Migos has a song out called “Bad and Boujee,” a top-10 record that you may have been made aware of before you ever heard it or saw the music video. “Bad and Boujee” is a great song but an even better meme — one that has inspired popular joke formats on Twitter for the past couple of months. There’s one based in funny images that represent the hyperbolic reaction to the song’s sparse intro, delivered by rapper Offset.
And there’s another humorous tweet formulation where users play on the haiku-like structure of the song’s chorus, which goes a bit like this:
This week, “Bad and Boujee” will likely hit the no. 1 spot on Billboard’s Hot 100 songs chart. Given Billboard’s recent revision of its song tracking to account for digital streams from user-generated content platforms, such as Twitter and Vine, the song’s journey to the top has been rather unconventional. Migos has four other Hot 100 hits to their credit, though none as big as “Bad and Boujee,” which dropped on October 28 but gained massive chart and sales traction only in December after Black Twitter seized on the song — an understated dance-trap jam with a snappy and quotable chorus — as inexhaustible fodder for memes, including a portion of the song dubbed over footage from the PBS cartoon Sid the Science Kid.
When “Bad and Boujee” hits no. 1, the record that it will likely knock from the top spot is Rae Sremmurd’s “Black Beatles,” which the digital brand consultancy Pizzaslime — hired by Interscope Records to help promote the song on social media — pushed as the unofficial soundtrack of the “Mannequin Challenge” freeze-frame video craze. “Black Beatles,” the third single from Rae Sremmurd’s’ otherwise unsuccessful sophomore album, became a meme by association, and then it became a no. 1 hit record. This week could mark the first — but surely not the last — instance of a meme-driven rap record succeeding another at the top of the charts, representing a new wave of hit-making.
“Black Beatles” isn’t the first rap record to blow up by the power of memes, though it does mark the start of record labels’ success in engineering meme-ability — a quality otherwise thought to be spontaneous, determined by the popular whims of the internet. In summer 2014, the young Brooklyn street rapper Bobby Shmurda — a hip-hop novice — scored a hit single with “Hot Nigga,” a song that flooded social media with snippets, memes, and discussion, all in response to a single Vine clip of Shmurda and his friends shimmying in the music video.
Music videos have long been their own form of musical reconfiguration, allowing directors and musicians to strip songs of their original lyrical context and refit them with alternative visual themes. “Hot Nigga” is a gangster rap record that Vine users reimagined as a dance craze (the “Shmoney Dance”) as well as a visual gag. Shmurda tosses his straight hat into the air, and it appears to never fall back down. Rap fans went wild with the Vine clip and helped turn “Hot Nigga” into a top-10 hit. In the 2010s, social media has become a playground where users — not just remix producers and mixtape DJs, but average fans — can totally repurpose a song or a music video, potentially giving the original work a new, uncanny life of its own.
Meme culture was born out of online forums, which are a couple of decades older than social media. In the rap world, Soulja Boy’s breakout 2007 single, “Crank That,” predates the prominence of both Twitter and Vine, and blew up initially via YouTube on the combined strength of a catchy hook, a captivating solo dance, and some sensationalism regarding the sexual connotation of the lyrics. Outside of hip-hop, major-label pop stars have also benefitted from the unique traction that meme culture can give a song. Carly Rae Jepsen’s phenomenal breakout hit, “Call Me Maybe,” was released in 2011, well before Billboard started accounting for Vine and YouTube streams and Twitter hosted users’ video clips. It inspired a flood of image macros with customized, parody captions that played on the song’s hook. And I will never not associate Taylor Swift’s 2012 hit “I Knew You Were Trouble” and its music video with the interspersed screams of a goat. Any artist of any given genre is susceptible to memes — yes, even Vivaldi. But hip-hop, a youthful, vibrant, and prolific genre in general, is an especially fertile breeding ground for meme-driven hits.
There’s no single quality that determines a song or music video’s meme-ability, no obvious through line that connects “Crank That,” “Call Me Maybe,” and “Bad and Boujee.” The art of producing a catchy meme is itself as daunting and fortuitous as the art of producing a great pop song. Plenty of music released before the dawn of social media has found traction as a meme in some form or another today. Rick Astley’s 1987 hit “Never Gonna Give You Up” was the YouTube soundtrack for “Rickrolling” in the 2000s; Ghost Town DJ’s 1996 single “My Boo” hit its Hot 100 peak two decades later thanks to its incorporation into the viral “Running Man Challenge.” Even songs that don’t become massive hits can benefit from meme-ificiation: Plies’s 2015 song “Ritz Carlton” never charted on the Hot 100, but Odell Beckham Jr. and Baylor University’s football team nonetheless helped it spawn a dance craze that immortalized the song’s opening verse. An infectious, nonsensical catchphrase like “ran off on da plug twice” is probably a good first step.
It’s tempting to conclude that video clips and other visual memes have displaced music videos, but it’s more accurate to think of them as just the latest stage of innovation, making for content that is cheaper to produce, quicker to consume, and easier for social-media users to disseminate. If you enjoy a short video, you simply retweet it. The Mannequin Challenge was so widely shared and so captivating that Michelle Obama, Hillary Clinton, and five astronauts aboard the International Space Station all eventually recorded their own versions of the craze. “Bad and Boujee” hasn’t achieved that transcendent level of pop awareness, but it has launched a beloved Atlanta street rap trio to the top of the pop charts (and into Golden Globes acceptance speeches).
Music industry consultants are no strangers to guerrilla marketing, and now they’re catching up to fans in adopting virality as a promotional tool. Gunner Safron, who handles marketing at Interscope, recently told the music website Pigeons & Planes that “Black Beatles” was a case study. “Music is in a place now where it’s almost formatted for utility,” said Safron. “There are ways to create content, get snippets of music placed. It’s almost like a new format of blogging. A few years ago everyone wanted to get placed on different blogs, and now you want to get on Tumblr pages, on Instagram pages, and showcase your work through third parties where you don’t have to be the leader of the conversation.”
While the popularity of Bobby Shmurda’s “Hot Nigga” and the Shmoney Dance in 2014 was largely unexpected — Shmurda wasn’t signed to a record label when the Vine took off— the success of “Black Beatles” and now “Bad and Boujee” shows that record labels are discovering ways to formalize and monetize the process.
Migos’s latest music video, for the album single “T-Shirt,” is a gorgeous fur-trapper escapade apparently styled to resemble the award-winning 2015 film The Revenant. You see Takeoff flexing dramatically in a grizzly-bear skin and already you can imagine all the GIFs they want you to make. Still, nothing beats the crowdsourced spontaneity of amateur memes; the grainy jpegs, second-hand snippets, and sensational fan art that can help propel an otherwise unremarkable record into a smash hit.