It may have been Beyonce's week on the charts—Billboard is reporting she sold 617,000 copies in just four days—but she wasn't the only performer who made noise.
Today it was announced that Donald Glover, also known by his Wu-Tang name generator-derived moniker Childish Gambino, pumped out an unexpected 96,000 copies of Because the Internet, his second album. His debut record, 2011's Camp, sold only 52,000 copies, meaning Glover sold 84% more copies of his second album than his first. In a year when many rappers, from Wayne to Kanye to 2 Chainz to Mac Miller, experienced major sales slippage, this is a not-insubstantial accomplishment.
Especially considering that—once again—it was done with minimal support from radio. 2 Chainz's "Feds Watching" spent 13 weeks chugging around the lower reaches of the Hot 100; then his album dropped and he only sold 63,000 copies. Just as with Pusha T, the connection between sales and radio spins is no longer as dependent as it has been in the past.
The optimistic point of view—and it's certainly partially true—is Gambino's found such success because...well, because the internet. Now that artists can connect directly with the audience without intermediary promotion, its the more multi-dimensional ones—artists in whom the the audience is more heavily invested in, have a greater personal connection with—who are likely to move more units than those churning out hits like 2 Chainz. (Interestingly, Chainz's album was strong, but it felt like an attempt to make an auteur's album-art record. Maybe he would have been better off packing it with radio-oriented singles.)
Certainly, we made this argument with Pusha T. Pusha pushed (sorry) 75,000 copies of his record My Name Is My Name earlier this year, without having a single song in rotation at the time, and a full year removed from the last time he'd guested on a charting single. There's been a flattening effect, where exposure to hip-hop has expanded beyond the need for a radio single. The gatekeepers in the programming booths can't keep gate quite as effectively as they used to. Having a hit isn't necessary.
Looking at it this way has a flattering angle. We've made an end run around The Industry, so the thinking goes. At last, the suits might realize that we want to be invested in rappers as fully-realized personalities, rather than one-dimensional characters contrasted by the dynamic background of the smash hit. And this has been one of the ongoing struggles in hip-hop history: to gain recognition as a genre that is about so much more than churning out pop hits for middle America. That for every Skee Lo there's an OutKast. For every J-Kwon, a T.I.
But as much as this seems like a positive development, the fact that artists no longer have to pander to the charts to have a career, it is a double-edged sword.
But as much as this seems like a positive development, the fact that artists no longer have to pander to the charts to have a career, it is a double-edged sword. There's an increasing segregation between the rap artists who climb the singles charts and those who work the angles as album artists. It used to be that T.I. had to aim for charting singles, competing on the charts with J-Kwon. But today's multi-dimensional hip-hop stars—the ones you feel invested in—are less and less likely to also be keeping songs in rotation on the radio, give or take a Kanye West.
Chris Molanphy recently wrote in Slate about a pretty shocking statistic: zero black artists have topped Billboard's Hot 100 pop charts in 2013. (In 2004, every single chart topper was a person of color.) Hip-hop's decreasing centrality to pop culture goes further than that; since around 2006, pop radio has only intermittently seen hip-hop artists cross over from the rap charts. If you consider hip-hop albums the end game for hip-hop, then that probably doesn't bother you all that much. But if you came up in the late '90s and early '00s—the golden age of hip-hop's commercial success—you might find the decreasing diversity of the singles market to be a pretty unfortunate counterpart to the success of album artists like Gambino and Pusha.
Auteur rap artists used to have to compete for Hot 100 real estate with hitmakers. But today there aren't so many fully-fledged album-art-oriented stars trying to compete with the Sage the Gemini's and YG's. And while it's great that Gambino and Pusha can be so successful without trying to make hits, from my personal bias, it would only make their music more broadly engaging if they felt the pressure to appeal to more people—to have charting singles, to attempt to make a move toward the world outside of their own fan bases.
There is, of course, another reason that Gambino has managed to sell so many copies of his record, and that's that he's not just a rapper, but a celebrity, too. Donald Glover is an actor, a TV star. Regularly appearing on television helps sell albums. We've seen this phenomenon play out in others genres as well. R&B has suffered as much as hip-hop in sales over the past few years. And much like with hip-hop, some of its stars have become more album-oriented. And much like with Glover, television has become a proven album seller.
This year, some of R&B's biggest album sales came from television stars: K. Michelle (72,000 copies of Rebellious Soul), Tamar Braxton (whose Love & War sold 114,000 copies), and Ariana Grande (Truly Yours sold 138,000) all appear in television shows; all three have been among the most successful R&B stars of the past few years.