There have always been many fronts on which the battle to crown the song of the summer is fought. The biggest song on pop radio isn’t always the song that sells the most. The lyric that lends itself to the season can sometimes be overwhelmed by a hook that sounds best coming out of a car window.
This year, the results are perhaps more divided than usual. What makes a hit? In 2016, it depends on what you measure. If you’re talking downloads, Katy Perry’s new Olympic theme, “Rise,” has a lot of most muscle. If you only track radio play, it could be Drake’s somber party anthem, “One Dance.” If you’re just looking at the Internet, you can’t ignore Desiigner’s “Panda,” one of the most-streamed songs in America in recent months.
“Panda” is a hip-hop Cinderella story for the digital age, with a custom Kanye West sneaker instead of a glass slipper. The tale begins in Manchester, England, where Adnan Khan was a college student with one part time job as a cell phone technician and a side job composing beats that he sold to rappers on his website. He goes by the producer name Menace.
“I sold my first beat for about 30 dollars,” he says. “In two years I made around $20K.” One day, he got home from work in a bad mood. He went into his studio and made a dark, beefy beat tripping all over itself, in the style of trap music.
On the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, in Bed Stuy, New York, a high school student named Sidney Royel Selby III heard that beat. Selby, who raps under the name Desiigner, bought the beat for $200 and laid a stuttering, nearly monotone vocal track over the top, accented with wild ad libs. He called the track “Panda,” after a car, a white BMW X6 with black wheels. And last December, he did what most aspiring rappers do right now: He posted it online for everyone to listen to, free of charge. It became a street hit, got bumped out of cars, and made its way to the ears of Kanye West, who loved it so much he added a few of his own lyrics and then put the song on his own highly anticipated album, The Life of Pablo in February.
By now, there are three versions of this song. There’s the beat made in Manchester; then there’s Desiigner’s version from Brooklyn. And the Kanye West version. But only one can claim to be the song of summer– and believe it or not, it’s not West’s version. It’s Desiigner’s. Here’s at least part of why: West’s album was initially only offered on the streaming service Tidal, which you have to pay for. Desiigner’s version was still out there, free to stream on SoundCloud and YouTube and Spotify.
Chris Molanphy, who tracks the music charts for Slate, says that viral songs and videos are the future of music consumption. “Panda” hit number one on the Billboard Hot 100, and not because of radio play or because people bought it. Molanphy says its success shows how hard it is to measure the song of the summer today: “Streaming is no longer an afterthought. Whereas as recently as three to four years ago you scored a hit by sale or radio, it is now possible to have a truly massive hit led largely by streaming.”
Whether or not he meant to, with Panda, Desiigner practically gave out a free product, so that he could get a platform and start cashing in later. But it was a big win for everyone. West— he got indie cred. Adnan Khan, a.k.a. Menace, the young producer from Manchester, got signed onto a label. Desiigner, he got signed onto West’s GOOD Music label.
And in the summer of 2016, that all adds up to a hit.