The Best Songs of the Year Were the Unlikeliest

In February, in Geneva, the Philadelphia rapper Lil Uzi Vert stage-dove into the audience at one of his shows. Afterward, he checked his pockets and realized his phone was missing. This was not as big a deal to the perpetually nonplussed Uzi—the headline of his Fader cover story was “Lil Uzi Vert Can’t Be Bothered”—but it was indeed a huge deal to his management and his new label, Atlantic Records, who had recently paid a lot of money for Uzi and his crew to stay in a mansion in Hawaii while writing and recording material for his forthcoming major label debut. The finished songs from those sessions were on that phone. Figuring whoever swiped the phone would leak them anyway, Uzi went back to his hotel and took matters into his own hands, uploading to SoundCloud everything he’d recorded from those sessions. He did it so quickly that one of the song titles was dotted with some typos he didn’t bother to fix. It was called “XO Tour Llif3.” All these months later, it stands as one of the defining singles of 2017.

Leaking music funded by a major label is the sort of behavior that, even just a few years ago, might have gotten a new artist dropped from his deal. Instead, it made Uzi a star. A lilting, dark, singsongy trap ditty about death wishes and the nihilism of a particularly bad lover’s quarrel—“I don’t really care if you cryyyy … All my friends are dead, push me to the edge”“XO Tour Llif3” eventually went to no. 7 on the Billboard Hot 100, and across platforms it has been streamed more than 1.3 billion times. (It also made his label a mint: In September, one report estimated that Atlantic had made $4.5 million off of those streams. Uzi’s cut was about a fifth of that.) In the not-so-distant-past, a major label would have taken great pains to keep a song like “XO Tour Llif3” from hitting SoundCloud too early (or at all), lest it diminish the traditional sales of that all-important major label debut. Uzi proved that, in 2017, the leak was nothing to fear: When it was finally released through the proper channels in late August, Luv Is Rage 2 still debuted at no. 1 on the album charts. To the millions of listeners sick of songs that feel focus-grouped to death before they even reach radio, the casually serendipitous origin story of “XO Tour Llif3” was a crucial part of its appeal.

Consider the complete opposite of this strategy. In July, for a brief and delicious afternoon, there was a rumor circulating that Taylor Swift was being transported to and from her apartment in a gigantic utility suitcase. Her team eventually squelched the rumor but, in retrospect, it’s more likely that the heavily guarded box contained something having to do with the top-secret music on her meticulously planned album Reputation, which would be announced a month later. The release of its lead single, “Look What You Made Me Do,” was as finely orchestrated as a perfectionist’s dinner party: a week of Instagram teasers, an appointment release on a Thursday night, a debut of the full-length music video at MTV’s Video Music Awards that weekend. The phone containing “Ll0oK What U Made Me D0” was not exactly going to fall out of Swift’s pocket in a mosh pit.

And yet, as much as the old-fashioned rollout worked for Reputation (which would go on to sell nearly 1.3 million copies in its first week), everything about the release of “Look What You Made Me Do” felt fascinatingly out of touch with the way hit songs happened in 2017. Its quick descent on the charts speaks to this: Though it rode the wave of the comeback-single boost to debut at no. 1, Billboard reported that the song had “the largest fall from the top” in the history of the pop songs chart; it slipped from no. 1 to no. 7 in a single week, and in the time since has continued to plummet. (It also had the steepest fall from the top five in the 27-year history of Billboard’s radio play chart.) The success of Reputation proves that, on the album chart at least, some artists like Swift remain too big to fail. But the album’s failure to produce an enduring song thus far—one that understood the sneaky spontaneity with which the best songs wormed their way into the zeitgeist this year—proves that the hit single is now, in the streaming age, the playground of the oddball underdog just as much as the mega-famous pop star. In the fickle realm of the hit single, other big-budget sure things faltered even worse than Swift did. Miley Cyrus’s listless country reinvention “Malibu” failed to make even a fraction of the impact that “Wrecking Ball” did just a few years ago. One-time Hot 100 record-setter Katy Perry released single after disastrous single, culminating in the abysmal bad-pun buffet “Bon Appétit,” a song you could call “relevant” only in the least generous sense: It was a song as bad as 2017 itself.

Yes, in the news, 2017 was a bottomless pit of bad surprises. Thank heaven pop culture gave us one wholly good one: “Bodak Yellow.”

We were all collectively imagining it, for one blissful moment at the end of November: Cardi B, crouching before the Queen of England, spitting in that Instagram-famous Bronx lilt, “Said little bitch, you can’t fuck with me, if you wanted to / These expensive, these is red bottoms, these is bloody shoes.” Somehow, it would have been one of the more respectful things a notable American said to a British dignitary in 2017. And yet one of the surreal things about being alive right now is that if Prince Harry and Meghan Markle took up Cardi B on her offer to perform for free at the royal wedding, it would not even be the weirdest thing to happen that day. After all, we’d all witnessed the fairy godmother of fate wave her magic wand over a freestyle response to a Kodak Black song and turn it, somehow, into the single of the year. Nothing’s impossible anymore, for good and ill.

