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


Beyoncé, "Love On Top"

The upshot of all this—PPM and dying urban music retail and a lack of tailored digital sales data—is an R&B/Hip-Hop chart that feels hollowed-out. Music charts are like feedback loops—they reflect popularity back at the industry that makes stuff popular. But the loop on this chart is getting smaller and more insular all the time.

Hit songs generally spawn hit albums, and the marginalization of current urban music goes a long way toward explaining this year's drought of best-selling albums that owe their success to urban radio. It explains why superstars Usher and Chris Brown can't muster even half the opening sales of their respective last albums. On R&B radio, Beyoncé is still scoring smash hits—her "Love on Top" crowned the R&B/Hip-Hop chart for nearly two months—but that hasn't helped sell copies of her underperforming album 4, or gotten her back on Top 40 radio. As for the few hit albums this year by people of color, Lionel Richie's fluke smash is all country music; and Whitney Houston sold big this year in the saddest way possible.

Could the marginalization of current black music even explain the weak sales of albums in general? That's a stretch—obviously what's happened to the CD over the last decade is almost entirely about illegal downloading and the unbundling of the album in favor of cheap digital singles. That phenomenon has affected all music—from pop to rock to R&B.

All that said, I would submit that the cratering of urban crossover is a cancer at the heart of the music business. Throughout the Rock Era, music made by and for African-Americans has been the music of the future. Rock & roll, girl groups, electric blues, disco, rap and its various offshoots—virtually anything the American masses would eventually come around to loving was pioneered by blacks first. Kanye West, self-proclaimed innovator, released an album in late 2010 that's widely considered his best—but despite spawning a No. 2 R&B radio hit with "All of the Lights," My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy sold the worst of all of his albums. That can't be good for other hip-hop acts looking to stretch on a major label's dime—or indeed any major-label artist at all.

On this week's upcoming album chart, Chris Brown is expected to be ushered out of the No. 1 spot by a country album, the Zac Brown Band's Uncaged. But in the media, all eyes are on the album slated to debut at No. 2—Frank Ocean's official debut album Channel Orange, which is expected to move more than 120,000 copies, an impressive number for an artist with no big radio hits to speak of. Like so many best-sellers these days, Ocean's album is getting its boost less from his music than from the news cycle: the press frenzy earlier this month over his revelation that he'd fallen in love with a man when he was younger. It boosted awareness of Ocean broadly and may well have multiplied his album's opening sales.

A hit album is great, but is there any chance we can get this dude a hit on both urban and pop radio to go with it? Like many coastal cultural critics, I am rooting for Ocean for reasons of personal politics. But I'm also rooting for him simply because he's a talented singer who might help bring black music back to the center of the pop conversation, where it belongs.

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10 comments
Jen
Jen

Usher's new album is on sale for Amazon's Summer Deals. No excuse as to why you don't have it now!  http://amzn.to/LMMKpX

PaulCantor
PaulCantor

Really enjoyed this breakdown. One thing I think you're seeing with Chris Brown and Usher, this time around, is that neither artist really has a smash record. They were lucky on their last LPs, because they both had songs that worked at top 40 radio and on urban radio. So they were both seemingly inescapable. Certainly Usher, he caught that wave of electronic music as it was just beginning to work its way into pop on a large scale, with "DJ Got Us Fallin In Love," and Chris had "Yea 3x." These songs were inescapable. They're still on top 40 stations now. But they also had songs on the urban side as well. It was a nice mix, and it allowed both artists to tap into two audiences. Now, neither of them have songs out that are any good. Usher's had a single out for months, I still couldn't tell you what it's called. It plays on the radio, but you can tell it's a programming move. Nobody likes it. A new Chris Brown song leaks on the internet every 3 days. I was surprised he even had an album dropping. Just seemed to come out of nowhere. The other thing is, on the urban radio side, mixshow has taken over and destroyed playlists. With respect to a station like Hot 97, for example, I couldn't even begin to tell you when they have air time that ISN'T mixshow. The whole thing just seems like a mixshow.

Chris Molanphy
Chris Molanphy

This is a good question, Johnsomer. When I was doing the research into R&B-to-pop crossover for this piece, the other period I turned up in my research where crossover was at its lightest was in the very early '80s just before Michael Jackson and Prince broke wide (so, 1980–82, roughly). During that period, R&B radio was very much its own thing. Before Jackson broke (obviously Off the Wall had done very well, but compared with Thriller it wasn't exceptional), about the biggest star in black music was Rick James, who didn't make the Top 10 of the Hot 100 at all, not even with "Superfreak." I actually love this period of R&B (acts like Raydio, Zapp and Patrice Rushen), but it feels very separate from what was going on in mainstream rock (REO Speedwagon, Asia) and pop (Rick Springfield, the Go-Go's) at the time. After Jackson's big breakthrough, black acts went deeper into new wave–style sounds and sought Top 40 crossover: think mid-'80s acts like Ready for the World and Billy Ocean. But to come back to the argument of my piece, even during this period, you didn't have to completely alienate the core R&B radio audience to cross over—not the way, say, Usher these days feels the need to record a "DJ Got Us Fallin' in Love" or "Scream" for pop radio at the expense of his home-base audience; meanwhile, his slow-jam single "Climax" tops the R&B list but doesn't break the Top 10 at pop radio. Everything's much more bifurcated now.

Chris Molanphy
Chris Molanphy

About as much as Nielsen matters for TV ratings—i.e., as long as the medium being measured (TV in the case of the Nielsens, music in the case of Billboard/Soundscan) matters, measuring it properly will matter. If what you're implying is that popular music itself is less important in the context of an array of wider media choices ranging from video games to social media to podcasts, then sure...but I'm not sure how that's relevant to the specific issues on offer here.

Chris Molanphy
Chris Molanphy

And for "reductive," you should read "about as well-informed as the drunken dudes who burned disco records in Comiskey Park in 1979 and thought they were killing dance music forever."

Chris Molanphy
Chris Molanphy

I want to make sure I'm hearing you right: You're saying that hip-hop, the music that has reshaped the sound of popular culture since the early '80s and is now going on 40 years old...is a "novelty"? I mean, I must be misinterpreting you, because that would be a really reductive opinion.

Swytch
Swytch

The artists have no choice except to seek out crossover success. Going to the same Svengali producers over and over again obviously hasn't resulted in forward motion for urban music. I care less about this than the fact that acts like TV on the Radio will never have the level of support from people who look like them that Jay-Z does. Even rock is considered dead, and everyone wants the EDM sound. Maybe we can get some new genres out of the bargain instead of longing for what's been done to death already.

TS
TS

It's the negativity and the lack of originality in the material. There is nothing good happening for at least 10 years now. Hip-hop was only good as a novelty, no one wants to pay for it. R & B has always had a smaller audience, it's not every ones cup of tea...The problem in a nutshell is the wrong people are running the music business.

Selfenchanted
Selfenchanted

How much does Billboard REALLY matter now in the much larger media buffet?

Johnsomer
Johnsomer

Chris, keeping in mind that artists of color are represented highly on the Hot 100 (Rihanna, dancey Usher, Flo Rida) - it's just with songs deemed too pop for r&b playlists - has this phenomenon ever happened before? I would suspect not.

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