“Numbers don’t lie, until you need them to.” —Carrie Battan ("Nicki Minaj’s Empty Obsession with Being No. 1")
Nicki Minaj is accustomed to winning. Since her rap career exploded in 2009, the New York City transplant by way of Trinidad and Tobago has savored a rare, well-deserved success in hip-hop. As the first lady of Lil Wayne’s Young Money imprint, she broke records, catapulted up charts, won awards, and built a castle upon Platinum and Gold accomplishments. Nicki knew No. 1 from the beginning. The taste of unrivaled prominence. A Barbie enclosed in a trophy case.
“To be the queen of rap you gotta sell records / You gotta get plaques,” she rapped on Gucci Mane’s 2017 single “Make Love.” The snide lyric represents how careers are appraised based on accolades. She isn’t completely wrong; popularity in music is often based purely on data. Charts, sales, and streams all provide context for debates over who’s on top. Best is decided by the ears, but biggest is waged by the gathering of information. For Nicki, the numbers have more often than not been in her favor.
This past Sunday, after much speculation, news officially broke that Queen, Nicki Minaj’s recently-released fourth studio album, would debut at No. 2 on the Billboard 200 chart with 185,000 album-equivalent units in its opening week. How Nicki reacted publicly wasn’t with the poise of royalty, but even queens have their moments of frustration. Nicki's emphasis on first-week numbers was so passionate it was almost as if album sales conclude immediately after.
Even before the final tally was reached, early projections in the ballpark of 150,000 units sold seemed to have Nicki and her team scrambling. Queen was offered in a special $5 bundle along with a poster and a free trial to TIDAL—that's music, a poster, and a three-month TIDAL subscription for less than the price of a Big Mac Extra Value Meal. Following the initial release, “FEFE”—an awkward but successful single that paired the seasoned rap star with problematic young rapper 6ix9ine—was added to the album on streaming services in a move largely seen as a last-ditch effort to boost stream counts.
If "FEFE" didn’t appear as the result of waning relevance, the midnight-hour album update confirmed that Nicki wanted to appear as a winner at any cost. She’s not alone in this practice; the rules of streaming provide loopholes to be manipulated. How Drake maneuvers in the streaming era is with the mentality of a chess master, every decision strategic as a checkmate. JAY-Z can relate; for his last two solo albums, Hov was able to receive Platinum plaques pre-release by offering Magna Carta Holy Grail and 4:44 through partnerships with Samsung and Sprint, respectively. Even the immensely popular JAY-Z took steps to ensure he couldn’t lose.
Because of the opportunities the streaming era presents for inflated sales, it’s often been criticized as a business model built upon a faulty foundation, but long before we entered the internet age, the creative manipulation of numbers has existed in the music business.
Lil Wayne's sixth studio album, Tha Carter III, reportedly sold over one million albums in its opening week. Even before CDs reached store racks in June 2008, Wayne was promoting "A Milli" as his second single.
Prior to Wayne's feat, 50 Cent's The Massacre—released in 2005—was the last album in any genre to sell a million copies in its first week. The industry had shifted, and people were no longer buying albums like they once had. "A Milli" didn't predict a specific amount, but once the final numbers were tallied the song became Lil Wayne's self-fulfilling prophecy.
In a post-Napster society, a black, Southern rapper achieved the impossible. Wayne did what JAY-Z hadn't—what none of his industry peers could do. The data helped to support claims of Wayne’s enormous popularity in ways his free mixtapes and features couldn't quantify. As an avid fan dating back to 2004, the numbers were validating.
Tha Carter III was the first hip-hop album I can recall having a significant numerical value directly attached to its opening week. Still, the legitimacy of the album's sales numbers is questionable. A common rebuttal of his success are rumors of Cash Money Records and UMG buying copies of the album in bulk, an investment to increase Wayne’s rising mania and push him past the million mark in just seven days. Success, not honesty, has always been the best promotion.
The same claims surrounded the first-week numbers of Tha Carter IV after the album premiered at the top of the Billboard 200 with 964,000 copies sold in 2011. Three years after Tha Carter III, the music business was in far worse shape in terms of physical album sales and Wayne's popularity was no longer at his 2008 peak, but Birdman swore no foul play was at hand.
Trusting a crooked business to execute an honest practice is no different than putting faith in a con man to play by the rules. If the numbers were manipulated, the celebrated lie overshadowed a buried alternative. But there was no source to back up the claim, just rumors with the weight of feather dust.
Nine months before Wayne’s Platinum week solidified his superstardom, Kanye West and 50 Cent officially pushed first-week numbers back in the forefront of music discussion. The two heavyweights created a challenge of sales, Ye’s Graduation vs. 50’s Curtis. Pride, honor, and ego were high enough stakes, but 50’s promise to retire from rap if handed the loss added additional weight to the spectacle.
Their faceoff was a marketing ploy disguised as a challenge that required fan participation, a clever enough ruse to be culturally accepted as more than a boardroom scam to increase record sales. Creating a split encouraged choosing a side, supporting your artist over theirs, and putting your money where your enthusiasm was. Rap was, and still remains, a genre that puts a laser focus on winners and losers.
