hilson feat. Lil Wayne, “Turnin’ Me On” (LW No. 4, 13 weeks) 3. Beyoncé, “Diva” (LW No. 3, 14 weeks) 4. The-Dream, “Rockin’ That Thang” (LW No. 6, 11 weeks) 5. Ne-Yo feat. Jamie Foxx & Fabolous, “She Got Her Own” (LW No. 2, 14 weeks) 6. Kanye West, “Heartless” (LW No. 7, 18 weeks) 7. Bobby Valentino feat. Yung Joc, “Beep” (LW No. 14, 20 weeks) 8. Jamie Foxx feat. T.I., “Just Like Me,” (LW No. 8, 16 weeks) 9. Beyoncé, “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)” (LW No. 5, 19 weeks) 10. Ne-Yo, “Mad” (LW No. 15, 18 weeks)

Hot Country Songs 1. Kenny Chesney with Mac McAnally, “Down the Road” (LW No. 2, 17 weeks) 2. Toby Keith, “God Love Her” (LW No. 4, 17 weeks) 3. Keith Urban, “Sweet Thing” (LW No. 3, 15 weeks) 4. Dierks Bentley, “Feel That Fire” (LW No. 1, 22 weeks) 5. Brooks & Dunn feat. Reba McEntire, “Cowgirls Don’t Cry” (LW No. 6, 19 weeks) 6. Blake Shelton, “She Wouldn’t Be Gone” (LW No. 5, 28 weeks) 7. George Strait, “River of Love” (LW No. 9, 15 weeks) 8. Darius Rucker, “It Won’t Be Like This for Long” (LW No. 8, 18 weeks) 9. Taylor Swift, “White Horse” (LW No. 10, 12 weeks) 10. Jake Owen, “Don’t Think I Can’t Love You” (LW No. 12, 27 weeks)

Hot Modern Rock Tracks 1. Shinedown, “Second Chance” (LW No. 2, 22 weeks) 2. Incubus, “Love Hurts” (LW No. 1, 18 weeks) 3. Kings of Leon, “Sex on Fire” (LW No. 3, 26 weeks) 4. Seether, “Breakdown” (LW No. 4, 22 weeks) 5. U2, “Get on Your Boots” (LW No. 6, 4 weeks) 6. The Airborne Toxic Event, “Sometime Around Midnight” (LW No. 6, 28 weeks) 7. The Offspring, “Kristy, Are You Doing OK?” (LW No. 11, 11 weeks) 8. Paramore, “Decode” (LW No. 7, 19 weeks) 9. The Killers, “Spaceman” (LW No. 12, 10 weeks) 10. Papa Roach, “Lifeline” (LW No. 14, 5 weeks)

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