The captain told the band on the Titanic that the passengers wanted to hear something peppy as the ship was going down; by that same logic, in America, it was the year of “Bodak Yellow.” An ebullient 25-year-old ex-stripper and reality star, Belcalis Almanzar started rapping only a few years ago, and on “Bodak” her flow has the exuberance of Getting Away With It. The song captures the bills-in-the-air anarchy of new money, of seeing commas where there were once decimals: “Just checked my account turns out I’m rich, I’m rich, I’m rich!” In a year when it was hard to have anything but cynicism about what used to be called the American Dream, there was, at least, Cardi B’s joyous, frequently updated Instagram account. Just a regular, shmegular, degular girl from the internet.

The release of “Bodak Yellow” was much more I accidentally lost my phone while crowd-surfing than my genetically engineered future hit single is being transported to the laboratory by two men in a padlocked suitcase, and for that reason, too, it feels quintessentially 2017. And so it felt like a major cultural turning point when “Bodak” ousted “Look What You Made Me Do” from the top spot on the Hot 100 in late September, making Cardi B the first female rapper since Lauryn Hill to score a solo no. 1 song. There was even a generosity of spirit in the way she celebrated her success: “Every single FEMALE RAPPER CONGRATULATED ME TODAY,” she tweeted the day she went to no. 1, effectively quelling the all-too-predictable rumors that she was beefing with Nicki Minaj. Cardi’s success, on all fronts, made the tired old catfight narrative feel blessedly passé. Even Swift sent her flowers.

Some things are lost in the transition to streaming, of course; chart data can take the mystery out of the hit single. The song of the summer battle wasn’t very fun this year, because you could so easily mathematically prove it was “Despacito,” the Luis Fonsi–Daddy Yankee–Justin Bieber culture clash that, in mid-July, became the most-streamed song of all time (4.6 billion plays and still going strong). The rise of “Despacito” was somewhere between spontaneity and hit-engineering: You probably couldn’t have predicted a year ago that the 39-year-old Puerto Rican crooner Luis Fonsi would have had the summer’s biggest single, and yet, it would have been a more triumphant story had the song’s cross-cultural appeal not relied so heavily on Justin Bieber, who seemed to have learned the Spanish words to “Despacito” phonetically and then promptly forgotten them the second he walked out of the studio. In this year of clashing cultures, appropriation, and the darkest forms of white guilt, the most important music video of the year was Bieber mangling the Spanish words to “Despacito” when he tried to sing it at a New York City club. It is a truth universally acknowledged that mainstream gains for minority artists usually go hand-in-hand with a heavy dose of white people doing embarrassing shit. Which reminds me: Congratulations, Victoria’s Secret Angels. You played yourself.

And yet, even in the most mainstream spaces, Latin flair was an unavoidable insurgent force on pop radio. Take Camila Cabello and Young Thug’s excellent late-year hit “Havana,” a midtempo elegy for not only a lost love but for a place it might not be so easy for Americans to continue visiting if our president’s draconian travel bans continue apace. A Beyoncé remix helped J Balvin’s hypnotic “Mi Gente” make a huge impact not just on the radio but in the real world, with all the proceeds from the remix going to hurricane relief in places like Puerto Rico. And then, of course, there was that electric Santana sample snaking through “Wild Thoughts,” that ubiquitous collaboration among DJ Khaled, Bryson Tiller, and Rihanna, who made some of the year’s best cameos on other people’s tracks. This was the year, bless us, that Rihanna became not only a formidable beauty mogul but a formidable rapper, flexing her flow on Kendrick Lamar’s “Loyalty.” (the unofficial anthem of the James Comey hearings, never forget) and N.E.R.D’s citrus-carbonated comeback single “Lemon.” Rihanna used to be the girl you got on your song to wail the generic hook—with all due respect to T.I.’s “Live Your Life,” anybody could have done that. Now she is the woman you get on your song to be Rihanna, in all the singular, idiosyncratic glory that implies. The rise of Cardi B might not have happened so easily without the rise of Rihanna, who has built an authentic and quintessentially 2017 brand by being herself across all platforms. As she puts it on “Lemon”: “I get it how I live it / I live it how I get it / Count the mothafuckin’ digits.” Somewhere in America, Jay-Z mused, “I hope she’s investing it.”

The pop world is in flux right now. Many of the year’s greatest success stories might have seemed like a joke just 12 months ago. And yet as we stare down 2018, here we are: The “White Iverson” guy has a bigger hit single than Taylor Swift, and a Love & Hip-Hop cast member made the Grammy-nominated consensus pick for Song of the Year. Who’s your money on next year: Blue Ivy and the Cash Me Outside girl? As a wise man once said, “Anything’s possible. ANYTHING’S POSSIBLE!!!!!” When we are talking about the pop charts and not, you know, the bleak future of geopolitics under the threat of nuclear war, this year was a reminder that that can still be a good thing.