The summer solstice has officially come and gone, and that means two things: First, that UNC sports are officially over for the school year, and second, that we are now in the realm of summer music. Summer songs in the pop world have a particular allure to them, because they have the task of needing to match an outdoorsy vibe as well as having acceptable sing-along or ambient qualities. There’s little wonder why so many pop publications go gaga over trying to decide what each year’s “Song of the Summer” was as soon as the season’s gone, and the summer is often the season that each year’s biggest song in the country is discovered, last year not included because nobody seemed interested in making music at all last year except Ariana Grande... but that’s not what we’re here to talk about. So let’s do a Tar Heel spin on this: How do this year’s charts for the beginning of the summer season match up with UNC sports?
I did this a couple years ago, limiting myself to basketball. The charts are vastly different in 2019 from what they were in 2017, though, so this should be interesting. First up:
Coby White: “Suge (Yeah Yeah)” by DaBaby
DaBaby, not to be confused with Baby or Lil Baby, might have the name of the kind of high school-aged Soundcloud rapper who got one hit thanks to a TikTok meme that we see all too often on the charts these days, but don’t let that fool you. He’s 27, has been working in the industry for a while now, and released his first album through Interscope, a legit label, after a few mixtapes. And he’s also actually got a distinctive style and actual flow. But here’s where this comparison really starts: DaBaby reps North Carolina! He grew up in Charlotte, making him the first North Carolina-based MC to hit the mainstream since J. Cole, whose first album released in 2011 but who has been relevant since about 2008... and Cole may be among the best hip-hop artists active, but it’s been a while since we had some new blood from the North Carolina scene. And right now, Chicago Bulls fans (the smart ones, anyways) are saying just about the same thing about their newly drafted point guard. The last time they used a high pick on a guard from UNC who had been the best player in North Carolina, it turned out pretty well. Both White and DaBaby will be hoping for at least a shade of their predecessors’ success as their careers move on.
Javonte Williams: “Wow.” by Post Malone
This one hurts me a little, because I don’t really like giving any credit to the culture vulture that is Post Malone. But after an absolutely atrocious start to his career (Seriously, “White Iverson” remains unforgivable), he’s really found his lane on the border between pop-trap and weed-drenched R&B, and has been putting out low-key bangers for the last couple of years. Gotta recognize it. “Wow.” is about his rise from obscurity growing up in Syracuse, NY before starting an independent band in LA and finally getting recognized despite not being from a big rap scene, and revolves around this lyric in the chorus:
It’s a moment when I show up, got ‘em sayin’, “Wow”
Rising sophomore Williams has a similar story. A two-star recruit from Teachey, North Carolina (a Wilmington-area town with a population of less than 500) who saw his 247 Composite ranking jump 1500 spots as soon has he’d committed to UNC, Williams has done nothing but turn heads in practice as soon as he stepped on campus. He impressed the previous staff enough to the point where they didn’t redshirt him despite having three more-than-capable running backs on the roster, and Williams saw action in every game in 2018. And while his first few attempts weren’t super inspiring as he got used to the speed of the ACC and he either took what was available (three of his first six carries went for 6, 8, and 13 yards on great blocking) or went down immediately (the other three went for 3, 1, and -1). Towards the end of the season, as injuries moved him up the order, though, he started finding daylight consistently, capping off his season with a 16-carry, 83-yard performance with a touchdown against N.C. State. He’s reportedly been lights out in spring ball, too. He’s apparently moved up the depth chart enough to the point that former starter and entrenched rotation back Jordon Brown transferred to Kansas State for his final year of college football. He was arguably UNC’s most impressive offensive player in the Spring Game, and looks primed for an incredible year as a part of the potential 3-headed UNC backfield monster. From humble beginnings, he’s on the precipice of being a star. “Got ‘em sayin’ ‘Wow’” indeed.
