100 & Single: The R&B/Hip-Hop Factor In The Music Business's Endless Slump

Usher's Looking 4 Myself, Frank Ocean's Channel Orange, and Chris Brown's wingdinged-out Fortune.
Here are a few recent data points from chart bible Billboard and data provider Nielsen Soundscan as we move into the second half of 2012:

• In its midyear music-industry report card, Soundscan reports a return to the dismal album sales climate; year-to-date disc sales are off 3.2% from the same period in 2011. Last year saw the first annual rise in sales in nearly a decade, with albums eking out a 1.4% gain in 2011 over 2010. In the first six months of 2012, only one album sold more than a million copies, and it didn't come out this year: Adele's 21. Among the Top Five best-sellers for the year so far are a pair of stalwart acts from the 1980s: Lionel Richie, who on Tuskegee reupholstered his old hits as country songs and wound up with the year's second-best seller to date (912,000 copies); and Whitney Houston, who passed away in February, fueling sales for her 2000 disc The Greatest Hits which is now the year's fourth-best seller (818,000 copies).

• On the current album chart, Chris Brown debuts atop the Billboard 200 album chart with Fortune, the sequel to his petulantly titled 2011 smash F.A.M.E. (Forgiving All My Enemies). That prior album also debuted at No. 1, in April 2011, with first-week sales of 270,000 copies. The 2012 followup disc debuts in the penthouse with just under half that total, 134,000 copies.

• Just last week, Usher's 2004 megasmash album Confessions crossed 10 million in lifetime sales. Billboard reports that it's the first album to reach the diamond-sales mark since Eminem's 2002 album The Eminem Show, which quietly crossed the line last October. That makes the eight-year-old Confessions the newest album to move 10 million. An eye-popping 1.1 million of those copies were sold way back in the album's debut week, in March 2004, when Usher's hit "Yeah!" was riding high. The last few hundred copies that sold this summer were probably inspired by a flurry of promotional activity surrounding Usher's latest album, Looking 4 Myself. That disc, his seventh studio album and his fourth straight to debut at No. 1, arrived three weeks ago with first-week sales of just 128,000.

Conclusions? Well, for one thing, music sales are a bit like the U.S. unemployment rate: Just when you think we've pulled through the worst of it, the stagnation sets in again. That story cuts across all artists (who aren't Adele) and all musical genres.

But a lot of media outlets over the past week have homed in on the weak sales by Usher's and Brown's latest albums and noted that R&B music, in particular, seems to be in a slump.

I would go further than that: Black music, in its various forms, is in a commercial funk—and it's even worse than those album sales figures indicate. More than three years after Top 40 radio took a hard right toward dance-pop, urban music has been left to founder. We'd all be better off if it snapped out of its depression.

To appreciate what an aberration the current state of popular black music is, it's worth walking through a few decades of chart history.

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