The Week In Pop

Travis Scott’s Dual #1s And The Storied History Of Chart Chicanery

Everything’s coming up Travis Scott. This week, four months after it came out, Scott’s album Astroworld returned to the top of the Billboard 200 for a third week. Meanwhile Astroworld’s big hit, the Drake collab “Sicko Mode,” completed a 17-week climb to #1 on the Hot 100 singles chart. Scott, the Houston rapper born Jacques Webster II, joins Drake and Camila Cabello as the only artists this year to claim the #1 album and single in America in the same week. And he couldn’t have done it without some good, old-fashioned chicanery.

Now, that’s not to say Astroworld is bad or that it required trickery to succeed commercially. It’s actually quite good — the best thing Scott’s done by a mile, a document that confirms his status as one of rap’s great auteurist directors. Considering the way it corrals an all-star cast and an hour of psychedelic, gothic, festival-ready rap into an endlessly engaging journey — and considering Scott’s well-known tutelage under Kanye West, who’s practically family given their mutual romantic entanglements with women from the Kardashian-Jenner clan — you might call Astroworld his very own beautiful dark twisted fantasy.

Astroworld is not lacking for highlights — Frank Ocean doing his best Young Thug impression on “Carousel,” Stevie Wonder’s harmonica piercing through James Blake’s aching moans on “Stop Trying To Be God” — but it’s rarely better than on “Sicko Mode.” The song’s a disjointed multi-part epic that squelches, bounces, and soars in and out of consciousness (quite literally when Drake is rapping about popping Xanex to sleep through a flight) on its way to a runtime beyond five minutes. It’s one of the best, longest, and weirdest songs to hit #1 in recent memory. In a smart Billboard piece on the song’s ascension, Andrew Unterberger compares it to “Band On The Run,” which is spot-on.

So the quality is there. Furthermore, Scott is far from the first to exploit loopholes in the Billboard charts. There’s a long history of artists and their handlers manipulating the musical rankings through unconventional strategies bordering on cheating. As this Washington Post column points out, before the 1991 advent of SoundScan, which allowed for much closer tracking on actual sales, tallies were based on how many units the labels shipped to record stores. Thus, labels would send extra copies of an album to stores to boost their stats, or they’d lobby the shops in other ways. You can bet the battles over prominent rack placement were as fierce as today’s fights for Spotify playlist real estate. The dirty business continued even after SoundScan came along and theoretically cleaned things up; there’s an old pervasive rumor (never proven!) that Def Jam filled a warehouse full of CDs purchased to ensure Jay-Z’s The Dynasty: Roc La Familia would beat Outkast’s Stankonia for #1 in 2000.

The digital era has been rife with its own distinct manipulations. Streaming services have often been accused of artificially boosting certain artists. Drake tacked his July 2015 mega-hit “Hotline Bling” onto the end of his April 2016 album VIEWS — even though by then “Hotline Bling” felt like ancient history — so he could funnel its millions upon millions of streams into the album’s first-week numbers. Jay-Z and Rihanna have given away their albums for free as part of corporate promotions, going Platinum instantly. Chris Brown attempted to hit #1 last year by releasing a 45-track album and giving his fans detailed instructions on how to improve his chart standing. Post Malone’s “Rockstar” got to #1 partially because Republic Records posted a loop of the song’s chorus on YouTube along with a link to hear the full song on your streaming service of choice, essentially racking up a play on YouTube and Spotify/Apple/TIDAL/whatever each time someone happened upon the video. Various artists have been accused of deploying bots to increase their sales or streams.

It’s a grand tradition, and Scott joined it by using some, shall we say, non-traditional methods to get his album back to #1. It helped that last week was bereft of major new releases, so that 71,000 equivalent album units was enough to top the chart. Had 6ix9ine gotten a full week of streams and sales for his Dummy Boy album, released last Tuesday to combat a leak, Astroworld probably would have had to settle for #2. (In fact, 6ix9ine may still come out on top depending on the results of a pending Nielsen audit.) But Scott still wouldn’t have been able to top Tekashi without 31,000 in album sales — a surprisingly large total for a four-month-old album that has remained relevant largely through streaming. As Billboard reports, “Its move to #1 on the new chart was prompted largely by Scott releasing more than two dozen merchandise/album bundles for Cyber Monday (Nov. 26) through his official website. Each of items — including a keychain, hats, T-shirts, hoodies and so forth ­– came bundled with a digital copy of the Astroworld album.” Essentially Scott leveraged his hypebeast audience’s hunger for new T-shirts into thousands upon thousands of “album sales.”

