The Week In Pop

SuperM, Summer Walker, And The Eternal Struggle To Measure Music’s Popularity

SuperM are objectively a big deal. The seven-man ensemble brings together members of several prominent K-pop groups: EXO’s Baekhyun and Kai, NCT 127’s Taeyong and Mark, WayV’s Lucas and Ten, and SHINee’s Taemin. That makes them a supergroup, and they flexed their commercial superpowers this week by landing their debut EP SuperM: The 1st Mini Album at #1 on the Billboard 200 albums chart.

The 1st Mini Album is a perfectly competent K-pop collection. Opening track “Jopping” — as in, “When we jumping and popping, we jopping” — does the revved-up electronic hip-hop boy-band thing pretty well, barraging you with hooks both rapped and sung while the digital surge beneath mirrors the members’ agile dance moves. At the song’s climax, in English, they instruct listeners to “play the music loud, ’cause tonight’s gonna set you free,” a promise that feels like a stretch. “I Can’t Stand The Rain” is sadly not a Missy Elliott cover, but its jumble of live tribal drums, uptempo DnB programming, sweet crystalline harmonies, and processed robotic vocals honors her exploratory legacy. Topped off with lithe R&B falsetto, it sounds like what might have happened if Justin Timberlake had brought the rest of NSYNC along with him to his early solo sessions with Timbaland and the Neptunes.

The rest of the EP presents a similar mix of EDM beats, R&B melodies, and hip-hop calls to arms. None of it eclipses the energy-drink mania that courses through the best of the BTS catalog, but for feverish K-pop fans in search of the next fix, it’ll do the job. And as it turns out, those fans are extremely feverish. The 1st Mini Album got to #1 mostly by moving 164,000 copies in its first week on sale. That’s an impressively large number, especially since the album tallied a comparatively small 4.9 million on-demand track streams, which translates to just 3,000 equivalent album units in Billboard’s formula. (At this point we should note Billboard belongs to the same parent company as Stereogum.)

So The 1st Mini Album is the rare 2019 release to top the chart almost entirely because of album sales. But that doesn’t mean SuperM are a traditional success story. As Billboard notes, the group deployed a nuclear arsenal of merchandise bundles and other promotions to encourage sales among a supporter base that can be fanatical about albums as collector’s items:

SuperM’s handsome start was encouraged mightily by an array of permutations in which to purchase the album, which was likely very appealing to the group’s fans, since K-pop fans are often passionate about buying collectible physical packages of an album. The 1st Mini Album had more than 60 merchandise/album bundles available to purchase through their official web stores, a concert ticket/album sale redemption offer with their upcoming arena tour and eight different CD variants of the album (seven with a different cover for each member, along with a group edition). The act also staged a week-long pop-up shop in Los Angeles during street week, where fans could buy the CD (as well as oodles of individual merch items).

This is good business, and in an industry where outright album sales are lagging, it’s becoming business as usual. Almost every artist with a devoted fan base has begun bundling album sales with concert tickets in hopes of juicing their first-week chart standing, and many have similarly leveraged their fans’ willingness to buy merch. There are hypebeasts out there who’ll shell out triple digits for a crewneck sweatshirt but wouldn’t spend a penny to own music, so artists like Nicki Minaj and Travis Scott have simply begun including a free download of their albums with each new collectible. SuperM had it both ways, packaging The 1st Mini-Album with tickets and merch while also turning the EP itself back into a collector’s item. With the group urging listeners to “collect all versions of our debut album and complete the SuperM symbol on the spine,” you have to wonder how many of those sales resulted from superfans doing just that.

SuperM’s timing was unfortunate for Summer Walker, who in many weeks would have easily hit #1 with her debut album Over It. The project racked up 134,000 units in its first frame, the best week for an R&B album by a woman since Beyoncé’s Lemonade tallied 202,000 three and a half years ago. In contrast to SuperM’s stats, Walker’s units derived almost entirely from streaming. She logged 119,000 streaming equivalent units, meaning people streamed tracks from Over It 154.7 million times — the second largest streaming week ever for an R&B album following the Weeknd’s 175.2 million opening week for Starboy in 2016.

