'Road' To Record-Breaking: How Lil Nas X Is Making History

Jul 29, 2019
Originally published on July 30, 2019 2:00 pm

Lil Nas X has officially broken the record for the longest-running No. 1 single on Billboard's Hot 100 list thanks to his breakout hit "Old Town Road." Billboard announced on July 29 that the genre-jumping song has topped the chart for 17 straight weeks. But what's the significance of such a feat?

"What's most remarkable about the run that the song has had is that it has literally dodged all of the major contenders for song of the summer by some real pop heavyweights," pop critic and chart analyst Chris Molanphy says. Since being officially released via Columbia Records and skyrocketing to No. 1 in April, the "Old Town Road" remix featuring Billy Ray Cyrus has edged out music by pop music darlings Taylor Swift, Shawn Mendes, Ed Sheeran and more from the top spot.

In order to logistically pull this off, Molanphy says consistency is key across three major metrics: Sales, streaming and airplay. According to Molanphy, "Old Town Road" has been "dominant" in all three fields since its release.

"Streaming has overwhelmingly been the reason why 'Old Town Road' has stayed at number one so many weeks," Molanphy explains. "But it's also been a big hit at radio and it has outsold most songs on downloads for much of the last three to four months."

If the original track, which was released independently by the rapper on Dec. 3, 2018 and first gained rapid popularity thanks to the music app TikTok, wasn't enough, three subsequent remixes — first featuring Cyrus, then with Young Thug and Mason Ramsey, then with rapper RM of the K-pop supergroup BTS — undoubtedly tipped the scales in Lil Nas X's favor.

In claiming this 17-week throne, "Old Town Road" has beat out the other contenders who've held the previous record of 16 weeks — 1995's "One Sweet Day" by Mariah Carey and Boyz II Men and 2017's "Despacito" remix by Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee featuring Justin Bieber. Molanphy points out that all three of these long-reigning No. 1's, at 16 and 17 weeks respectively, were collaboration records that paired larger-than-life artists together and created a moment in the music world, whether it be two R&B titans teaming up or an unexpected bilingual crossover. "They're kind of event singles, if you will," Molanphy says.

In the case of "Old Town Road," Molanphy thinks the contention surrounding the song's genre designation is what propelled it into being an "event record."

"Folks debating whether or not it qualified for the genre of that Lil Nas X was claiming it belonged in; country music," he says. "And then, to sort of step it up a notch, he invites an actual country veteran, Billy Ray Cyrus, to do a vocal on the first remix and that just kicked it into overdrive and turned what was already a very viral song into a total event."

Outside of the music industry push, the 20-year-old artist has been able to keep the momentum on his song going by intuitively harnessing the power of the Internet. Lil Nas X teasing remixes on Twitter, adding sly cameos to the music video and creating residual viral moments all helped to keep the conversation around the song feel current.

"All throughout this 17 weeks, it's been a breadcrumb trail of new information — exciting new content, if you will, memes, if you will — related to 'Old Town Road' and I think that's gone a long way toward keeping it front of mind with certainly a younger generation and American culture in general," Molanphy notes.

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

It's time to play this song on our air again.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "OLD TOWN ROAD")

LIL NAS X: (Singing) Yeah, I'm going to take my horse to the Old Town Road. I'm going to ride until I can't no more.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

It's official. Earlier today, "Old Town Road" by Lil Nas X broke the record for most weeks at the top of Billboard's Hot 100 list ever.

CHRIS MOLANPHY: I mean, this is pretty major news.

CORNISH: That's Chris Molanphy, a chart analyst and pop culture critic. He says staying at the top of this chart is no easy feat.

MOLANPHY: This record has stood for more than 23 years, since the spring of 1996, when it was set at 16 weeks by Mariah Carey and Boyz II Men's song "One Sweet Day."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ONE SWEET DAY")

MARIAH CAREY: (Singing) And I know you're shining down on me from heaven.

MOLANPHY: It was very nearly broken in 2017 when the song "Despacito" tied it at 16 weeks.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DESPACITO")

LUIS FONSI: (Singing in Spanish).

SHAPIRO: That 16-week streak ended when a new song by Taylor Swift jumped to the top.

CORNISH: But no artist could surpass "Old Town Road's" streak, despite many efforts.

MOLANPHY: It has literally dodged all of the major contenders for song of the summer by some real pop heavyweights.

SHAPIRO: Heavyweights like Taylor Swift, Post Malone, Ed Sheeran and Justin Bieber, Billie Eilish. None could compete with the 20-year-old come-from-nowhere success story of Lil Nas X.

MOLANPHY: It's impressive because to stay at the top of the charts, you have to have consistency across the three metrics that control the Hot 100 - sales, streaming and airplay.

CORNISH: And much of that streaming includes the multiple remixes of Old Town Road with big names like country star Billy Ray Cyrus.

SHAPIRO: Or Mason Ramsey, the kid yodelling internet sensation.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "OLD TOWN ROAD (REMIX)")

MASON RAMSEY: (Singing) Hold up, let me tell you all something. You can't tell me nothing.

CORNISH: Even BTS, the wildly popular Korean boy band.

MOLANPHY: Lil Nas X and his team are no fools. All of these remixes have been largely the same bones of the same original song.

CORNISH: And they're all added together as one song on Billboard's chart.

SHAPIRO: So how does Lil Nas X plan to celebrate the big achievement? He told TMZ.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LIL NAS X: I may buy Mariah Carey some roses and send them to her because I love her.

SHAPIRO: We love her, too, Lil Nas X. We love her, too.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ONE SWEET DAY")

CAREY: (Singing) And I know you're shining down on me from heaven like so many friends we've lost along the way. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.