Mack Brown: “Sucker” by the Jonas Brothers
“Sucker”’s release as a single announced the (probably) temporary reunion of the Jonas Brothers, who rose to prominence as a teen boyband in the mid-late 2000’s before going on hiatus. Back when they got big, the Jonas Brothers fit perfectly into the musical zeitgeist of the time: they were managed by Disney, just like about every teen idol of the time, they made safe pop rock, which fit right into the charts, and maintained a squeaky clean image. Mack Brown’s peak at UNC was a little longer ago than that, but I think the parallels are pretty obvious: Brown got his football education from the big names of the day, including Larry Jones and Barry Switzer, before taking the reins at UNC and making it a national powerhouse not known for an innovative system, but for doing what you were supposed to do as a football team in the 90’s. Fast forward to 2019, and both the Jonas Brothers and Mack Brown (with UNC) are reunited after a 6-year hiatus, but while they are unmistakably themselves, they’ve also placed an emphasis on keeping up with the times rather than succeed via nostalgia, which was a very apparent and lucrative option for both. “Sucker” features 2010’s pop heavyweights Ryan Tedder, Louis Bell, and Frank Dukes in production and songwriting, who give the song a very modern feel for an era that doesn’t really care about boybands. And Brown came back to the Tar Heels, as has now been widely reported, with an emphasis on being like Oklahoma, the program that has produced the last two Heisman Trophy winners, #1 overall NFL Draft picks, and has put the spotlight on the beginnings of an Air Raid revolution in Power Five football. He hired some of the best available assistants and position coaches in an effort to not just be on the curve, but ahead of it. We’ll find out this September if he can replicate or even come close to the Brothers’ success, as they’ve been a mainstay on pop radio and the Billboard Top 10 for a few months now.
UNC Football: “Old Town Road” by Lil Nas X and Billy Ray Cyrus
That brings me to this next one. A genre-bending song by a young kid with some legitimate talent but no real direction to his career, mired at first in controversy and underperformance relative to cultural relevance, before somebody previously thought to be a has-been came through to legitimize it through reputation, then surprisingly delivering a thoroughly modern performance that was better than anybody expected? I talked about Mack already, but I think it’s important to emphasize that like Lil Nas X, UNC isn’t hopeless, personnel-wise. The kid proved to have chops beyond the meme with his recently-released album, and UNC has repeatedly been said both internally and by other coaches and media to not at all look like a team that won 5 games in its last two years. They have ample skill position talent and almost never got blown out last year despite being hampered by the lack of a FBS-caliber quarterback and a rash of injuries that would have been unprecedented if 2017 hadn’t happened. The team is just in need of a new direction, and Mack Brown’s commitment to creating a power running Air Raid team is the kind of genre blend, hopefully for us, that has Old Town Road blocking the biggest names in pop music from taking the top spot on the charts.
UNC Basketball: “Dancing With a Stranger” by Sam Smith and Normani
Hear me out here. The background: Sam Smith is an established hitmaker, who’s had success with both his own ballad-tempo songs such as “Stay With Me” and “I’m Not the Only One” as well as in more uptempo EDM collaborations, most famously “Latch” by Disclosure. He’s never featured in a duet, though, and certainly not with a female vocalist, so this song is new territory for him. Normani herself had a hit last year with “Love Lies,” a duet with Khalid, but before that, was a member of the girl group Fifth Harmony and is pretty new to the pop scene as a solo artist. In that sense, this song was fairly uncharted territory for both artists.
Now that that’s out of the way, to the UNC side. Roy Williams’ Heels have had success with a variety of different roster constructions. They’ve had veteran-laden teams that were sure to require a total rebuild the next year (2009), they’ve had teams with important contributions from all four classes on the team (2012 comes to mind), and they’ve had teams like last year’s, with high-powered freshmen and talented seniors with a bit less meat in the middle. Even so, next year will represent a kind of team construction we haven’t seen before. It’ll be, in all likelihood, run by a freshman in Cole Anthony. Garrison Brooks, a junior, will shoulder a significant part of the load as well, and a senior Brandon Robinson (my, how time flies) will be expected to contribute. But what makes this upcoming team different is that it’ll be in all likelihood relying on big-time contributions from a couple of graduate transfers, Christian Keeling and Justin Pierce, who might be established in college basketball but not to playing at the level that UNC competes in nightly, even if they’ve played a couple of games against ACC teams (in essence, the Normanis of this equation). It’s to the point where my colleague Joe posited that we might be seeing an entire new era of UNC basketball emerge.
And I can’t go without mentioning that the song is an absolute bop. The totally unexpected collaboration works flawlessly. It’s sultry in a way you don’t expect from a duet where the two singers don’t seem to even be singing to each other (Smith’s homosexuality has not been hidden in his pop persona), it sounds incredible, and their voices blend incredibly smoothly. The pairing may have been unexpected, just like UNC’s new acceptance of grad transfers after a prior emphasis on homegrown talent. But early returns are promising, as we get profiles of how quickly Pierce and Keeling have acclimated to being Tar Heels, and we can only hope that this new, unexpected marriage turns out for the best.
Agree? Disagree? Have any more comps to add? Let us know in the comments!