Streaming has become the dominant force in the hip-hop and R&B realm. Albums from the likes of Young Thug and Lil Tecca linger in the top 10 for weeks with only a few thousand copies sold but lots of sustained streaming activity. A Boogie Wit Da Hoodie’s Hoodie SZN famously hit #1 in January in a week when it sold only 823 copies. Even artists who put up solid sales numbers, like Drake and Post Malone, benefit significantly from streaming being factored in. Same goes for pop acts like Ariana Grande, Billie Eilish, and Taylor Swift, but the balance seems especially tilted toward streaming for the kinds of artists who thrive on rap and R&B radio.

Walker’s album was primed for that kind of streaming dominance. She entered many people’s radars when Drake hopped on a remix of her track “Girls Need Love,” and her music exists in that luxuriantly moody post-midnight zone where he mostly resides. But Walker has shaken off the curse that befalls some of Drake’s lesser-known duet partners, wherein he allegedly vampires out their rising energy and they disappear back into obscurity when he’s done with them. Instead, he’s putting her own stamp on his comfort zone, teaming with producer London On Da Track to transform late ’90s R&B hits into shadowy modern in-my-feelings slow jams.

Walker has surpassed the success of “Girls Need Love” with “Playing Games,” a track that interpolates Destiny’s Child’s “Say My Name” (like Drake once did) and, on the extended version, finds her duetting with trap-soul star Bryson Tiller. She’s now gaining traction with “Come Thru,” a track that flips “You Make Me Wanna…” and features vocals from none other than Usher himself. Over It has lots of other hits on deck, like the spare acoustic lament “Fun Girl” and the Auto-Tuned swoon “I’ll Kill You” with Jhené Aiko, a figure whose pioneering work within this aesthetic should not be ignored. Eight of the album’s songs are on the Hot 100 this week, largely thanks to all that streaming activity. Walker has staked out a place at the forefront of today’s R&B scene and only looks to get bigger from here.

Yet despite her best efforts to fend off SuperM with merch discounts of her own, Walker had to settle for a #2 debut this week. This has angered some of her fans, who have loudly complained about SuperM’s promo tactics. As Buzzfeed points out, the group and their US label Capitol Records were aggressively texting their fan base all week to campaign for a #1 debut. Furthermore, most of SuperM’s bundles allowed users to buy now and pay later through a service called Affirm, so essentially the group was taking out a mortgage on the #1 spot.

Some of Walker’s fans are circulating the increasingly common refrain that the music charts should be about music, not merch. It’s funny, though: Not that long ago streaming, which buoyed Walker’s own chart performance, was the controversial new chart factor. When streaming began to incontrovertibly affect the way music was consumed, Billboard incorporated it into their chart tabulations — first on the Hot 100 in 2013 and then on the Billboard 200 a year later. Back then the question was how streaming music for free — or virtually for free through a subscription service — should compare to paying money for your own copy. There’s more of a demonstrated investment when people are willing to pay, but streaming is able to show when listeners keep coming back to an album. Billboard has continued to tinker with its formula over the years in an effort to better reflect that balance.

Now a new comparison has arisen, between a large fan base racking up streams and a presumably smaller fan base purchasing multiple collector’s items. On one hand, shouldn’t the SuperM fans’ enthusiastic spending count for something? On the other hand, at what point does the Billboard 200 become more of a merch chart than a music chart? Billboard has wrestled with these questions publicly to an extent; earlier this year they decided not to count sales of DJ Khaled’s Father Of Asahd bundled with an energy drink because fans were encouraged to buy the drink, and therefore the album, in bulk.

There are no easy answers when you’re trying to tabulate music’s popularity in a mixed-media era. But as long as the thirst for a #1 album persists, Billboard will likely keep declaring a chart champion across all formats, and artists will keep trying to game whatever system is in place. Thinking about this stuff for long is liable to give you a headache, but amidst all the confusion, one thing’s for sure: When streaming has suddenly become the format that supposedly demonstrates music’s value, we know we’ve traveled through the looking glass.

CHART WATCH

Travis Scott debuts at #1 on the Hot 100 this week with “Highest In The Room” — more like highest on the chart, AM I RIGHT. It’s Scott’s second #1 single following last year’s “Sicko Mode,” and his first to debut at #1. Per Billboard, it’s only the 35th song to enter the chart on top. The last to do so was Jonas Brothers’ “Sucker.” The 59 million on-demand streams for “Highest In The Room” represent the largest one-week streaming figure since Ariana Grande’s “7 Rings” put up 85.3 million in a week this past winter.

