Big Sean’s Hall of Fame sold 72,000 copies in its first week, enough to take the No. 1 spot on Billboard's Hip-Hop/R&B charts, but not enough to top Big Sean’s 2011 debut, Finally Famous, which sold 87,000 copies its first week.
The verdict online was quick and merciless: Big Sean flopped. He had two of the highest-profile guest verses of the past year, on “Mercy” and “Clique.” On each, his spot was widely considered a highlight. He had the full court press of a major label behind him. And not just any major, but Def Jam, which had a banner year in 2012, dropping six major urban albums to critical acclaim and significant sales. Big Sean had the press, the cosigns, and big-budget features. So to sell 72,000 on your second major label album, in an era where Wale does 158,000, and J. Cole does 297,000, just in the opening week?
So Sean sold 15,000 fewer copies of his second album than he did his first. As any student of capitalism knows, growth is the goal. Thus, a 17% decline represents absolute failure. Of course, sales aren’t the only income stream for rap artists. French Montana only sold 56,000 copies of Excuse My French, but his hits have been omnipresent on car stereos, and no doubt his show and feature prices are still generous. And Sean is certainly out on tour, too, riding around, getting it, as they say. But fans aren't privy to appearance fees, and if an artist isn’t on the ascent via the most basic metric available—album sales—there’s only one other possibility.
But as usual, what matters to the most visible members of hip-hop’s online chattering classes has less to do with the real dynamic at play than it does the arbitrary whims of a gaggle of office drones procrastinating on the Internet.
But as usual, what matters to the most visible members of hip-hop’s online chattering classes has less to do with the real dynamic at play than it does the arbitrary whims of a gaggle of office drones procrastinating on the Internet. There’s no question Big Sean probably would have liked to have sold more copies. But as a focal point of the Internet’s hype machine schadenfreude, he's not the best fall guy. Perhaps it was that Kendrick so completely stole the show on “Control” just a few weeks earlier that had folks sharpening their knives. Maybe it’s just his personality: Sean is a Nice Guy, and not the world's flashiest personality, and that leaves him open to Twitter’s Statler and Waldorf-style zing sessions.
But he’s hardly the only rapper out whose recent album underperformed his prior one. Juicy J was Sean’s runner-up in sales this week, and his massive crossover single, “Bandz a Make Her Dance,” was a bigger smash than anything Sean released from Hall of Fame. Of course, Juicy's record was delayed for so long that his sales were probably degraded as a result—but the same could be said about Sean, whose recent high-profile spots ("Mercy," "Clique") peaked in 2012.
Perhaps the biggest example of the sophomore slump this year is Mac Miller, whose latest album, Watching Movies With the Sound Off, has received enthusiastic press. He’s earned considerably more positive reviews this time around, and even garnered a Fader magazine cover. Of course, he’s independent, which means those with an axe to grind against the major label system don’t really see a need to hop on his slip-ups. But Miller’s album only sold 101,000 copies—a massive drop of 29% from the 144,000 copies he’d sold of the (widely-panned) Blue Slide Park. Despite this discrepency, press interest in Mac Miller’s career has never been higher. Miller’s initial fame had been built off a series of boom-bap pop singles like “Donald Trump” and “Kool-Aid and Frozen Pizza.” His move to be taken seriously as an artist—nabbing guest verses by Jay Electronica, collaborations with Odd Future, and production by Flying Lotus—may end up being a wise strategy in the long run. But in the short term, it’s resulted in a decidedly sharp drop-off of interest from the fanbase that turned him into a star in the first place.
Big Sean’s record can hardly be considered a full-on success. Wale is—or was, as he’s gotten a reputation for being quite prickly—a “nice guy” rapper too, but his success helped to insulate him. Of course, he had help from radio, as “Bad” hit No. 21 on Billboard's pop chart. Sean’s singles this year haven’t made nearly the same impact. At the end of the day, successful radio singles are at the core of any Big Sean project. His first record rode three massive hits (“My Last,” “Marvin and Chardonnay,” and “Dance (A$$)”) to its impressive debut sales. Considering how his recent singles have underperformed on radio, it's actually a testament to the devotion of his fan base that his sophomore album slumped as little as it did, saleswise.
If Sean has an area in need of improvement, it’s his reliance on more bankable stars. (“Beware,” his only single from Hall of Fame to scrape into the top 40, features Lil Wayne.) Perhaps once the amusingly-titled “MILF,” with Nicki Minaj and Juicy J, hits radio, Sean’s sales will get a boost. It certainly worked for Finally Famous, which ended up selling more than 378,000 copies after its biggest songs worked their way through the system.
In an ideal world we, the peanut gallery, would stop paying attention to sales entirely, as if a few thousand copies' difference in the era of free streams and mixtapes is really indicative of anything profound about an artist’s career prospects. Hip-hop was hit hard by the shifting retail climate, and given that No Limit C-listers used to sell hundreds and hundres of thousands of copies in the late 1990s, the squabbles over whether or not a slight slip in first week sales can define a measurable flop today is a bit like of arguing over bread crumbs. Here’s hoping we look back fondly on these more innocent times while we’re neck-deep in war in Syria. Oh god!