Twenty years ago this summer, the No. 1 song on Billboard’s Hot 100 was by a larger-than-life rapper. Through persistence, force of personality, unexpected acting skill, and sheer charm, he’d spent half the ’90s changing the lingua franca of hip-hop. Yet somehow the rapper had yet to top the charts. Finally, in the summer of 1996, years deep into his career, he pulled it off—not with one of his hard-charging tracks about his half-imagined “Thug Life” but with a catchy party record that leaned heavily on a hook sung by some R&B vocalists.
The rapper was Tupac Shakur. And the No. 1 hit was … no, not that one. That track was the B-side.
“How Do U Want It?”—2Pac’s only No. 1 hit on both the pop and R&B charts—is a middling ’Pac single. (Currently, it ranks fourth among his most-purchased iTunes tracks; on Spotify, it’s his eighth most-streamed.) If you can call it to mind, I’ll wager you remember the bubbly R&B chorus hook by Jodeci singers K-Ci and JoJo better than anything Makaveli is rapping. And no matter what you think of it, there’s no way you know it better than “California Love,” the deathless Dr. Dre–produced, Roger Troutman–vocodered jam that remains 2Pac’s all-time top single. “California” remained unreleased for the first six months of 1996, due to confusion over a shelved Dr. Dre album, before Death Row Records finally stuck it on the “How Do U Want It?” CD-single as track two. This “double-sided” single shot to No. 1 in under a month, largely on the strength of fans who wanted to own “California.” In the pages of Billboard, “How?”—’Pac’s official summer ’96 single—was listed first, but it was not a big radio hit (No. 68 Pop Airplay, No. 17 R&B Airplay); “California” was clearly driving sales of the single. After that chart-topping success, 2Pac never reached the Top 10 again, despite an improbably vibrant posthumous career.
In short, “How Do U Want It?” hit No. 1 on the coattails of a better hit. After all the years of Tupac Shakur overtaking hip-hop, topping the charts was an anticlimax in his career. Kind of like the song that took over the No. 1 spot on the Hot 100 last week.
That would be “One Dance,” the charming, summer-ready smash from Drake, a man who has waited even longer for his first No. 1 hit than 2Pac waited for his. The man born Aubrey Drake Graham in Toronto is now more than seven years into a career that has seen him emerge as hip-hop’s predominant millennial multihyphenate: rapper, singer, actor, comedian, meme generator. And the 6 Man has been jonesing, hard, to top the Hot 100. Drake told us himself, last fall—Instagrammed it, in fact—when “Hotline Bling,” his biggest-ever crossover hit and the most acclaimed single of 2015, was nearing the top of Billboard’s chart: “No accolades really matter to me other than the fact that I have never had a billboard number one,” Drake wrote. “If I get my first number one … it will be the biggest moment of my career to date.” He jinxed himself. “Hotline Bling” peaked at No. 2, thwarted by No. 1 smashes from the Weeknd and Adele and by a data snafu with Apple Music.
Seven months later, Drake finally gets his long-sought No. 1 song. He even put “One” in the title. (An insurance policy, or a dare?) “One Dance” is not the first time Drake’s name has appeared at the top of the Hot 100—he was the featured rapper on a pair of No. 1s by Rihanna (2010’s “What’s My Name,” and this year’s “Work”). Just as he supported her hits, Drake has featured acts on his latest: “One Dance” is co-credited to Wizkid, a hugely popular Afrobeat singer from Nigeria, and Kyla, a vocalist from England’s late-2000s “U.K. funky” scene whose 2008 piano-house single “Do You Mind?” is prominently sampled on the track.
All caveats aside, this is finally, officially, Drake’s first Hot 100 chart topper as a lead act. Was it worth all that drama? Doesn’t seem like it. As a song, “One Dance” is infectious and affable, a West Indian–and-African-flavored slice of shrewd global pop made friendlier for North American ears. But as a chart phenomenon, “One Dance” is about as exciting for Drake in 2016 as “How Do U Want It?” was for 2Pac in 1996. It feels inevitable rather than triumphant.
Maybe it’s the long wait for Drake’s latest album that let some of the air out of the balloon. “Hotline Bling” was intended as the lead single from a studio album, Views From the 6, that Drake was previewing for fans as far back as 2014. That album, its title truncated to Views, finally dropped late last month, with “One Dance” as one of its official leadoff singles. The fact that Views is moody, overlong—more than 80 minutes, so a double album even on CD—and, according to most critics (including Slate’s own), well short of a masterpiece actually works in the breezy single’s favor. At this point, no matter how introspective Drake’s albums are, they routinely do so well that any catchy song on them is going to cast a huge shadow.
