Thursday, 8 September 2011

Lil Wayne, Lady Gaga, The Throne Show More Than One Way To #1

The top five chart debuts of 2011 so far, including Beyonce, Adele, each used a different approach.
By Gil Kaufman

Lil Wayne
Photo: C. Flanigan/ WireImage

We expect certain things from our pop superstars: amazing, outrageous outfits and rides, spectacular stage shows and gaudy first-week sales. So far this year, some of our brightest have not disappointed, with Lady Gaga, Lil Wayne, Adele, Beyoncé, Jay-Z and Kanye West posting 2011's biggest chart debuts to date.

But what's most amazing in this age when traditional album sales have continued to shrink due to still-rampant illegal file downloads, is that they all achieved their chart triumphs in totally different ways, proving that these days there's more than one way to land on top.

#1 With a Bullet: Lady Gaga's Born This Way
The undisputed Billboard 200 queen of the past 10 months is, of course, Lady Gaga, who easily took the crown with the massive 1.1 million in sales for Born This Way in June. The launch of BTW rivaled some summer blockbusters, complete with a barrage of magazine cover stories, late-night TV appearances, an HBO special, the "Gagavision" webisodes, guest editorships of magazines, a deal with game maker Zynga for a custom version of "FarmVille" called "GagaVille" and the coup de grace, a 99 cent download deal with that seriously helped goose first week sales.

It was an old-school, flood-the-zone approach that worked for several reasons: Gaga's legion of Little Monsters are always eager to help Mother Monster spread her message, the singer has harnessed a record-setting army of social media followers, and her ability to morph her look and continue to shock and surprise with new characters, from mermaids to Jo Calderone, keeps interest high.

Born This Way became the first album since Lil Wayne's Tha Carter III in 2008 to cross the million mark in its debut, while Gaga proved that the old everywhere-at-once model can still work in this new era.

#2: Lil Wayne, Just Shy of a Milli
An artist who deftly used last month's 2011 VMAs to launch an album was rapper Lil Wayne, whose closing slot served as the lead-in to a midnight digital sale of the eagerly anticipated Tha Carter IV. The ploy worked, as Wayne almost became the first rap act to land back-to-back million-selling albums, falling just short as Carter moved 964,000 copies last week.

Wayne's nearly year in prison and a string of street singles helped prime the pump for the Young Money boss' smash chart dive. Similar to the non-stop buzz for the equally huge Tha Carter III, a series of anticipated Carter IV release dates came and went, building the hype for the effort. And, like Gaga, Weezy used an old-school method to keep interest up: touring. His relentless roadwork, plus an 11th-hour leak of the disc and the midnight release stunt all added up to a new look/old look combo that put up near-platinum first week numbers.

#3: Kanye and Jay-Z Share The Throne
It was the promise of two of rap's biggest stars hooking up for a joint album that helped Watch the Throne snag the #3 position on the year's biggest debuts so far. The hard-hitting album from Jay-Z and Kanye West, which saw a number of purported release dates come and go, opened with 436,000 last month and has sold nearly 800,000 copies to date thanks to the swag-errific video for first single "Otis" and an eye-catching VMA performance.

Watch the Throne might have sold more in its first week, but some experts said its staggered release — following the iTunes exclusive, it was available to all digital and physical sellers on August 12, giving fans only two days to snatch it up before SoundScan's tracking week ended on Sunday — may have curtailed its first-week sales potential. They were helped, though, by the fact that they miraculously avoided a leak of the album by employing a high-tech, CIA-like series of maneuvers to guard the master tapes until the moment they were sent to the pressing plant.

Either way, it was a huge score for both rappers, giving Jay his 12th #1 album and Kanye his fifth, while providing proof that at the end of the day, star power can still win the day. The pair also served notice to other rap icons that two can be better than one, and has spurred talk of other potential all-star albums by Drake, Wayne and Rick Ross; Fabolous and Ne-Yo; Drake and Trey Songz; and the long-dormant Nas and AZ joint.

#4 Selling in the Deep: Adele's 21
Adele got the year started off with a bang in March when her 21 sold 352,000, marking the year's highest debut at the time and starting a remarkable chart run that would give the British singer the year's top-selling album to date. Unlike the big splashes made by other stars, Adele's route was the slow and steady one, helped along by the inescapable single "Rolling in the Deep," which helped land the album in the top spot more than a dozen non-consecutive times. Also unlike her fellow divas, Adele has not dropped a flurry of singles, but rather let "Deep" sink in for more than six months, just recently moving on to a second single, "Someone Like You," which she performed at the recent 2001 VMAs.

A recent Rolling Stone article noted that the album also got a boost when a number of dance-pop-leaning radio stations that wouldn't normally play such a sedate ballad picked it up earlier this year to great success. While the song clearly clicked with female listeners, the robust 2 million in physical sales — along with a record-setting 1.1 million in digital copies — indicates that it has pulled in older and casual music fans as well.

"Deep" was almost an afterthought, slapped together in a day, though upon hearing it, Adele's manager immediately dubbed it the first single. And, in this era when other divas like Gaga, Beyoncé and Katy Perry push out singles and videos at a rapid pace, Adele's label took the opposite approach, purposely rolling out the single laconically and allowing the album to catch on in a slow-burn manner.

#5: Queen Beyoncé Reigns Again With 4
Rounding out the top five debuts of the year is expectant mother Beyoncé, whose 4 had a solid first week, moving 310,000 copies of her fourth solo effort. After taking all of 2010 off from music-making, Bey's return was welcomed by fans, who were intrigued by hints that the album would be inspired by such disparate musicians as African legend Fela Kuti, Stevie Wonder, Lauryn Hill and old school R&B group the Stylistics.

Though it clearly wasn't part of the traditional album set-up plan, Bey got a major boost post-VMAs when her baby reveal made headlines and goosed sales by nearly 90 percent in one week.

Other pop and rock artists who had big debuts include Britney Spears, who put up her sixth #1 album thanks to sales of 276,000 for Femme Fatale, Chris Brown, who notched his first #1 debut in late March with F.A.M.E., which sold a respectable 270,000 copies and rockers the Foo Fighters, who scored their first #1 debut in April with Wasting Light, which earned the pole position with 235,000 in sales.

The bottom line? Whether they do it old school by humping it out on the road and plastering their face all over the newsstands, tap into their online army or break the modern cycle of leaks with technological wizardry, today's stars are finding a way to make the system work for them in all new combinations.

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