This week, in the wake of Damn, Kendrick Lamar rocketed to the top of the Billboard Hot 100. “Humble,” the lead single, is sitting pretty at No. 1, unseating the long-reigning Ed Sheeran hit “Shape of You.” “DNA,” the second song on the album, is at No. 4—the first time Kendrick has had two tracks in the top five (or the top 10, for that matter). Damn is also at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 album chart; it moved an astonishing 600,000 copies (or its equivalent in streaming) in its first week. Every song on it is in the Hot 100.
It’s the kind of success that indicates true superstar status. Kendrick has long been one to follow his artistic impulses rather than chase commercially viable pop. That’s manifest in the outdated skits that move along (and sometimes hamper) Good Kid, M.A.A.D City, or the complex song structures and jazz instrumentation of To Pimp a Butterfly—both of which debuted in the top three of the Billboard 200 album charts. Even a collection of leftovers from his ambitious, obtuse To Pimp a Butterfly debuted at No. 1. But this is success on a new level for the rapper, and it came without watering down his music.
Of course, because hip-hop is a contact sport, this success is fuel for debate for fans who follow rappers like sport teams. Those fans want to see head-to-head competition. And you don’t have to look back too far to find a point of contention in Drake’s recent More Life. Real or imagined, Drake and Kendrick are in competition for the coveted title of best rapper alive, and Kendrick’s successful sales adds another chapter to the narrative.
Part of the reason there’s attention being paid to K-Dot outselling the 6 God is simple: It defies basic logic. Kendrick makes knotty, dark, conceptually ambitious rap music, and he favors the album format of presentation. Damn is, in some ways, his most straightforward project, with songs that feasibly could top the charts, but it doesn’t have the immediate pop appeal of More Life. Drake has spent a career honing his songwriting skills to the point where he could seemingly spin pop gold out of any style, any song. Add to the mix that Drake is a bigger celebrity—he’s a tabloid regular, dates increasingly famous women, understands social media at its most cutthroat, and had two No. 1 singles in the last year alone. In fact, that people thinking that the two are in competition at all can seem counterintuitive, given how different their musical ambitions seem.
Peel back a layer or two, and the dead heat the pair appear to be running gets a little more uneven. For one, Drake decided on an interesting rollout for More Life, befitting its status in his head as a “playlist” rather than an album. Instead of a proper rollout, he premiered it on his OVO Sound show on Beats 1, on a Saturday evening, after months and months of delays. It felt like a genuine moment, having an album of that magnitude debut live, but it’s not the sort of thing that helps your bottom line. Neither does a Saturday debut, which limits the number of days you can count toward your first week. With Damn, Kendrick had almost 48 hours more time to move units
More Life was never meant to be consumed anywhere besides streaming services—it didn’t even come with a music video. It’s only available digitally, and the rules for what constitutes an album sale on Spotify or Apple Music is another handicap; an album needs songs to be streamed 1,500 times to count as an album unit on the Billboard charts. Of course, this can help albums go platinum; as “Passionfruit” is streamed over time, those plays eventually all count towards More Life’s album sales. For first-week sales, though, it’s a disadvantage.
Meanwhile, Kendrick gathered up over 50% of his album sales from physical copies. In 2017, that’s a feat, and a testament to how dedicated his fanbase is. The decision to release it both physically and digitally maximized sales, which doesn’t detract from the commercial accomplishments of the album, but does make comparisons to More Life misleading. Moreover, Kendrick and TDE’s rollout was a master class in a major label rap release for 2017. From the brawny, pot-stirring primer of “The Heart Part 4”—whose final lines announced a release date and started the album rollout—to the “Humble” video drop and sparse, intriguing list of guest stars, Kendrick stoked excitement for the album concisely, over a few weeks. It clearly worked, even with a last-minute leak.
It helped that the music was great. The industry projections for the album from Billboard kept growing as the release date approached, from 475,000 to 500,000—and the eventual first-week numbers blew away those projections. That’s likely an indication of a growing surge of interest in the album, which is often the result of strong word of mouth. (Indeed, the critical praise for Damn has been almost universally effusive; many are calling it his best album yet).
This is all to say that Drake, for a variety of reasons, hampered the amount of albums he could actually sell. Comparing the two marquee stars in the genre is a natural instinct—especially when they both trade words about being the top MC—but in this case it’s far more telling to look at the artistic statements than commercial performance. We’re in the middle of an extremely strong year for rap. Migos, Future, Rick Ross, Drake, and Kendrick have all dropped show-stopping full-lengths in the past few months alone. At the end of the year, it’s not the first-week numbers we’re going to use to measure greatness.
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