It wasn’t the first time this year Scott staved off the competition through packaging copies of his album with another, more in-demand product. When Astroworld debuted this summer, it won a neck-and-neck race for #1 with Nicki Minaj’s Queen. A significant chunk of Scott’s sales that week stemmed from bundling copies of his album with concert tickets, a trick that was novel when Prince tried it back in 2004 and even seemed unusual when Katy Perry did it 18 months ago but has lately become standard practice in the industry. The difference in this case is that rather than selling tickets to specific concerts, Scott was essentially hawking vouchers for a tour that hadn’t been announced yet. This irked Minaj to no end, as did the fact that Scott’s girlfriend Kylie Jenner was promoting the bundles on her highly influential Instagram account.

Never mind that Minaj herself had engaged in some duplicitous moves in an effort to get Queen to #1. For one thing, there was a 48-hour stretch during which the album was on sale for just $5 through Minaj’s own online shop — the same storefront that offered an assortment of deals bundling merch with a copy of Queen. The discounted price wasn’t as audacious as that time when Amazon sold Lady Gaga’s Born This Way for just 99 cents for two days, accounting for about 440,000 of its 1.1 million in first-week sales, but it remains an eyebrow-raising tactic. Sketchier still was the decision to add Minaj’s hit 6ix9ine collaboration “Fefe” to the tracklist days after Queen’s release in an obvious attempt to boost the album’s streaming figures. Scott looked sneaky and Minaj seemed desperate, but both sides could be accused of stretching the definition of fair.

By comparison, Scott’s path to #1 on the Hot 100 feels positively pedestrian. Ariana Grande’s tabloid-igniting “thank u, next” had been #1 for three weeks — fueled partially by an endless procession of behind-the-scenes and teaser videos on Grande’s YouTube — but was losing steam, with “Sicko Mode” looming close behind at #2. With Grande’s much-hyped “thank u, next” video set to premiere last Friday, the first day of a new chart frame, Scott had a one-week window in which to get “Sicko Mode” to #1 before the competition became too stiff.

Thus, his camp pulled out all the stops. Scott’s label, Epic, bought ads promoting the “Sicko Mode” video on YouTube. (I actually saw one Friday when watching the “thank u, next” video.) Scott himself pleaded with his audience at Madison Square Garden last Wednesday to lift the song to #1. And earlier that day, he released Skrillex’s “Sicko Mode” remix, just in time to goose the song’s stream count at the last minute — a move reminiscent of when the Weeknd released a remix of his #1 hit “The Hills” featuring Eminem just in time to fend off the arrival of Drake’s “Hotline Bling” video.

It worked. Given the record-breaking performance of its video, “thank u, next” seems likely to return to #1 next week, but “Sicko Mode” is on top for now. Scott has his first #1 hit. Ironically, Drake, who arguably carries the track, does not share in the glory because none of the featured artists on Astroworld are credited as performers. I wonder if that had something to do with the short-lived Travis Scott-Frank Ocean feud this past summer. Actually, I wonder if any of the artists on Astroworld realized Scott wasn’t giving them feature credits.

Drake has had an incredible year on the charts. Scorpion lasted five weeks atop the Billboard 200. His various hits added up to 29 weeks at #1 on the Hot 100, the most ever in a calendar year. He also passed the Beatles for most top 10 hits in a year. Maybe he’s content with the formidable 2018 he’s already had. But I wouldn’t be surprised if he and his legal team wiggle their way into a feature credit on “Sicko Mode” to further pad his 2018 stats. If the history of the music business has proven anything, it’s that artists are ruthless and will fight to hit #1 by any means necessary.

CREDIT: Johnny Nunez/WireImage

CHART WATCH

We’ve already established well and good that Travis Scott is king of the charts this week. He put up 71,000 equivalent album units and 31,000 in sales for Astroworld and saw “Sicko Mode” become his first #1 hit. We’ve also explained that 6ix9ine’s Dummy Boy debuts at #2. On only three days of sales and streaming activity, it wrapped its first week with 66,000 units and 10,000 in sales. It’s his first top 10 album and, given his legal troubles, maybe his last? (Again, pending an audit of Billboard’s charts, 6ix9ine may end up with the real #1.)

