In The Race For The Song Of The Summer, 'Panda' Runs On A New Track

Aug 5, 2016
Originally published on August 5, 2016 10:00 pm

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.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Every summer has a song, one that you listen to on the beach, at barbecues or in your car with the windows rolled down. And that song is everywhere. But it's getting harder to figure out which song is the song of summer. If you go by downloads, it could be Katy Perry.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RISE")

KATY PERRY: (Singing) Don't be be surprised, I will still rise. Don't doubt it, don't doubt it...

CORNISH: But if you track by radio plays, it could be Drake.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ONE DANCE")

DRAKE: (Singing) Higher power's taking a hold on me.

KYLA: (Singing) Baby, I like your style.

CORNISH: And there's a third contender. Jasmine Garsd of NPR's Planet Money team has that story.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PANDA")

DESIIGNER: (Rapping) Panda, panda, panda, panda, panda. I got broads in Atlanta. Twistin' dope, lean and the Fanta. Credit cards...

JASMINE GARSD, BYLINE: This song, "Panda," has been one of the most streamed songs in America for months. It's a very 2016 story, a hip-hop Cinderella tale for the digital age, with a Kanye West sneaker instead of a glass slipper. It starts off in England.

ADNAN KHAN: I'm from Manchester.

GARSD: Adnan Khan was a college student with a part-time job as a cellphone technician. And he had another side job, he composed beats that rappers could buy off his website.

SOUNDBITE OF DESIIGNER SONG, "PANDA")

KHAN: I sold my first beat for - I think it was around about $30. In two years I made about 20K.

GARSD: One day, he got home from work. He was in a bad mood. And he headed into his studio to make a beat.

(SOUNDBITE OF DESIIGNER SONG, "PANDA")

GARSD: That dark, beefy beat that's tripping all over itself is called trap music. On the other side of the Atlantic, in Bed-Stuy, N.Y., a high school kid was listening, Sidney Royel Selby III. He went by the rap name Desiigner, with two I's. Desiigner bought the beat for just $200. And he laid his tracks on it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PANDA")

DESIIGNER: (Singing) Black X6, Phantom. White X6 looks like a panda. Goin' out like I'm Montana. Hundred killers, hundred hammers...

GARSD: He called the song "Panda," after the black and white BMW X6. He did what aspiring rappers do right now, posted it online for everyone to listen to. It became a street hit, got bumped out of cars of hip-hop fans everywhere. Rapper Kanye West heard it, and he loved it. Kanye decided to add some of his own lyrics and put it on his highly-anticipated album, "The Life Of Pablo."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PANDA - REMIX")

KANYE WEST: (Singing) I just want to feel liberated, I, I, I.

DESIIGNER: (Singing) Panda, panda, panda, panda, panda, panda, panda, panda...

WEST: (Singing) Taking all the stacks, oh.

DESIIGNER: (Rapping) I got broads in Atlanta...

GARSD: There are three versions of this song - the beat made in Manchester, the Desiigner version, from Brooklyn, and then the superstar Kanye West version. Only one can claim to be the song of the summer, and it's not Kanye's. It's Desiigner's. Here's how that happened. Kanye's album was initially only offered on the streaming service Tidal, which you have to pay for. But the original was still out there free to stream on SoundCloud and YouTube and Spotify.

CHRIS MOLANPHY: The viral nature, the way people are discovering this record is an indication that this is the future of hit consumption.

GARSD: Chris Molanphy tracks the music charts for Slate. "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.

MOLANPHY: Streaming is no longer an afterthought, whereas recently as three or four years ago, you scored a hit largely through sale and radio. It is now possible to have a truly massive hit that is led largely by streaming.

GARSD: 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. Kanye, he got indie cred. Adnan Khan, the young producer from Manchester, he got signed on to a label. Desiigner, he got signed on to Kanye's label. And in summer 2016, that counts as a hit. Jasmine Garsd, NPR News, New York.

(SOUNDBITE OF DESIIGNER SONG, "PANDA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.