There are three kinds of people who watch the Super Bowl:
The first are those who are football fans who look forward to the game, the player storylines, cheering for the team they have deemed worthy of glory, and reacting in ways they find appropriate to the game’s actions.
The second are those who “just watch for the commercials” and consider a company competing for the title of funniest commercial to be that year’s champion. They crave new catchphrases, gut laughs, and moving heartwarmers.
The third are in for the shortest amount of time. They are the halftime fans. People who get to see the biggest musicians perform a fifteen-minute set that they essentially get to view for free. It’s hard to blame them. There have been iconic moments of performance history that occurred on the halftime stage. However, one thing the halftime show has been lacking as of late is diversity in the genre. And I say that music fans should demand and expect more out of their halftime show.
It’s high time a hip-hop artist headlined the Super Bowl Halftime Show. Let me overexplain why with some history, recent trends, and how we can accomplish this in a way that makes both hip-hop heads and the general public happy.
A BRIEF HISTORY OF THE SUPER BOWL HALFTIME SHOW
The original halftime show would be virtually unbelievable by today’s standards. In Super Bowl I, your headlining performers were The University of Arizona Symphonic Marching Band, the Grambling State Marching Band, and the Anaheim High School Drill Team. They played one song together. Furthermore, they had 300 pigeons, 10,000 balloons, and a man riding a jetpack. It was bananas.
The first singing artists to perform at a Super Bowl were the legendary Ella Fitzgerald and Carol Channing in a tribute to Louis Armstrong during Super Bowl VI. This event would also mark the first time a college marching band did not perform, choosing instead to have the U.S. Marine Corps Drill Team. However, this would not mark the last time a college marching band headlined. A marching band, usually Grambling State, would at least appear in the show until Super Bowl XXVI. This show would be historic for one big reason: it was the year they lost 22 Million viewers. See, in 1992 the hugely popular sketch show In Living Color decided to go head to head against an increasingly stale halftime program and did a live show in the exact slot the show was scheduled. The comedy smashed the performance in the ratings and the NFL knew they had to address this and appeal to a modern audience.
Enter Michael Jackson.
Michael Jackson changed everything about the show. While he was not the first contemporary artist to perform nor was he was the first to perform his own original music, (that honor goes to New Kids on the Block) he was the first to perform as a solo act and the first to perform without one of those lame themes or tributes the show did every year. He was also the first who did an entire set of original songs. It was a concert. It was a visual spectacle! Many still consider this the greatest halftime show ever 25 years later. Nobody was going to try and challenge The King of Pop to a ratings showdown. From this point forward, the NFL decided they would do everything they could to land a contemporary performer.
It would take some getting used to. The year after Michael Jackson changed television history, they lined up a slew of country artists and after that grabbed way too many people for some bizarre Indiana Jones theme. Fearing a drop again, they turned to another member of the pop royal family, Diana Ross, to save them in Super Bowl XXX. Ross boasted the longest setlist yet with a whopping ten numbers performed. This would be the pattern. A few years of tributes with multiple performers and a solo act popping up here and there. The trend of modern, relevant groups of artists met an unofficial end following XXXVIII when Justin Timberlake and Janet Jackson suffered a “wardrobe malfunction” during their closing number.
Thus the NFL turned squarely to solo acts, favoring legends of the industry over the youth of the modern day. Paul McCartney, The Rolling Stones, Prince, Tom Petty, and Bruce Springsteen set the tone for what we now understand as the Super Bowl show. The NFL abandoned this older superstar idea for the show following an aged and disappointing performance from The Who.
After The Who, modern artists became the trend once more. The Black Eyed Peas eased the transition by including Slash, Madonna headlined with Nicki Minaj and Cee Lo Green the following year, but once Beyoncé was granted the show, we haven’t turned back from modern pop sensations. Bruno Mars, Katy Perry, Coldplay, Lady Gaga, and most recently Justin Timberlake have been the stars with varying levels of success and failure.
If we look at the trends of history, we can understand when a shift happens, why it happens, and what we shift into.