This means Lizzo’s “Truth Hurts” falls to #2, bumping Shawn Mendes and Camila Cabello’s “Señorita” to #3. Another big hit makes its debut at #4: Dan + Shay and Justin Bieber’s “10,000 Hours.” It instantly becomes Dan + Shay’s best-charting hit, topping last year’s #21-peaking “Tequila.” It’s also the first song by a country duo or group to debut in the top five. “10,000 Hours” is Bieber’s 16th trip to the top 10. The rest of the top 10: “Someone You Loved,” “Circles,” “No Guidance,” “Ran$om,” “Bad Guy,” and “Panini.”

As explained above, K-pop supergroup SuperM’s SuperM: The 1st Mini Album debuts at #1 on the Billboard 200 albums chart. According to Billboard, the set tallied 168,000 equivalent album units and an impressive 164,000 in pure sales, a figure enhanced by numerous merch-bundle options. Summer Walker’s #2-debuting Over It, on the other hand, was mostly powered by streaming, with 119,000 of its 134,000 equivalent album units deriving from 154.7 million on-demand track streams — the second biggest streaming week ever for an R&B album, bested only by the Weeknd’s 175.2 million-stream week for Starboy.

Leather-clad country dipshit Brantley Gilbert also has a #9 debut with Fire & Brimstone, his fourth top 10 release. Otherwise the top 10 comprises your old friends and/or acquaintances Post Malone, DaBaby, Taylor Swift, Chris Brown, Billie Eilish, Kevin Gates, and Young Thug.

POP FIVE

Harry Styles – “Lights Up”
This is how you fucking do it! “Lights Up” is a subtly strange psych-gospel-dance banger disguised as zoned-out streaming-core. I love it. Big things popping for the talented Mr. Styles.

Camila Cabello – “Easy”
“You told me that I’m complicated, and that might be an understatement/ Anything else?” OK, you’ve got my attention Camila Cabello. Just kidding, I’ve been paying attention for a minute.

Sam Hunt – “Kinfolks”
Sam Hunt no longer sounds like a revolution, partially because mainstream country has incorporated much of his aesthetic. But he’s still very good at what he does.

Hayley Kiyoko – “Demons”
I continue to enjoy hearing the ways pop musicians are merging dark, stylish Billie Eilish minimalism with more conventional pop tropes. In Hayley Kiyoko’s case it’s yielded a worthy Halloween jam.

Katy Perry – “Harleys In Hawaii”
This song is such butt. I honestly cannot believe anyone has responded positively to it in any capacity.

NEWS IN BRIEF

  • The LA Kings covered up Taylor Swift’s “most sold-out performances” banner at Staples Center because fans think it’s cursed. [LA Times]
  • Zedd says he is “permanently banned” from China after liking a tweet about a controversial South Park episode. [CNBC]
  • Katy Perry has appealed the ruling in the “Dark Horse” plagiarism trial. [Variety]
  • Iggy Azalea responded to T.I. after he said working with her was a “blunder” that tarnished his legacy. [People]
  • Lady Gaga shaded Ninja after he said he doesn’t play with female gamers. [Billboard]
  • Gaga also appears to be releasing a new version of ARTPOP without R. Kelly. [Independent]
  • Ed Sheeran and Prince Harry united to promote mental health. [Instagram]
  • Thomas Rhett, Carrie Underwood, and Eric Church will headline Stagecoach 2020. [Stagecoach]
  • Kane Brown postponed his LA show after his drummer Kenny Dixon was killed in a car crash. [People]
  • Kim Petras released a video for “Icy.” [YouTube]
  • Bebe Rexha released a video for “You Can’t Stop The Girl.” [YouTube]
  • Lauren Daigle won Artist Of The Year, Song Of The Year, and Pop/Contemporary Album Of The Year at the 50th annual Gospel Music Association’s Dove Awards. [US News]
  • Sesame Street’s 50th season, premiering on HBO 11/16, will feature Charlie Puth, Maren Morris, Dave Grohl, and Thomas Rhett. [Fandom]
  • After hitting #1 around the world, Tones And I’s “Dance Monkey” has made its Hot 100 debut. [Billboard]
  • BTS will release a new version of “Make It Right” featuring Lauv tomorrow. [Twitter]
  • Get hype — Bruno Mars is in the studio. [Twitter]

HOLD ON, WE’RE GOING HOME