Drake vs. Michael Jackson: How the numbers show this is a one-sided debate

OPINION: With the success of Drake's "Certified Lover Boy," fans and publications are starting to ask if he's reached the level of the late King of Pop.

For the last few decades, scores of music lovers have been clamoring to anoint the next Michael Jackson. Usher, Justin Timberlake, The Weeknd, Chris Brown, Beyoncé and Bruno Mars have all been propped up by fans, blogs and magazines as the heir apparent to the late King of Pop.

Now, it’s apparently Drake‘s turn.

Rap star Drake (left) and the late, great Michael Jackson (right) have been the subjects of comparison, for some reason. (Photos: Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images and Liaison)

With the release of his sixth album, Certified Lover Boy, Drake is in rarified air as the LP not only broke unprecedented streaming numbers, but nine songs reached the Top 10 on the Billboard 100, the most ever Top 10 pop singles from one album. The previous record — seven — was previously held by Jackson’s 1982 album Thriller, as reported by Billboard (as well as Rhythm Nation 1814, the 1989 album of his younger sister, Janet Jackson).

As Drake’s sustained success reaches its zenith, sites are now pondering if this massive attention is akin to Jackson at the height of his fame, causing debaters to flock to social media to engage in furious dialogue on the validity of Drake vying for Jackson’s throne.

It’s time to put this conversation to bed.

History can sometimes be a tricking thing. Author Nelson George once wrote that perception is almost as important as facts when it comes to history. Music leaves so much room for perceptive thinking. It’s important to understand that music is subjective. Period.

There has to be some level of acceptance that artists suffer a depreciation of cultural relevance and context with each passing generation. We cannot and should not condemn listeners of a certain age who enjoy Drake’s music more than Jackson’s by simple virtue of contemporary programming, no more than people who may have ranked Jackson over James Brown.

Few rap artist have been as consistently successful at producing hits than Drake in American history, like it or not. His achievements must be acknowledged and respected when you place him next to his peers. 

But Drake and Jackson are not peers. 

Because of the subjectivity of music and personal preference, there will be no comparing of individual song quality between the two. And since numbers and statistics are what spawned this debate in the first place, that’s what will be used to make the case that the two should not be compared.

Certified Lover Boy achieved a record of a staggering 744 million streams within its first week, as reported by The New York Times. No other artist has had such success with an album since streaming has factored into sales tabulation.

In addition to full albums being sold in one package, Billboard measures sales in a two-tier system of equating 1,250 streams to one album unit via paid subscription audio streams (Apple Music, Amazon Music) and equating 3,750 streams to one album unit via ad-supported audio streams (Spotify, YouTube).

During Jackson’s lifetime, the primary way to listen and acquire albums was to buy physical copies, be it through cassette, CD or vinyl. Jackson’s most successful album, Thriller, is currently at 34 million albums or units sold, according to RIAA.

To put in perspective just how many albums that is, Drake’s entire discography of seven albums is collectively 25 times platinum, counting his collaborative album with Future, What A Time To Be Alive (Certified Lover Boy has yet to be certified platinum). People had to leave their homes and buy a physical copy of Thriller, rather than listening on Spotify or downloading it on iTunes.

This should also be factored into Drake’s new singles record, as streaming allows his songs to earn high placement on the Billboard 100 without needing to be formally released as commercial singles the way Jackson’s did with Thriller.

Going even further, Jackson continues to win in the age of streaming, as Thriller has gone platinum five times over since 2015, equating to nearly a million units per year as of late.

Yes, Thriller is a one-in-a-million musical and cultural anomaly, and it may not be fair to judge that against Certified Lover Boy since Drake has had bigger selling albums. Three of Drake’s LPs have sold over five million copies, which is astounding for any artist over the past decade, rap or otherwise. Well, from 1979 to his death in 2009, Jackson released seven albums, and his only sold under eight million copies twice — again, mostly physical copies.

Drake has also surpassed MJ in total top 10s on the Billboard Hot 100. In 2020, he achieved his 39th and 40th placement to become number-one, besting the previous record holder, Madonna, with 38. Jackson holds at 30. 

This record, however, was inflated as 15 of the 40 are Drake’s guest features on other artist’s songs, including the two that put him in first place. Jackson was only the featured guest once of his 30 with Paul McCartney’s “Say Say Say.” In fact, if we’re keeping things fair, Jackson was also featured on Rockwell’s number two single “Somebody’s Watching Me” and number one charity smash “We Are the World,” which he co-wrote. 

Then there are The Jackson 5-slash-The Jacksons, who achieved 11 Top 10 singles, bringing Jackson to 43. Of course, Drake has had many more since 2020, but context is important.

Speaking of which, cultural context needs to be considered.

Shuffle culture and first-reaction trends dictate general music criticism today. Albums are being declared instant classics after a single day at least and a week at most. Drake benefits, to a degree, from a culture that’s so quick to put something on a pedestal. Social media memes and dance challenges helped propel his tracks like “Toosie Slide” and “In My Feelings” to the top of the charts.

Jackson accumulated his success in a much more methodical fashion and before social media. Imagine if Twitter existed when Jackson moonwalked on Motown 25 or if YouTube was around when the “Thriller” video premiered. Think of the countless TikTok challenges that would’ve come from the “Smooth Criminal” lean or the face morph in the “Black or White” clip.

Finally, there’s each artist’s lasting impact over time. The story of Drake’s impact on music is still being composed, and we may not know its full magnitude for a long time from now.

What can already be determined is Jackson’s impact across generations. He had a Top 10 Billboard 100 single in five consecutive decades. The man would start concerts by standing motionless for over three minutes with unwavering applause. And let’s not even discuss the hoards of fainting fans and tears shed by every age group in every corner of the planet at the mere sight of him performing.

You have to give Drake credit, though. He’s embracing the notion that he’s on the same level as the King of Pop. On “You Only Live Twice,” he raps: “Not sure if you know but I’m actually Michael Jackson/The man I see in the mirror is actually goin’ platinum.”

All the aforementioned folk who have been propped up to be “the next MJ” have paid him homage in one way or another, whether it’s The Weeknd covering “Dirty Diana,” Beyoncé mimicking his Super Bowl outfit at her own Super Bowl gig or Brown’s tearful tribute performance at the 2010 BET Awards.

Most of these artists want to keep Jackson where he is — as the template. Timberlake shared with MTV’s My Album Launch in 2003 that he didn’t want to be compared to Jackson. “I personally don’t want it,” he said. “It’s a lot of pressure to be compared to something that’s a phenomenon.” Kendrick Lamar told Jimmy Fallon in 2016 he was happy that his album To Pimp A Butterfly only got 11 Grammy Award nominations because he didn’t want to beat Jackson’s record of 12 set in 1984.

If Drake wants the throne, he has much ground to cover. He may want to learn how to dance. And compose music. And produce. And donate hundreds of millions of dollars to charity. And record more albums with Future so he can have a chance to get in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame twice.

Like Michael Jackson.

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