First, the Super Bowl remained relatively unchanged for over 20 years until somebody was able to actually challenge them for ratings, forcing them to make a fully committed to the change. So, how did Super Bowl LII do with the ratings? Well, the good news is that streaming has definitely changed how we view the event. That being said, the Super Bowl drew in the 10th most viewership for the big game of all time, but that is also a loss for the big game, the lowest in seven years. In addition, while it didn’t directly compete with the Super Bowl, the show This Is Us, which aired immediately after, clobbered the Super Bowl in sheer increase. While the NFL saw a dip, This Is Us doubled its viewership. This could be for many reasons. Uncounted numbers in illegal streaming, lack of diversity from the AFC, lack of a real marketable star (before the game) for the Eagles, or Justin Timberlake not being the draw the league thought he was.
Next, it almost seems like the “things need to change” mantra has once again resurfaced and caused an outcry. Timberlake’s boyhood shenanigans plunged us into an era of classic rockers and now he returns toting no special guests, minimal spectacle, barely singing live, and turning a 13-year-old into a meme. Whoop-dee-doo. JT could once again call for a shift in the show, not due to heavy controversy, but through showing us how stale the format has become.
Lastly, as people’s tastes change, as does the halftime show. The NFL audience is only getting younger. Michael Jackson was a beloved performer across all platforms. As that generation of the 90s who loved MJ aged, the league catered to that demographic again and brought in “all-time” caliber performances. But then the audience changed. Many new NFL fans may not have grown up with The Rolling Stones or Prince. So the league shifted to more modern performers yet again. But now here’s the question: how modern are these performers? Katy Perry, Lady Gaga, Coldplay, and Justin Timberlake are all now pushing 10+ years in the public eye. Their singles are not the immediate smashes that they once were. Put bluntly, these artists, while undeniable stars, may not appeal on the mass level they once did.
Which prompts us to ask: where do we turn?
The long-held stranglehold of pop and rock has been loosened and we can now bow to our new champion: the rappers and producers of hip-hop. As the new year came, so did the critical declaration ushering us into an era where we now hear more rap on the popular radio stations than ever before. People like Kendrick Lamar can now release an album where every song hits the Billboard Top 100. That’s Beatles levels of prolific. Even modern pop stars now turn to rappers to boost their songs. Hip-hop now has dozens upon dozens of subgenres and hitmakers, and it is about time the NFL caught up with this trend and banked on it while the banking is ripe.
The proof has been in the pudding for years. The first ever rapper to ever play the Super Bowl was Queen Latifah as a special guest of Boyz II Men in 1998. She performed “Paper” and blew the roof off the joint. In 2004, P.Diddy was overshadowed by Janet Jackson’s misfortune but don’t forget that Mo’ Money Mo’ Problems banged that year. Nicki Minaj was received incredibly well alongside Madonna. The most memorable moment of Katy Perry’s show, outside of Left Shark, was the glorious return of Missy Elliott. And may we never forget that Beyoncé performing her own hip-hop number in “Formation” was the well-needed break from the Coldplay snooze fest we were all begging for. Hip-hop and the Super Bowl have a rich, well-received history. Best of all, hip-hop is such a collaborative genre that you could easily pull from a wealth of guest stars if you’re too afraid to let a rapper ride solo. You wouldn’t even need to change the style and flow of the current formula!
In addition to history seeming to signal it’s next round of needed change, the stars seem to be aligning perfectly for a rap star to command the hip-hop stage right away. The next city to host the Super Bowl is Atlanta, one of the single most important cities for hip-hop history. The birthplace of southern rap! Hell, the biggest rap genre in the country right now, trap rap, is literally named after the very city the next game is in. After that? Miami and Houston. I mean, come on. You can’t afford to miss the golden opportunities that have been presented to really get these stadiums bumping.
We have built a strong, solid argument here. Now, we just need the right artists. Let’s go over this in segments: Safest picks for the business savvy, high risk/high reward picks if you’re looking to make an impact and a special segment where hip-hop heads would just lose their minds.
Drake doing anything has become an event to the music world. Drake’s increasingly large collection of hits continue to blur the lines between pop and hip-hop, lending the Toronto rapper to possibly be the perfect transition into some more exploratory halftime shows. Drake has a great message in his performances and is a great showman to boot. And let’s face it, the possibilities with hearing Hotline Bling as a Super Bowl performance are too fun to ignore.
