They couldn't be any more different. One is among the premier voices in hip hop today; the other is one of this decade's most reliable pop stars. One is further proof that hip hop is back as a force to be reckoned with on the pop charts; the other takes lessons from hip hop and melds them into an appealing pop track. One got its top spot from more modern methods, with little help from Top 40 radio; the other became a hit the more traditional way, with longevity and wall-to-wall radio play helping propel it to the top. And yet, Kendrick Lamar and Bruno Mars have both managed to knock Ed Sheeran off the top spot of the Hot 100. Let's examine both of these songs and see why they came out on top.
Lamar hadn't released an official studio album since his masterpiece To Pimp A Butterfly pierced the American mainstream, and last month finally saw his new album Damn roll out to the public. Understandably, the want for new music from him is palpable. His lead single "Humble" was our first taste of what was to come. Perhaps nothing could top the statement of purpose that Butterfly was, but "Humble" is still a step down from that effort. The song comes across as a diss track, which is weird considering that Lamar doesn't seem to have any high-profile feuds with anyone, unlike some other rappers. The song is tightly constructed, with a good backing track, but the lyrics seem beneath someone who had a song become the unofficial anthem of the Black Lives Matter movement. Still, it's got its highlights. This is Kendrick Lamar we're talking about; he could be rapping the dictionary and make out sound inventive and energetic. But "Humble" doesn't gel like it should. Maybe once another song of his reaches the No. 1 spot, we can see where he's taking us.
With Mars, we already know where he's taking us. "That's What I Like" continues the path laid down by "24K Magic" from a few months ago: A high-energy, swaggering song where Mars brags and entices whomever he's singing to. "Like" is more of a come-on than a brag, but Mars' confidence is at an all-time high here. Like "Magic", "Like" borrows lessons from decades past: hip hop's boastfulness (and in the case of "Like", snare drum beats), and the carefree attitude of dance music from the 70s and 90s. "Like" has the same rhythmic snap that made "Magic" so crisp, and the bass line helps smooth things out. At the center, of course, is Mars' voice. While The Weeknd continues to peg himself as the next Michael Jackson, Mars has already made that case. If anyone can pull off a cover version of "Bad" or "Smooth Criminal", it would be Mars. His charismatic, slightly rough voice is more versatile and relaxed that The Weeknd's perpetually anxious croon (though he does seem to be relaxing some as of late). "Like" isn't in the same class as previous chart-toppers like "Just The Way You Are" and "Locked Out Of Heaven", or other gems like "Treasure", but it makes the case that Mars is one tremendous pop star.
No matter the case, the fact that there's movement again with the Hot 100 is a good thing, at least in theory. While we're not at the "Song of the Summer" phase yet, it's refreshing to see things shaking up at the top. Will we see another newbie next week? We'll see.