Can Adult Contemporary Radio Figure Out Its Hip-Hop Issue?

Getty Images
Cardi B

“The generation that began hip-hop is getting older. ... There are going to be changes, and in radio, we have to be ready for them," one expert says.

Last week, Maroon 5 broke a Billboard chart record that had stood for over 15 years, and Cardi B did not. 

“Girls Like You,” Maroon 5’s pop smash from last year, logged its 29th week atop the Adult Contemporary radio airplay chart on the list dated July 6, surpassing the 28-week run of Uncle Kracker’s 2004 hit “Drift Away” (featuring Dobie Gray) to become the longest-running No. 1 single in the Adult Contemporary chart’s history. After “Girls Like You” spent seven weeks at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart last year, the song joined Kelly Clarkson’s “Breakaway,” Bruno Mars’ “Just the Way You Are” and Adele’s “Hello” as one of the biggest AC radio hits ever.

But the chart achievement is attributed only to Maroon 5, not Cardi B, the featured artist on “Girls Like You.” The AC chart ranks titles by weekly plays on a panel of 86 adult contemporary stations, according to Nielsen Music, and most of those stations — as confirmed in consultation with Interscope Records — are playing the Cardi B-less version of “Girls Like You,” which was originally released on Maroon 5’s 2017 album Red Pill Blues, and does not include her verse in the song’s bridge.

The fact that the majority of reporting AC radio stations opted for the rap-free version of “Girls Like You” is not shocking. Adult contemporary, which began as the “Easy Listening” chart in 1961, has historically featured far less hip-hop than top 40 radio, as well as adult top 40, both of which are more current-intensive. While adult top 40 largely mixes new hits with post-2000 staples, adult contemporary focuses on familiarity, with a handful of current songs alongside tried-and-true hits from the ‘80s, ‘90s, '00s and this decade, plus a dash of ‘70s throwbacks.

Yet the reality is that hip-hop’s importance to American popular music has never been more pronounced: It has been music’s biggest genre since 2017, thanks in part to its domination of streaming platforms. On Billboard’s Streaming Songs Artists year-end list for 2018, 17 of the top 25 artists were hip-hop acts. As the sound of U.S. pop continues to shift, AC radio is starting to reckon with the question of its own evolution.

“You’d be surprised by how much time we spend [talking] internally about where hip-hop fits, what’s its role, and if we’re reflecting the audience expectations of the station,” says John Peake, program director of Los Angeles adult contemporary station KOST-FM. “With so much streaming data now in front of us, and particularly so much of the numbers pointed toward hip-hop, it makes us stand up and notice it — how do we address this as a radio brand?”

Any hits that have given off even a whiff of rap have faced roadblocks on the AC airwaves. In the mid-‘90s, for instance, Madonna’s song “Rain” was often played without her spoken-word mid-song breakdown, while Sheryl Crow’s eight-week AC No. 1 “All I Wanna Do” was played without its signature "This ain't no disco / And it ain't no country club either / This is L.A.!” spoken intro. 

In 2015, Wiz Khalifa and Charlie Puth’s “See You Again” was one of the biggest hits of the year, spending 12 weeks at the top of the Hot 100. But most AC radio stations played a reworked ballad version of the song that didn’t include any of Khalifa’s verses — even though he was the lead artist on the track.

“Knowing our audience and what they don’t like, that’s generally why we’ll look for an edit,” says WHUD-FM program director Steve Petrone of his Hudson Valley, New York-based station. “That is something that the labels put together, and that’s what we go with. That’s the history that we’ve had with our listeners, who … tend to be a little more conservative.”

The reason why these rap-less versions of hit singles exist is because labels still value adult contemporary radio as a gateway to different audiences after a song takes off at pop radio. “It’s an important format,” says Wendy Goodman, senior vp promotion at RCA Records. “If it’s a monster song, first at pop and then at [adult top 40], then it almost makes it more palatable for AC.”

Indeed, a hit single can morph into a more sustained phenomenon if it finds new legs at adult contemporary radio, which typically incorporates new songs at a slower pace than top 40 or adult top 40. “Girls Like You,” for instance, first topped the AC chart in its Cardi B-free version last November, over a month after the Cardi B-assisted song hit No. 1 on the Hot 100. Goodman points to “Eastside,” by RCA’s Khalid alongside Benny Blanco and Halsey, as a song that was released last summer but became a bigger success when it finally cracked the AC chart on the tally dated March 16, 2019. “Eastside” is still going at AC radio 17 weeks later, sitting at No. 22 on this week’s chart, and in its 51st week (!) on the Hot 100, undoubtedly helped by its second life on AC radio.

“These records stay on the chart for over a year, if it’s a real hit,” Goodman adds. “It opens up a whole new audience, and that’s what we all want, to cast that net as wide as possible.”

Of course, not every AC station plays the same version of a given song. At No. 13 on this week’s AC chart is “Crave,” a recent Madonna collaboration with Swae Lee, that finds the Rae Sremmurd member crooning alongside the pop superstar. Although Lee is not rapping on “Crave,” a solo Madonna edit has been serviced to AC radio — a decision loaded with implications related to the format's largely white, middle-aged listener base and the type of artists they want to hear. (The majority of the reporting AC stations have played the version of “Crave” with Lee, which is why he is credited on the chart.)

Peake has played the version with Lee on KOST — “It’s really good to hear that combination together,” he says — while Petrone favors the solo edit for WHUD. “Maybe he’s not rapping per se, but it’s close enough, and he’s not really singing, either,” he says. “It was unnecessary.”

Cat Thomas, program director at WSHE-FM in Chicago, says that those decisions are often based on an AC station’s individual circumstances, including the type of market it caters to and the other stations within that market that could meet the demand for more hip-hop radio play. His station played the version of “Girls Like You” with Cardi B’s verse, for example, because he believes there was more of an appetite for it in his city. 

“AC is one of those formats that’s very situational,” says Thomas. “If you’re in Chicago or New York or L.A., there’s a possibility that you may play those songs. But it also depends on your competitive environment.”

There are some signs that hip-hop is slowly being more incorporated into AC airplay. Camila Cabello’s “Havana,” her Hot 100 No. 1 hit from last year featuring Young Thug, included the latter’s name on the AC chart, as certain AC stations played the original version with his verse. The song hit No. 5 on the AC chart in a nearly yearlong run.

Meanwhile, Thomas says that he’s noticed a trend of AC stations playing more throwback hip-hop, mostly from the ‘90s, as a way to ease the genre into rotation. The stylings of Will Smith, TLC and Salt-N-Pepa offer a natural way for AC programmers to nod to the changing demographics of their listenership. “Now that we have multiple generations that have grown up listening to hip-hop as kids,” says Peake, “I think that ultimately you’re going to find more of that sound, and more acceptance for that sound, as time goes on.”

Contemporary hip-hop will take longer to integrate, and some hip-hop songs — as well as some hip-hop verses within pop songs — will likely never reach the AC chart, just as Cardi B’s verse on “Girls Like You” did not. Each AC radio station will continue to develop a unique incorporation of hip-hop into its formatting based on how it believes it can best serve its listeners. As time goes on with hip-hop remaining the leading genre, however, programmers will have to game-plan for shifting tastes — in order to, above all, maintain their respective audiences.

“The generation that began hip-hop is getting older,” says Thomas, “and they will evolve our format as they get older with their musical tastes. There are going to be changes, and in radio, we have to be ready for them.”

This story first appeared on Billboard.com.