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Nelly’s debut album Country Grammar, released on June 27, 2000, was a Y2K staple with a curiously long shelf life. Attending college more than a decade after its original release, I recall hearing “Ride Wit Me” and “Country Grammar (Hot Shit)” at parties more times than I can count. On July 25, Country Grammar joined the ranks of Eminem’s The Marshall Mathers LP and OutKast’s Speakerboxxx/The Love Below as the eighth diamond-certified hip-hop album in history after moving ten million units in the U.S. If sales trends continue, it might be the last.
No hip-hop album released in the last decade is close to diamond certification. The closest, 50 Cent’s classic Get Rich or Die Tryin’ sits at roughly 8.4 million units shipped according to Billboard; it came out in February 2003. The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill (August 1998) follows that with less than eight million, and the drop off after that album is steep. The only hip-hop albums from this decade that are even in the same stratosphere are Eminem’s 2010 comeback album Recovery (4.7 million) and Lil Wayne’s 2008 blockbuster Tha Carter III (3.8 million), and that’s only if you consider “less than halfway there” close. The amount of time it takes for a rap album to hit diamond varies greatly; 2pac’s All Eyez On Me took 18 years, while OutKast’s Speakerboxxx/The Love Below made it in only three—largely because of a double-disc technicality—and MC Hammer’s Please Hammer, Don’t Hurt ‘Em achieved the certification in just one. However, it’s clear from the numbers that no rap album of the last decade is really on a diamond path.
Of course, album sales across genres have been falling for years now. Diamond has become increasingly out of reach for even the biggest artists. Adele’s 2011 album 21 managed to reach the milestone last year, and her 2015 follow-up 25 looks set to do the same in half the time, but, with her widespread appeal, Adele has been an unusual market force. Even Taylor Swift’s mega-smash 1989 only moved around six million copies, although its continued healthy sales pace of several thousand copies per week indicates that it has legs. Still, it’s not as if hip-hop is lacking in major stars with heavily promoted albums. Drake, Kanye West, Jay Z, Nicki Minaj, and Lil Wayne have all seen huge commercial success in the last decade, but none have managed to crack five million sold.
Is hip-hop simply suffering from a dearth of classic albums? Critically praised projects like Kendrick Lamar’s good kid, m.A.A.d. city, Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, and Drake’s Take Care rule out that argument. But even with those albums’ passionate proselytizers and success on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, the story remains the same: sales that fail to exceed 2-3 million units. It would seem that no matter the quality or the exposure, hip-hop’s sales have stalled out when it comes to mega-smash albums. According to Billboard, of the six albums released since 2001 that have moved at least eight million copies, only two have been rap albums; pop dominates the rest.
Part of this may be due to demographics. Adele and Taylor Swift appeal to Millennials and Baby Boomers in equal measure, with the latter generation being much more likely to purchase physical copies of an album. Hip-hop, on the other hand, skews much younger. A 2016 Entertainment Retail Association study found that Millennials listen to 75% more music than Baby Boomers, but are also much more likely to stream or pirate music than their older counterparts, lowering potential chart impact. Until recently, the RIAA didn’t even count streams toward album sales, ignoring the way many hip-hop consumers listen to music. Record labels are known to ship fewer physical copies of rap albums, prompting years of complaints from artists like 2 Chainz and Wale. Increasingly popular exclusive streaming deals also mean that many rap albums don’t see any physical release until weeks after the fact.
If anything is going to change this downward trajectory, it’s the RIAA’s new rules for calculating album sales, which counts 1,500 streams or 10 individual track purchases as one album sale. Drake’s VIEWS—by far the most commercially successful hip-hop album of 2016 is a poster child for streaming being a big part of its success. Almost 200,000 of its 1.1 million first week album sales came from streams, and its monster streaming numbers have helped VIEWS stay on top of the charts for months now despite technically being outsold in the traditional sense by several albums. According to Billboard, by its third week on the charts, streaming accounted for over half of VIEWS’ total consumption.
The real question is whether streaming will sustain an album’s sales numbers in the long run. Considering the RIAA’s streaming rules are so new, there’s not much precedent. It seems like streaming couldn’t possibly hurt, but more needs to be understood about how much it de-incentivizes purchasing. Streaming may expand the market to include people who would never have purchased the album in the first place, but if even a few of the people who streamed an album had purchased it instead, they would have a much greater impact on sales numbers. As the years go by, it will be interesting to see if streaming numbers continue to result in a similar sales trajectory that a hit album would normally enjoy, moving several thousand units per week for years after its initial release.
As far as sure-thing diamond certifications go these days, don’t hold your breath. Get Rich or Die Tryin’ could perhaps achieve the feat, but beyond that, the future looks bleak. Streaming represents a potential savior, but the longevity with which it will buoy album sales is far from certain. Unless something fundamentally changes about the way music is sold and distributed—or the RIAA moves the goalpost to a more attainable sales number—hip-hop may very well be looking at a diamond-less future. At least we’ll always have Country Grammar.