Also having a big week on the Billboard 200 is Michael Bublé, who becomes the second artist this year to put two albums in the top 10 concurrently following XXXTentacion. Bublé’s new album Love falls to #3, while his 2011 chart-topper Christmas climbs back to #5. In between those two is the A Star Is Born soundtrack at #4. The rest of the top 10 comprises the Bohemian Rhapsody soundtrack, Pentatonix’s Christmas Is Here! (at a new #7 peak), Drake’s Scorpion, the Greatest Showman soundtrack, and Lil Baby and Gunna’s Drip Harder.

Behind “Sicko Mode” and “thank u, next” in the Hot 100 top 10, Marshmello and Bastille’s “Happier” and Halsey’s “Without Me” hold at #3 and #4 respectively. Panic! At The Disco’s “High Hopes” hits #5, a new career best for them. Sheck Wes’ “Mo Bamba” also reaches a new peak at #6. Kodak Black, Travis Scott, and Offset’s “Zeze” is at #7, followed by Lil Baby and Gunna’s “Drip Too Hard” at #8. Maroon 5 and Cardi B’s “Girls Like You” is at #9, and Juice WRLD’s “Lucid Dreams” rounds out the top 10.

POP FIVE

Mark Ronson – “Nothing Breaks Like A Heart” (Feat. Miley Cyrus)
On one hand, this sounds like Elle King’s best attempt at Lana Del Rey grandeur. On the other hand, that Mark Ronson sure does know how to produce pop music, and that Miley Cyrus sure does know how to sing it.

Benny Blanco, Jesse, & Swae Lee – “Better To Lie” & Benny Blanco & Juice WRLD – “Roses” (Feat. Brendon Urie)
Officially didn’t expect Benny Blanco to release something founded on rock guitar, but Swae Lee sounds great over it. He sounds way better than Juice WRLD wailing “roses are red, violets are blue” in his latest sob story — this time with 100% more Panic! At The Disco.

Clean Bandit – “Mama” (Feat. Ellie Goulding)
Clean Bandit’s new album What Is Love? compiles so many quality singles from the past year or so (“Rockabye,” “Solo,” “Baby,” “Symphony,” “I Miss You,” “Playboy Style”) that it’s hard to get too worked up about this extremely beige new Ellie Goulding collab.

Cheat Codes & Kim Petras – “Feeling Of Falling”
Both Cheat Codes and Kim Petras have been building solid discographies on the fringes of the mainstream. Here those trajectories intersect in a slyly understated disco-pop jam.

Zayn – “Rainberry” & “Good Years”
Zayn’s new album Icarus Falls is out next week. The blandly corny “Good Years” has me worried, but if it’s going to be heavy on musty ’80s digital pop-R&B like “Rainberry” and “Sour Diesel,” I’m also intrigued.

NEWS IN BRIEF

  • Ariana Grande covered up another of her Pete Davidson tattoos with a tribute to Mac Miller. [TMZ]
  • Kanye West will appear on XXXTentacion’s posthumous album Skins, out tomorrow. [XXL]
  • Kanye also had to apologize after an actor called him on Twitter for using his phone during opening night of The Cher Show. [CNN]
  • Nick Jonas married Priyanka Chopra in an Indian royal palace. [People]
  • Cardi B was a no-show Monday at the hearing over her strip club fight. The judge warned that if she doesn’t show up to the rescheduled hearing tomorrow she risks arrest. [Reuters]
  • In other Cardi news, she shared the first photo of daughter Kulture the same day she announced her split from Offset. [Instagram]
  • Justin Timberlake’s Man Of The Woods tour is on hold while his bruised vocal cords heal. [Instagram]
  • Madonna shaded Lady Gaga on Instagram. [Page Six]
  • Tove Lo released a video for “Cycles.” [YouTube]
  • James Arthur and Anne-Marie performed “Rewrite the Stars” from The Greatest Showman – Reimagined on The Voice. [YouTube]
  • MØ shared a video for a “Blur” remix featuring Foster The People. [YouTube]
  • DJ Earworm released his “United State of Pop 2018 (Turnin’ It Up)” mashup. [YouTube]

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