Radio Hits One: Drake, Lil Wayne, Nicki Minaj, Katy Perry, And The Era Of The Hit Bonus Track

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Superstar pals and Young Money labelmates Lil Wayne and Drake released two of the biggest albums of 2011—Tha Carter IV and Take Care—and both are still spinning off hits well into 2012. But a look at the singles charts reveals something odd: the biggest current hits off both albums aren't available on every copy of the album, but are instead bonus tracks from their deluxe editions. Drake's "The Motto," which features Wayne, currently tops the R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart and is at No. 19 on the Hot 100 after peaking at No. 16. And Wayne's own "Mirror," featuring Bruno Mars, is Weezy's highest current solo entry on the Hot 100, at No. 68 (it also peaked at No. 16). If you go into one of the few stores still selling CDs today, though, odds are that the versions of Tha Carter IV and Take Care in the racks won't include those current hits.

Drake's and Weezy's hits aren't from recent expanded reissues, but from deluxe editions available on the albums' original release dates last year. In Drake's case, "The Motto" was earmarked as a hit even before the album was released; he premiered it on an L.A. radio station two weeks before Take Care's November release date and shot a video for the song later that month. "Mirror" has had a more gradual rise; its video only premiered a few weeks ago, and it was sent to radio in November. But it's also the first single released from Tha Carter IV, which came out in August, and it was its highest-charting track back when pretty much every song from the album popped up on the Hot 100 the week after it arrived on iTunes. (Let's face it—nobody gets in the studio with Bruno Mars these days without an eye on landing a major pop hit.)

It's tempting to speculate that Young Money is deliberately trying to engineer a bonus track hit, and it's pretty clear why it would be interested in doing so. In late 2010, the label's third superstar rapper, Nicki Minaj, released her debut Pink Friday. And while the album sold steadily and its initial single releases dominated urban radio, reviews were mixed, with some noting that the deluxe edition's bonus tracks were better than much of the album proper. Months after the album's release, those critics were vindicated when a grassroots surge of support for one of those bonus tracks, "Super Bass," led to it being released as an official single. It quickly became the album's first top 10 hit and one of the biggest songs of 2011, a huge crossover smash that eclipsed the success of all the other Pink Friday singles.

Soon after "Super Bass" blew up, Young Money re-released Pink Friday so that all future pressings of the album would feature its biggest hit. At the time, I thought the label was perhaps chastened by the experience of sleeping on "Super Bass," and would be more cautious about leaving potential singles off universal editions of future albums. After all, who knows how many people picked up a copy of Pink Friday in a store, scanned the tracklisting for their favorite song, and decided against the purchase when "Super Bass" wasn't included? But perhaps Young Money actually made a major profit off of having a bonus track popular enough to steer consumers toward the more expensive deluxe edition—or to the iTunes store to buy the digital single, which ultimately sold 3 million units. In light of that, it's hard not to suspect that "The Motto" and "Mirror" were purposefully groomed to serve the same purpose.

Bonus tracks and songs unique to particular editions of albums have a long, scattered history in the recording industry. During the '60s British invasion, acts like the Beatles and the Rolling Stones would often see the UK editions of their albums resequenced or even retitled for American release to emphasize different singles. At the time, non-LP singles were also far more frequently chart hits, sometimes appended to an album's original running order or remaining uncollected on any full-length until appearing on compilations years later. That transatlantic tradition continued for decades, and even now, Elvis Costello's standalone UK singles, appended to US editions of his early LPs, have been grandfathered into the canonical versions of those albums: "Watching The Detectives" is now considered the last track of My Aim Is True, not the first bonus track on the expanded reissues.

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