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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