Drake's first-week sales numbers were released yesterday, and by almost any standard, they're impressive.
With 658,000 copies of Nothing Was The Same sold, Drake's latest album easily scores a chart No. 1 (with more than five times as many copies sold at the No. 2 entry, Kings of Leon's Mechanical Bull). It will likely go on to sell many more copies as well, especially if songs like bonus track "Come Thru" are released as singles. It's the second-best opening week of the year, after Justin Timberlake's 20/20 Experience sold 968,000. And it easily bests Jay Z's opening weeks sales of 527,000.
It also showed rare growth over Take Care's 630,000 first-week sales. (By this summer, that album had crested two million.) This year hasn't been a great one for follow-up releases, unless you were J. Cole. Everyone elsed in hip-hop—from Kanye to Mac Miller to Big Sean to Wale to 2 Chainz—showed a degraded level of enthusiasm in opening week sales. In that climate, Drake is the rare artist who outperformed his last record.
But there's something underwhelming about the numbers as well. It's not just that Drake predicted a million in sales in his version of "Versace," or that many of his fans saw this possibility as inevitable. [Ed. note—Drake owes me for the dollar I lost for believing in him.] It's more about general momentum. While Nothing Was The Same did top Take Care in first-week sales, it did so at a very modest rate. Drake is hip-hop's biggest new star in the past five years; he's had songs in near-constant rotation since appearing on the scene five years ago. (As Complex contributor Al Shipley calculated in his brutal pan of Nothing Was The Same, "For 212 of the last 222 weeks, at least one song by or featuring Drake has been in the top 10 of Billboard’s R&B/Hip-Hop airplay charts.")
While we've been skeptical about Drake's spokesman-of-the-millennials status for some time, 658,000 copies for hip-hop's "it" guy of the moment feels just a little underwhelming. But what does it all mean? A few possibilities.
1. There's nothing wrong with Drake; the industry is simply in the worst shape ever, and album sales are depressed. Obviously, we know this is true already, and has been for many years. Although it's not quite as easy to just Google and download an album as it was in the late '00s (...or so I hear), despite the fact that it's more difficult to steal music online, album sales recently reached a new low point with only 4.68 million albums of any kind sold in one week. To put this in perspective, Juvenile sold 4 million copies of 400 Degreez in 1998.
Certainly, the worst climate for music sales in modern history would likely impact even hip-hop's biggest new star. The only problem with this theory? Only two years ago, Lil Wayne sold 964,000 copies of his The Carter IV, which isn't even that great of an album!
2. He's plateauing, having maxed out his core and radio fanbases, and needs to tap into new markets. For many artists, this would mean going the Nicki Minaj route, and hiring a few Swedes to write some loosely EDM-based pop songs (hopefully ones he won't be sued for later). This would probably be a bad move, creatively. Alternately: while Drake has been emphasizing how little he wants to rap anymore, seemingly seeing himself as a pop artist who's on another tier above Kendrick and Real Lyricists (TM) et al, a lyrical turn might actually help solidify his hip-hop base. Keep in mind that an important step in Lil Wayne's crossover transformation into the million-sales-MC was slowing his flow so non-Southerners could keep up with what was actually some pretty deft wordplay.
It's tough to remember for the kids out there, but there was a period when Canibus was considered a rapper with major crossover potential. Not even kidding! Prior to the release of his albums, people saw him as a threat. It was a different era, where being a beast on the mic was a core conceit of being a rap star. Things have twisted so far around—and songwriting has become such a desired commodity, now that the superproducers roaming the hallways of major labels are Swedish EDM heads—that Drake can talk dismissively about rapping, as if to cross over further he needs to sing even more. Maybe he's got the opposite problem.
Alternately, Drake could learn to ride a skateboad.