The week of September 11, 2008, the big discussion was numbers, sales, and who would win. The friendly controversy was fruitful; Graduation (957,000) besting Curtis (691,000) by over 266,000 units was a win for all parties in a year of declining record sales. Both artists achieved exceptional numbers; the kind neither would ever again repeat. The emphasis on first-week numbers didn’t begin in 2007, but it was the year that shaped our collective awareness of an obsession deeply ingrained in hip-hop’s psyche and the landscape of music—long before the days of Spotify, Apple Music and the like.
To dig into the history of the Billboard 200 and Hot 100 charts is to find a system searching for an accurate depiction of what people like. The goal is to use data as a way of forming a music taste consensus through the lens of a worldview. But as Derek Thompson wrote in his article "1991: The Most Important Year in Pop-Music History," the system contained inherent flaws in measuring that popularity as recently as 1991 when SoundScan technology was released and charts switched to using point-of-sales data from cash registers in stores:
“Billboard had few ways to truly measure what albums were being sold in stores or played on the radio. Instead, they relied on an honor system, by asking record stores and DJs to self-report the most popular musicians of the moment. Both parties had reasons to lie, and not just because the labels would pressure radio stations and record stores to play the hand-picked hits.” —Derek Thompson
In another piece, "The Shazam Effect," Thompson further highlighted the undeniable influence of song rankings on public opinion that should not be understated. He touches upon a 2006 study completed at Columbia University based around song popularity and how it affects listener interest. This experiment speaks to the natural attraction to what has been stamped with a higher popularity.
"The researchers sent participants to different music Web sites where they could listen to dozens of tracks and download their favorites. Some sites displayed a ranking of the most-downloaded songs; others did not. Participants who saw rankings were more likely to listen to the most-popular tracks. The researchers then wondered what would happen if they manipulated the rankings. In a follow-up experiment, some sites displayed the true download counts and others showed inverted rankings, where the least-popular song was listed in the No. 1 spot. The inverted rankings changed everything: previously ignored songs soared in popularity, and previously popular songs were ignored. Simply believing, even wrongly, that a song was popular made participants more likely to download it." —Derek Thompson, "The Shazam Effect"
The charts aren’t intentionally flawed; it’s the music business that is. It’s the labels who win big when albums are championed with big first weeks and when singles take over the world. Winning begets winning—the more something is exposed as being well-liked, the more approval that surrounds it. Radio is still a prominent platform when it comes to feeding music directly to the masses, and having the space to exist in a cycle. Payola isn’t a myth; it's a business practice. This is not to say every music moment is manufactured smoke and mirrors; in a den of thieves, there’s one, maybe two who won’t steal your wallet.
Back in 2015, before the release of Summertime ‘06, rumors began to spread that Vince Staples would only sell 5,000 copies of his Def Jam debut album in its opening week. He was clowned for flopping before and after vehemently denying the inaccurate data. One of the most impressive rap debuts since Kendrick’s good kid, m.A.A.d city was under scrutiny not for its quality, or lack thereof, but for the quantity of sales. Consumers care about numbers, even if it’s just to clown you for falling short of their expectations.
It comes as no surprise, then, when artists who sell well push the numbers to the center of the conversation. In Nicki Minaj’s case, she has always centered success as an extension of her artistic pride. When you have groomed your audience to revel in your winning, what happens when the records don’t sell? When the plaques no longer hang from the wall? This obsession extends well before her and will only continue in this climate of social media industry awareness.
One of my favorite lyrics of 2018 is from Drake’s "Emotionless": “Meetin' all my heroes like seein' how magic works.” To a degree, this line speaks to how the music industry is magical from afar, but once you venture behind the curtain, the enchanting qualities are lost. You'll discover giants who are standing on stilts or the beautiful irony of Platinum and Gold plaques made of colored plastic. It’s all for show; a glorified symbol. Certifications provide nothing more than validation but have no real value. Much like album sales and all music industry accolades, how we choose to define them is how we view their meaning.
"Music executives hope that gold and platinum certifications will create a bandwagon effect, making sales grow ever larger. The plaques function as a pat on the back for those who make the recording and sell it, or as a thank-you to family, friends, and others who have been helpful" —Ron Givens, "The real meaning of gold and platinum records"
Popularity matters. It’s used as the basis for countless articles and rankings, and it helps us to understand who the public is playing and paying attention to. The music business thrives on what’s done in secret, so we’ll never have the most accurate portrait, but we're provided a close-enough depiction. It’s safe to say we care, like Nicki Minaj cares, about the numbers—yearly, monthly, and of course, first-week. That will never change. This is an industry that focuses its attention on the business that’s questionable over the art that’s definite.
Artists should just worry about the art, and consumers should consume, because, beyond the music, everything is plastic.
Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated Lil Wayne's Tha Carter III was released three months prior to the famed 50 Cent vs. Kanye West album duel, in 2007, when, in fact, it was released the following year, in 2008.
By Yoh, aka It's All Fake, aka @Yoh31
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