Last week, Justin Bieber was roundly mocked for sharing a graphic on his Instagram page that instructed fans on how to game streaming numbers in an effort to get his new (uh) ode to marital relations, “Yummy,” to No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100. It included tips like “Create a playlist with ‘Yummy’ on repeat and stream it. Don’t mute it! Play at a low volume. Let it play while you sleep,” and a suggestion that fans from abroad download a VPN to mask their IP addresses so that theirs might count as American streams. Bieber quickly deleted the post, but nothing on the internet is ever really deleted. There were some moralizing scolds who shouted about how Bieber’s attempt to activate a stan army in this way was unfair, cheating the system. But, of course, the charts have been manipulated for decades by payola, CD buybacks by labels, and outright fraud. The fundamental problem with Bieber’s post is that it was undignified.
Contrast it with the response from Roddy Ricch, a comparatively unknown Compton rapper whose own single, “The Box,” just blocked Bieber from that No. 1 spot. Instead of creating his own system to juice the numbers, Roddy tweeted, presumably smirking while he did it:
(It’s reminiscent of six years ago, when a similarly unbothered Compton rapper was blocked from the top Billboard spot by a certain Disney property and tweeted, “If it wasn’t for thatt fukin frozen album I woulda had the #1 album on billboard top 200 too lol. It’s Bool doe.”)
For the uninitiated, Roddy Ricch is a 21-year-old rapper from Compton signed to Atlantic Records. Prior to last month, if you’d heard him playing out of car speakers or in clubs, it was probably either his breakout single, the 2018 bloodletting “Die Young,” or his exuberant contribution to Mustard’s Perfect Ten album, “Ballin’” — or maybe his hook on the late Nipsey Hussle’s Grammy-nominated “Racks in the Middle.” But “The Box,” the second track from his major-label debut Please Excuse Me for Being Antisocial, which debuted at No. 1 in December and returns to No. 1 this week, is on pace to not only blow past his previous songs in terms of popularity, but to become one of the biggest rap hits in recent memory. If you want some sense of how rapidly “The Box” has climbed the charts, when we say “second track” from Roddy’s debut album, that’s “track” as in “has not technically been released as a single yet.” Anecdotally, I’ve had at least a half-dozen conversations this month that go something like, “I love this song, but how is it charting so high?”
To answer, maybe you start with the obvious: “The Box” is arresting from the jump — its opening notes make it sound like 20th Century Fox is looming over South L.A. County. Roddy moves easily between vocal modes, sounding defiant (“I won’t ever sell my soooooouuuuuullllll, and I can back that”), conspiratorial (“Got a bitch that’s looking like Aaliyah — she a model”), or playful — like when he cackles unnervingly at the beginning of the second verse. He raps with verve whether he’s detailing sexual encounters or offering a $100,000 bounty on George Zimmerman’s head. It’s full of tics — little yelps, hairpin turns in tone — and sounds great on stereo systems. It’s strange and eccentric, but not so strange or eccentric that it won’t scan easily for people who are familiar with the rap that’s bubbled on pop radio over the last few years.
Roddy is not so much breaking new stylistic ground as he is arranging existing pieces in a way that is just foreign enough to make him distinct. Combine that with that excellent vocal control and just enough shards of specificity (like when he compares selling out the Novo in Downtown L.A. to Michael Jordan’s flu game) to build out his own mythos, and you have a relatively obvious recipe for a new rap star. There is, of course, the matter of Atlantic’s significant investment in him, plus the priceless early endorsements from established stars on opposite coasts, like Nipsey and Meek Mill. (Roddy’s rise has also seemed to be more or less unaffected by the domestic-violence charges he faced last summer; the L.A. County district attorney’s office would later drop the case, concluding after review that it was without merit.)
And then there are the ways in which various digital channels have contributed to the track’s ascent. While it has little in common, musically speaking, with the four most popular rap songs of last year — including one by Lizzo and two by Post Malone — “The Box” shares one key thing with last year’s biggest rap song, Lil Nas X’s meme hit “Old Town Road,” the last viral hit to deny Bieber a No. 1: massive popularity on the rapidly expanding social media platform TikTok. One gets the impression that the way we (read: critics old enough to rent cars) try to parse TikTok today is like how early man might have tried to describe fire, but “The Box” does not come with any of the obvious hallmarks of a social media hit. There is no prescribed dance, no meme-adjacent syntax, no superstar to anchor the song. In terms of its potency as a no-frills rap hit that can fully cross over, the closest recent analogue is DaBaby’s “Suge.”
While Roddy is an undeniably talented vocalist and occasionally a compelling songwriter, not all of his music is quite so effective. He has a rap for being a bit of a biter — understandable given his age, but intermittently distracting all the same. He frequently adopts the same syntax and vocal intonations as Young Thug, and there are moments on Antisocial when he sounds as if he’s lapsing into karaoke versions of Future (see his vocals during the verses on the otherwise effective “Perfect Time”); there’s the fit of Lil Wayne cosplay on “Moonwalking,” a song that features Lil Durk — another rapper from whom Roddy sometimes borrows. Part of the appeal of “The Box” is that, like “Ballin,’” it’s an example of a young, talented artist moving away from imitation of his influences and toward something like synthesis.