Post Malone's looping gamble
From a lyrical standpoint, Post Malone and 21 Savage's "rockstar" is a reimagining of the preening guitar god as a napping slug lord. Don't let the Kill Bill-style swordplay in the video confuse you: This is a dour, half-warbled party track in the vein of Future's DS2 era and this year's similarly sleepy "XO Tour Lif3" by Lil Uzi Vert. Like "Black Beatles" by Rae Sremmurd and countless other rap hits, it views rock mythology through a hip-hop lens. ("Threw a TV out the window of the Montage," raps Malone.) And, like "Black Beatles," "rockstar" was a monster chart hit, grabbing the No. 1 spot on the Billboard Hot 100 in a year that's seen rap music reemerge as a pop force in ways it hasn't been since the mid-2000s.
This No. 1 achievement -- something veteran stars like Katy Perry, Miley Cyrus, and P!nk couldn't pull off this year -- was unlocked by doing something unprecedented: Soon after "rockstar" dropped on September 15, Republic released a YouTube loop of the chorus that ran for 3 minutes and 38 seconds -- the length of the actual song. This all-chorus version dropped Post Malone and 21 Savage's verses and stretched the song's gooey center like a piece of Laffy Taffy. It's a move common to amateur DJs on YouTube -- not something major labels do to promote a hot new track. The video is no longer available, but according to this SPIN write-up of the ensuing controversy, the loop, which The New Yorker noted was "presented unabashedly as if it were the full song," still racked up 42 million plays in under four weeks.
If you got tired of hearing the chorus, the video's bio directed you to a wide range of paid streaming services to hear the full track. (At the time, the full version of "rockstar" was not available on YouTube in an official capacity.) In a sense, the video was a commercial or a "sizzle reel" for the song, but according to Billboard's rules, which count any use of a song in a YouTube video for over 30 seconds as a stream, the millions of "plays" counted toward the song's total and were worked into the weighted formula that determines the song's chart position. While the exact math that determines the Hot 100 is a closely guarded trade secret, there is a separate Streaming Songs chart that ranks songs by streaming data.
The YouTube loop wasn't the only factor that drove Post Malone up the charts, but it certainly played a role. "US streams for that clip do contribute to our songs charts, the same way an instrumental track or a remix of song would count towards the main song’s placement if downloaded or streamed," said Billboard in a statement at the time. (Malone himself was a little more defensive: "Well the song is good so probably not the only reason why.") In a statement, a YouTube spokesperson told Thrillist: "Loop videos that feature misleading and inaccurate metadata violate YouTube policies and we are actively working to have them removed. Further, any upload of a song intended to mislead a user (preview, truncated, looped) posted on YouTube to look like the original song will not contribute to any charts."
The song didn't go away, either. Malone's Jim Morrison-style antics unseated Cardi B's "Bodak Yellow," another insurrectionist and grimy rap surprise, from the top slot the week of October 28, and sat at the top of the charts for eight consecutive weeks before being toppled by Beyoncé and Ed Sheeran's "Perfect" on December 11. As Slate's chart expert Christopher Molanphy pointed out at the time, this is hardly the first time clever tricks have been deployed to shoot up the charts -- "Bodak Yellow" rode the waves of a perfectly timed Kodak Black remix to grab its No. 1 spot and radio station payola used to be a common practice -- but the method was novel.
By creating a loop, Republic found a loophole.