Can This Year's Best Dancehall Song Become A Summer Anthem In The U.S.?
Maybe if Drake gets involved.
It's just April, making it still a little early to predict the Song of the Summer, which has traditionally been defined as whatever sits at the top of Billboard's Hot 100 for the longest. But it's now more difficult than ever to identify the most popular song in a given moment. Is it the most streamed on Spotify or SoundCloud? The most purchased on iTunes? The song that's dominating your dinner conversations, or beloved by amateur choreographers on Vine?
Released in March, Jamaican singer Popcaan's "Everything Nice" may not top out any of those metrics. But by my own measure, it's a real contender, popping up on bodega radios and Facebook walls, becoming more irresistible with each listen.
Popcaan, 25 and born Andre Sutherland, will release his debut album in June, but he has been a major figure in dancehall for years. He got his start as a protégé of now-imprisoned Kingston legend Vybz Kartel, and later stepped out of his mentor's shadow with party singles "Only Man She Want" and "Ravin." He has since become the favorite reggae singer of American rappers — Kanye West sampled his 2013 collab with Pusha T, "Blocka," on Yeezus.
The "Everything Nice" beat, by producer Dubbel Dutch, is restrained but viscous; each synth note falls like a drop from a popsicle, then puddles on the sidewalk. The drums are minimal, leaving room for Popcaan's lyrics, which dedicate themselves to anyone who works hard, and celebrate music as a balm. When you're worried about schoolwork, or the bills you haven't paid, or remembering someone you've loved and lost, "Everything Nice" advises: "Find a party" to take away your troubles, and play this song "till the speaker fuck up." So why hasn't it become totally inescapable yet?
If "Everything Nice" honors things going well, it's "not just pure candied excitement," explained Dre Skull, a Brooklyn-based producer who's made songs for Snoop Dogg and founded Mixpak, the label that will release Popcaan's LP. The song also has a somber utility; it's there to reach out to anyone having a tough time, and reassure them. According to producer Dubbel Dutch, the beat for "Everything Nice" was originally "an upbeat bubbly pop rap thing." But adjusted for Popcaan's songwriting, it took on a more serious tone. The end result is ethereal but "still a party track," Dubbel Dutch said: "Life's hard, not usually fair, and impermanent, but tonight we're floating."
But if it's not an obvious summertime club song at a relatively slow 100 beats per minute, "Everything Nice" actually flows nicely into a DJ's dancehall, or rap, set. And there, Dre Skull says, it stands memorably apart from the pack. "When the DJ drops it, it's a sing-along. It's more anthemic. It becomes the peakest of the peak time, when the crowd is in full celebratory mode." (It seems not coincidental that the other dancehall song currently inching toward mainstream viability, Queens singer Kranium's "Nobody Has to Know," is also in the 100 BPM range, where it can be easily mixed into rap hits.)
Dre Skull said Popcaan recently told him that DJs in Jamaica "can't not play 'Everything Nice'" at parties. The song has become so popular in Jamaica that Mavado, a dancehall star and former Popcaan rival, recorded a verse for a remix.
Typically, a dancehall song becomes a hit in the U.S. after percolating in the Caribbean. "A song goes to a certain point in Kingston, then there's just enough play off that heat that it gets to the Caribbean community in New York," Dre Skull explained. "Everything Nice" has already made that jump — it's now in rotation on New York's mix shows, and drifting out of cars in Brooklyn's largely Caribbean Lefferts Gardens neighborhood as often as the Mister Softee jingle. "I've heard 'Everything Nice' more than any other song, dancehall or otherwise," said Chris, an acquaintance who lives there.
The song's video was also debuted online by Pitchfork. And Popcaan's got plenty of fans outside Jamaica — a spokesperson for Spotify (which has not yet launched in Jamaica) said his songs see the most streams in the U.S., but relative to market size he is most popular in Western Europe — in the Netherlands, the U.K., France, and Switzerland. He has more than a million fans on Facebook. These days Canadian kids cover his songs, and beautifully.
Still, "Everything Nice" has yet to appear on the regular playlist of one of New York's big hip-hop stations. "A Caribbean song really has to be special to get playlisted," Dre Skull said, nodding to past summer favorites like Gyptian's "Hold Yuh," Vybz Kartel's "Rompin Shop," and Serani's "No Games." "Historically, there's only one Caribbean song on the playlist at a time. And there's only a couple dancehall-friendly stations, in Hartford, Boston, New York, and Miami. Occasionally, something like 'Hold Yuh' or a Sean Paul song will be able to break out to the entire American market as a pop song," Dre Skull said. When that crossover happens, he continued, it's usually after a long, multi-month grow. "With a major-label rap single, it's either gonna work in the first two weeks or it's never gonna work. Dancehall has a much slower gestation period for singles."
So how might a dancehall song, and especially one released by a small label, make that leap into pop? Independent promoters can help push a song to radio, but these days, even major labels have trouble getting their songs into rotation. "If a song's not testing well with market research, it disappears," Dre Skull said. Hot 97's music director, Karla Stenius, better known as Karlie Hustle, told BuzzFeed that the station "makes sure we're playing the hottest records that are researching and testing that best, or that our gut feeling says are gonna be big."
The best route to pop radio for an artist like Popcaan would be a co-sign from a big artist, to receive the kind of boost "Hold Yuh" got when Nicki Minaj jumped onto it in 2010. "Everything Nice" could get a big push if Drake decided to add a verse — not impossible, considering Drake is a big Popcaan fan and the two artists have become friends. (Popcaan made a video with Drake's OVO crew last year in Toronto, and Drake sold T-shirts with Popcaan slogans on them in his web shop.) Label head Dre Skull, though, said he would want that kind of favor to come organically, not by request. "We haven't actively reached out to Drake for a guest verse, but I know he knows about the album," he said.
And why wouldn't Drake wouldn't want to break off some of "Everything Nice"'s nontraditional summer shine? Who knows better than him that sometimes the best way to bring people's energy up is actually to slow things down? That in order to connect, you may have to get serious?