Deconstructing: Taylor Swift, Kendrick Lamar, Soundscan & The Future Of The Album

Yesterday, some interesting stuff happened on the Billboard charts. Though it was absolutely unsurprising that Taylor Swift’s Red topped the chart, what was surprising was the exact volume she moved — 1.2 million sold, the highest sales total since Eminem’s 2002 release of The Eminem Show, and a figure that made Taylor the only female artist (only the fourth artist ever) in Soundscan history to have two chart debuts of a million-plus. Another surprising thing about yesterday’s chart, to be sure, was the huge opening week for Kendrick Lamar’s Interscope debut Good Kid m.A.A.d. City, where his 241k sales signified the biggest opening week for a solo male artist since Drake’s last album came out. Both successes — in their own, completely different ways — are astonishing.

When you’re acknowledging the fact that the new-ish Soundscan numbers take iTunes and other downloads into their calculation — for instance, 565,545 units of Red were sold on iTunes — I can’t help but see an interesting seam to yesterday’s results. Taylor Swift’s album, which would have been my choice for Album Of The Week (and God, would I have enjoyed the Lambert-level commenter meltdown it could have inspired), works very much in the way many modern pop albums do: uneven as long players, but teeming with repackage-able, stand-alone singles that will surely allow Taylor to double, triple, quadruple, septuple dip (I think there are seven hits on Red, a number that seems conservative compared to other estimates). Red also incorporates the “hot sound” of the moment, with mini-dubstep drops tucked into the corners of Swift’s deliriously infectious “I Knew You Were Trouble” and “22” (we’ve seen that in other big pop releases from this year, whether it’s the Eurothump of Usher’s similarly long and uneven Looking 4 Myself and Justin Bieber’s scrupulously think-tanked Believe). What spells longevity for these artists is that they don’t sound like they’re co-opting just for the sake of co-opting. The fact that they’re able to incorporate the wobble and come away better for it is a testament to those artists’ staying power. Taylor’s only 22; Red might just be the tip of the iceberg, somehow.

Even in the context of Taylor Swift’s huge week, it’s hard not to look at Kendrick Lamar’s distant second-place as massive accomplishment for the album as a traditional format. GKMC is a theme-heavy affair, one of those records where fans work together to correctly identify the explicit narrative like another generation might meticulously rewind The Wizard Of Oz VHS and drop the needle on the right spot of Dark Side Of The Moon. While there’s plenty of songs that could stand alone just fine in a Spotify playlist or a road trip mix — “Backseat Freestyle,” “Poetic Justice” — most of GKMC’s highlights are strengthened by the depth and focus of the record. (When I was down on the prospect of Kendrick major label debut — this was around when the Gaga drama was kicking up — I liked to joke that this Chief Keef studio video had more hits than Good Kid was gonna have. Honestly, I didn’t see this record coming.) Good Kid takes a lot of attention to absorb; it took me far longer than the album’s runtime to get through. If Taylor’s record represents the “new” way of making a hit record, Kendrick has to represent the “old” way — records that represent a fuller vision. Which is not to say “fuller” necessarily means “better.” What’s especially cool is that both styles can win, even in the supposedly ragged 2012 music biz where even established, critically-adored acts aren’t getting by.

A couple of months ago I was having a conversation with my friend Naomi, who was talking about how the future-leaning K-pop market handles releases; in particular, she was talking about Big Bang’s latest album, basically a bundle of incongruous singles all paired with accompanying, ridiculously entertaining videos, a more full-blown assertion of the whole “sequencing doesn’t matter if we’ve got singles” mentality that rules Red. For a Q&A a little while ago, I talked to Miguel about his decision to use iTunes new-ish “Complete My Album” program, where buyers could pre-order the album at a discount in order to unlock sequential downloads (Miguel released his album Kaleidoscope Dream in parts, a savvy move both business-wise and smart for artists who’d rather focus on putting music out more regularly in smaller bunches). There’s a lot of ways to put something out, and I’m excited that people are bucking the conventional wisdom a little bit. As listening and Soundscan reportings continue to evolve, I have a feeling that Kendrick and Taylor’s albums will continue to be linked; after all, this was one of the best release weeks in recent memory and that number still matters a ton in the biz. The best part for me, though, is that no matter the format, quality triumphs. Both albums are great, and their financial success will encourage more stuff like GKMC and Red to flood the pipeline. Here’s to greatness.