If we’re talking hip-hop royalty that can understand that this is a business, Jay-Z is your guy. The longstanding rapper is still as fresh as ever with the recent success of 4:44 and has a Rolodex of special guests from all over music to pull from. Best of all, Jay-Z is smart, flashy, and can hide something huge for an insane amount of time. Imagine: JAY-Z is mid-set when all of sudden you hear an iconic “unh” in the darkness. Spotlight flashes. It’s Kanye. You didn’t know. Nobody knew. Chills.
Already having some Super Bowl experience, Minaj has sharpened her tongue and the undeniable queen of the genre can put on a hell of a show. Minaj still reigns as a top 10 most played female artist on Spotify and her popularity cannot be denied or ignored. Her adaptable style of hip-hop gives a similarly wide range to Drake while focusing squarely on hip hop. Still hugely popular, still crushing it in sales and ratings, Nicki would be a force of nature that would blow the roof off the dome.
High Risk/High Reward
Kendrick is on top of the hip-hop world right now. The consensus top rapper is no stranger to stardom or talent as his last three albums are and continue to be immensely popular and titans in the industry. The risk factor lies in the political and emotional nature of his lyrics. Lamar can generate controversy, which is a big risk for the NFL given their recent struggles with handling player protests, but it could also be the perfect move to make. Like it or not, controversy pushes views. Those who love K-Dot will want to watch and share what he does and those who hate what he says will have something to yell about, causing this show and the game itself to be discussed for months afterward.
Future serves as a hometown hero pick for Super Bowl LIII. Coming out of Atlanta, Future’s production-heavy take on the genre and his ability to produce new music at an insane rate has catapulted him to a status of unexpected popularity. Future’s risk comes from alienating an older audience who may not seek out or even enjoy the style of hip-hop that Future has been creating. In addition, compared to previous artists listed, Future has a more laid back approached and doesn’t bring as high an energy as others on this list.
The largest group in trap have made a big name for themselves in the party scene. After hitting it big with Bad and Boujee, the rap trio has been a nonstop train of hit after hit. Their career has been short, but with two hit albums and a slew of songs on the Billboard, there’s no denying the groups staying power. Now, Migos presents the challenge of not having much in the family-friendly category as their promiscuous lyrics, while generally accepted by their listening audience, do stand in direct opposition to many of the NFL’s standards.
FOR THE FANS
Chance the Rapper
Hip hop’s favorite independent success story can do no wrong. Critical acclaim, actively avoiding labels for fear of his work being stifled, winning a Grammy for an album that never saw a physical release, and then capping his wild success off with huge chunks of charity work in oppressed communities. Chance makes music to get inspired to with a live program that is big, exciting, and a joy to behold. While not exactly a household name just yet, you’d be guaranteed a dynamite performance and launch further the career of a terrific artist and role model.
Another critically acclaimed independent artist, Gambino has the advantage of being recognizable by television and soon Star Wars fans. Donald Glover’s hip-hop alias has been a consistent ringer in the rap world. Glover has also recently announced that his next album will be his final one under the Gambino moniker. What a great eclipse to what has been a ridiculously successful career for an actor/rapper. All previous attempts at that double have been…well, Mark Wahlberg. Maybe Ludacris, depending on how seriously you take Fast and Furious. Though risky in much the same way that Chance is from a sheer popularity standpoint, if you want a terrific performer looking to go out with a bang for the whole world to see, make sure Gambino is in the building.
Okay. Listen, I know. Outkast broke up. And I know they tried the whole reunion thing in 2014 at Coachella and it was awkward. And yes, Andre 3000 probably has no interest in the most corporate of all corporate musical events. I GET IT. But, Outkast put Atlanta on the map in the hip-hop world. They redefined what the genre was capable of and introduced us to some of the greatest hip-hop wordsmiths we may ever know. If not a full-blown Outkast show, a tribute or a shout out would speak volumes to showcase the pioneers of what is now a key city in hip-hop music.
The time is now, NFL.