With this latest smash, the singer is now one of the most bankable pop radio artists working. How did she rise so high so quickly?
“Tell me, how’s it feel sittin’ up there? Feeling so high, but too far away to hold me / You know I’m the one who put you up there, name in the sky, does it ever get lonely?”
The first half of the chorus to Halsey’s “Without Me,” which hits No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 this week, is a seething mix of anger, cynicism, pettiness and pain, directed at an ex who used her until her love was no longer vital. Halsey’s voice, simmering in the preceding verses, boils over on the word “feel,” as if the emotion coursing through her veins is too unadulterated to keep in check. Before she delivers the second half of the chorus and the incredulous hook of the song — “Thinking you could li-i-i-i-ive without me” — the bottom of the production drops out, and Halsey is alone with her devastation, save for a few finger snaps and somber piano stabs.
As her first solo Hot 100-topper, “Without Me” feels like a tipping point for Halsey as a A-list popular artist. It hasn’t taken a ton of time for her to reach this type of superstardom. Two years ago, Halsey was a promising pop personality, capable of commanding sizable live audiences but unproven on Top 40 radio, save for her feature on the 2016 Chainsmokers smash “Closer.”
Today, she has become one of the most reliable pop radio artists working, thanks to the multiple hits from her 2017 sophomore album Hopeless Fountain Kingdom and the singles that have followed in its wake. In the same week that “Without Me” reaches the chart pinnacle, “Eastside,” her moody collaboration with Benny Blanco and Khalid, reaches a new peak of No. 11 on the Hot 100. Halsey has now collected six top 20 Hot 100 singles -- five of them in the past two years alone -- and posted in the top 20 of Billboard’s 2018 year-end Top Artists and Radio Songs Artists charts, respectively.
Halsey has always had the type of distinct yet malleable voice perfectly suited for this moment in pop. She can deliver a sticky hook to break up rap verses (as she does on the G-Eazy collaboration “Him & I”), effectively operate over R&B production (going toe-to-toe with Khalid on “Eastside”) and belt out a gigantic pop refrain (like the titular declaration of “Bad at Love”) without sacrificing any of her self-possessed attitude.
Yet since the release of her intriguing yet uneven debut album, 2015’s Badlands, the key to Halsey’s growing success has been her notable songwriting development. Compared to Badlands tracks like “Ghost” and “New Americana,” which were ambitious but overly cliched, more recent singles “Now or Never,” “Alone” and “Eastside” are more nuanced, capturing romantic strife, social anxiety and dashed professional dreams with more evocative detail.
In particular, “Bad at Love,” which peaked at No. 5 on the Hot 100 last year and features Halsey reflecting on past romances with both men and women, will be remembered as a groundbreaking radio hit for its normalization of same-sex attraction — a legacy that would have been dulled if the song had not been a razor-sharp self-assessment with a killer pre-chorus. Halsey has quickly become more comfortable building the stories around her big hooks; “Without Me” is perhaps the most confident yarn she’s spun thus far, but it’s the continuation of an upward trend, too.
It’s also a fairly unexpected win. “Without Me” was released in early October as a standalone single not tied to any album and smack in the middle of Halsey promoting “Eastside.” (In the same week that “Without Me” dropped, Halsey performed “Eastside” with Benny Blanco and Khalid at the 2018 American Music Awards.) The song has spent the past three months rising up the chart without any major “narrative” attached to it. It’s not a comeback single for Halsey, or a major deviation from her recent sound. There’s no meme, or viral video or featured artist that is helping it attract new listeners. The bridge of “Without Me” interpolates Justin Timberlake’s “Cry Me a River,” which is interesting, but certainly not a catalyst for an explosion of streams. And, of course, fans have speculated that the “Without Me” lyrics nod to Halsey’s relationship with G-Eazy, but Halsey has denied that the song is about one person.
In the end, it doesn’t really matter. There’s no cheat code that “Without Me” used to get to the top of the Hot 100 -- it’s just a really polished, successful pop single, the type that Halsey has been tossing out more and more frequently. It’s also her first solo single to reach the top 10 of the Streaming Songs chart, where it’s peaked at No. 3 -- difficult territory for traditional pop acts to dominate as of late, and a very good sign for her future. No matter how long “Without Me” stays at the top of Hot 100, and whenever a follow-up single or new album drops, Halsey is currently in an enviable position as a bankable radio artist with increasingly impressive songwriting chops and streaming power. For the foreseeable future, it's hard to imagine pop without her.