Indeed, regardless of how critics felt, Drake just had a pretty great week on the charts; statistically, at least, he is more popular than he’s ever been. On the album chart, Drake has never had any trouble hitting No. 1: All three of his prior studio albums debuted on top of the Billboard 200, each with greater sales than the last. (So much for the AC/DC Rule.) So did his pair of “unofficial” 2015 mixtapes—one solo, the other with Future—No. 1 debuts, both. Even with that perfect track record, Views’ debut was freakishly good: pure album sales of 852,000, his best sales week ever. That might not be an Adele or a Taylor number, but it’s big—about 75 percent greater than Beyoncé’s Lemonade rang up when it debuted the week before (complete with HBO and half the internet hyping her).
What’s more, even as he’s selling albums the old-fashioned way, Drake is mastering the new streaming frontier. In its first week Views set a record for the greatest one-week streaming total in history, its songs played more than 245 million times in seven days (mostly at Apple Music, which had a streaming exclusive on the album in its first week; Spotify and other sites had just the singles). In addition to boosting the album’s Billboard chart total to more than 1.04 million “equivalent album units” when streams and tracks are factored in, all that streaming activity also had a knock-on effect on the Hot 100: 18 of the album’s tracks made the singles chart at once (every track on Views but the old hit “Hotline Bling” and an album interlude). Together with Drake’s earlier singles “Work” (the Rihanna hit) and “Summer Sixteen,” his total of 20 simultaneous Hot 100 hits—literally one-fifth of the chart—beat an all-time record previously held by the Beatles and Justin Bieber.
For Drake as a pop figure, all this chart success is both blessing and curse. His audience is so loyal as to be indiscriminate—a single week with 20 simultaneous Hot 100 hits doesn’t suggest cultural ubiquity so much as cultlike devotion. (A large cult, to be sure—take that, Beygency.) What made “Hotline Bling” exceptional late last year was the way the song spread well beyond the Cult of Drake to encircle the zeitgeist. Sure, in his seven years of hitmaking, Drake has had his share of iconic, hashtag-spawning singles—from #StartedFromTheBottom to “The Motto” (instigator of #YOLO). But “Hotline Bling””—whether video-remixed online or riffed on by Donald Trump—was the closest Drake has come in his career to a full-on “Call Me Maybe” moment.
Couldn’t “One Dance” do the same? Lyrically, at least, it seems sprightlier than “Hotline Bling,” which—catchy hooks aside—was a grumpy, misogynist rumination about “good” girls gone bad. “One Dance” is closer to a pure club track—a dancehall song about dance halls—that pairs its Caribbean flavor with lines suitable for “whine-up” grinding out on the floor. Insinuating rhythms aside, it’s not even all that raunchy. The chorus, in particular, could with minimal editing (and better rhymes) have wound up in a Depression-era, Irving Berlin–style tune penned for piano rolls and front parlors: “That’s why I need (a) one dance/ Got a Hennessy in my hand/ One more time ’fore I go/ Higher powers taking a hold on me.”
The thing is, these hopeful lyrics can’t mask the perpetual sadness underlying all of Drake’s work. Never mind the verses about “streets not safe” or “pray[ing] to make it back in one piece.” Never mind the fact that, at many points during “One Dance,” Drake seems a little bit removed from his own hit. (Even while praising the song, Singles Jukebox critic Thomas Inskeep aptly calls Drake’s voice “just another element, not standing out but not getting in the way either—the groove, and Kyla’s vocal, are the real stars here.”) At root, “One Dance,” like so many Drake songs, is less about the party than the fear of missing out on the party—or worse, the ever-present millennial sense that the good times can be taken away at any moment. There’s been a lot of that on the charts lately: Two songs that just missed this Slate series in the last three months by peaking at No. 2—Twenty One Pilots’ precociously world-weary “Stressed Out,” and Lukas Graham’s precociously nostalgic “7 Years”—are all about Gen Y’s quarter-life crisis. It’s a good moment for teen and twentysomething sad boys, and Drake might as well be their leader.
For most of the 2010s, music-industry analysts have wondered when the Top 40 would make one of its perennial pendulum shifts toward “the doldrums.” That’s what pop was like in the early-to-mid-’90s—the time of grunge rock and gangsta rap, the moment of peak 2Pac. Drake is the counterpart for this moment, the hip-hop crossover star for the post-Obama blues. While Shakur’s and Drake’s respective personae, the proud thug and the sad boy, might seem opposed, each man found a moment in hip-hop history to bring sour-faced self-mythologizing to the center of the new pop. If you look at what’s topped the charts so far in 2016, this hasn’t been a cheerful pop year: We’ve had a former teen-pop star apologizing then telling off his ex, a club queen who makes clubbing sound like work, a BMW-driving rapper who thinks he’s Scarface (talk about your ’90s tropes), and finally, the biggest seller of all, our Canadian rapper-crooner king, asking for a dance—just one dance—as if the end is nigh. If that’s not the new doldrums, I don’t know what is.