How does the line go? Men lie, women lie, numbers don’t?
When Nielsen SoundScan released the week one sales numbers for Lil Wayne’s Tha Carter IV, they told a story few would’ve expected to see, which possibly tells a bigger story about the market forces that produced them.
That debut ranks second among all artists to drop this year, behind only Lady Gaga, who’s Born This Way hit 1.11 million in its first week (albeit with the help of dramatically reduced price copies on Amazon). It trumped Jay-Z and Kanye West’s Watch The Throne, a much better received record that moved 436,000 copies in its first week.
The implication of that massive number would be that Lil Wayne simply squelched all haters, critics or prognosticators with an album his true fans loved and appreciated but that’s just misleading. What it really speaks to is a little bit of luck, a whole lot of timing and a weird landscape for hip-hop right now.
His rock star worthy MTV Video Music Award performance couldn’t have came at a better time to catapult interest in his record. Where Jay-Z and Kanye West’s release was shrouded with secrecy, Lil Wayne was everywhere. If his verbal swipe at Jay-Z couldn’t do much to generate buzz, shutting down the most watched thing on television in grand fashion, mere moments before your album hits retailers is about as sure-fire a plan as any I’ve seen.
Lil Wayne’s success says so much about how he has crossed the threshold of just a hip-hop artist. He’s navigated a hard-to-describe landscape that requires a level of mainstream acknowledgment, radio friendly, easy-to-digest lyrics and an edge that makes his empty threats seem entirely plausible to be one of those ‘anything I breathe on, will sell’ artists.
His approach this time was a stark contrast from Jay-Z and Kanye West’s anti-everything, we don’t have to promote this approach. To that end, he was rewarded, at least in some part, by being likable and being willing to jump through the hoops of selling an album.
But it’s the numbers I keep coming back to.
This was the biggest release in hip-hop since his The Carter III moved 1 million copies in 2008. That’s saying something considering the way critics gushed for Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and other albums in that stretch.
I’d argue the lull in hip-hop sales in that stretch has more to do with the availability of free music and the rise of indie artists occupying more space on iPods than radio airwaves. With those artists not even trying to breakthrough, there hasn’t been a whole lot of people who even had the talent, backing and charisma to even try.
The Carter IV was the second largest digital release of all-time. All-time! Moving 362,000 copies in digital retailers. (although it didn’t really come close to Lady Gaga’s 662,000 digital copies earlier this year). It’s 345,000 on iTunes alone was described as shattering their previous record for single-week album sales.
The most mind-blowing factoid to me was a one that slipped by most people.
The Carter IV was Lil Wayne’s third straight album to top the Billboard 200 at its release. You’re probably thinking The Carter III and what? And that what would be the extremely forgettable I Am Not A Human Being.
It’s getting to the point where the Lil Wayne brand is outpacing the quality of his music.
It’s easy to understand the strength of the Carter brand but to have a transitional album you’ve never heard a soul speak of go No. 1 too is the biggest blow to the critics who can’t understand the commercial success despite declining quality.
The numbers might as well be Wayne’s raspy laugh in the face of haters everywhere. A perfect moment for us all to scratch our heads, eat crow and reassess the larger implications of putting out commercially successful, critical flops.
Does it say more about listeners being clamoring for hip-hop releases but their knowledge of who’s good being limited to the few in rotation on most radio stations?
For labels, do you care if anyone likes an album as long as it sold? What motivation is it on their end to send someone back to the drawing board when an unsorted first draft can move people to buy.
It’s scary and humbling to think some of best rappers going right now won’t sniff that sort of success without completely repackaging themselves or the faint chance that one song sneaks through and infects the masses the way, “A Milli” and “Lollipop” did for Lil Wayne or “Hard Knock Life” did for Jay-Z.
While hip-hop is more mainstream and readily available than ever, the artists who are able to become household names or fixtures on the charts are fewer and fewer, with the opportunities for them to get to that level without becoming a spectacle being as distant as the dream to even be an artist in the first place.
Lil Wayne has defied the critical odds two releases in a row with monstrous commercial success in his first week but it makes you wonder, how many times can he keep rolling sevens.