(October 9, 2021). There’s a certain unwritten hierarchy when it comes to superstar musicians and their album release schedules. It’s a status that artists rarely test and sometimes find themselves moving album drop dates in order to comply with the pecking order.
Artists (and their record labels) know and respect this unwritten code.
It’s why you’ll never see Drake and Taylor Swift—the two biggest recording acts of the 2010s—release albums on the same day or even within two weeks of one another. It’s a show of respect between the two artists as well as a recognition that, despite the fact that both of them could sell hundreds of thousands of copies each, there could only be one No. 1, and one musician would ultimately prevent the other from padding their chart-topping totals.
It’s also likely why Taylor Swift moved up the scheduled re-release date of her Red (Taylor’s Version) album from November 19 to the week before. With the just announced planned release of Adele’s fourth album, speculatively titled 30, on the 19th, Swift and her people likely realized that even she wouldn’t be able to compete with the British chanteuse whose last album—six years ago—sold more than 3.3 million units in its first week of availability.
Similarly, while he’d likely deny it if anyone asked, rap icon Kanye West released Donda this August on an off-cycle Sunday—five days before his nemesis Drake’s planned release of Certified Lover Boy, which fueled speculation that Ye moved up his release date to avoid the embarrassment of competing with Drizzy in the same chart frame. The move, which Ye blamed on his label’s jitters, not his own, allowed both rappers’ albums to debut at No. 1 in successive weeks last month.
It was a surprising turn for a once fearless Kanye who 14 years earlier had challenged a then-hot 50 Cent to a debut-week duel. Both artists albums—Yeezy’s Graduation and 50’s Curtis—were released on September 11, 2007, and Kanye’s commencement album ultimately prevailed with nearly one million copies sold in its debut week.
The times have certainly changed and few artists have been able to muster that level of sales since. Only Taylor Swift (four times), Lil Wayne, Lady Gaga, and Adele have been able to sell over one million copies of an album in their debut weeks since 2007. And Adele managed to sell more than a million copies of her last album 25 in three different weeks back in 2015.
With Adele’s next album now on deck, will she be able to maintain the kind of momentum that gave her the top-selling album for two consecutive years the last time out? As with 2015, has Adele shifted the landscape once again to send other artists scrambling to either push back or move up their album releases in order to avoid competing with the “Hello” singer?
Will the November release of 30 make it a wrap for anyone else to be able to get another No. 1 for the remainder of the year?
If past is prologue and considering the buzz around Adele’s announcement, the answer to that last question is likely yes. Or, it at least illustrates that there truly is a hierarchy when it comes to today’s superstar artists and their album release schedules—that is, if said artists want those albums to get that coveted No. 1 spot on the Billboard 200.
With all of this in mind, djrobblog reviewed Billboard’s ranking of the 100 biggest artists of the 2010s, plus a few of the biggest album acts of the past two years, and came up with the following exclusive ranking of the 25 artists with the greatest potential for huge opening week sales, in descending order.
Translation: artists on this list should avoid releasing albums during the same week as any artist ranked above them if their goal is to enter at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 chart.
Any artist who sets all-time opening-week sales records in an era when album sales overall are down more than 50% from their all-time highs is one to be reckoned with. And with the gap between her albums becoming larger with each release, the anticipation just grows deeper for any new Adele product. No one expects Adele to move numbers like she did in 2015, but even a third of those 3.4M copies would be more than any artist has been able to sell in a single week since.
Two. Taylor Swift.
Taylor Swift is more likely to keep someone from a No. 1 debut than any artist not named Adele. The wildcard for Ms. Swift right now, however, is whether the album would be all new material or a re-release of one of her older albums. The gap between new releases also would be a factor. In the six years since Adele’s last set, Taylor has released five albums, including four since 2019, with another, Red (Taylor’s Version), planned for release next month. While all of Taylor’s albums have been No. 1 débuts, each subsequent release has experienced diminishing first-week sales numbers, with the re-release of Fearless (Taylor’s Version) moving just under 300K.
Some of this can be attributed to changes in how Billboard’s charts are calculated, with album bundles and concert ticket offers no longer factoring into chart and sales rankings (October 9, 2020), a change that should equally affect many of the artists on this list (keep reading!)
The 6-God proved that he can still move enormous numbers with the release of Certified Lover Boy in September. Its 609K album-equivalent units in Week 1 were more than any album since Taylor’s Folklore in August 2020. Granted there was a two-year buildup of hype for CLB, not to mention the free publicity from the Kanye beef to stir up more interest. But Drake proved formidable even in his third week of release, where he held off the long-awaited debut of Lil Nas X, whose Montero settled for a No. 2 entry behind CLB.
Four. Post Malone.
It’s been more than two years since Posty’s last album, Hollywood’s Bleeding, which is still riding high on the Billboard 200. That album contained several megasmash singles (“Wow,” “Circles” and “Sunflower”) and opened with 489K album-equivalent units in September 2019, giving it the second-largest opening sales week of that year behind Taylor’s Lover. With those credentials and the artist’s profile still on the rise, Malone’s next album could open even bigger. In fact, aside from Kendrick Lamar, he may be the only hip-hop artist who could give Drake a run for his money in a head-to-head matchup.
Five. Kendrick Lamar.
Speaking of Kendrick, he’s another artist who’s gone nearly five years since his last studio album, DAMN. in 2017. That album moved more than 603K album-equivalent units in its first week, clearly establishing the Compton-based rapper as one of the top acts in the game. While all of the attention was on the Kanye-vs.-Drake battle this summer, many speculated that neither of those two would’ve survived a head-to-head battle with K.Dot. All eyes are on his next release, which is slated for release this year.
Six. Morgan Wallen.
Cancel culture be damned. Ever since its No. 1 debut week in January 2021, and even after the infamous N-word fiasco and the fallout that came with it the following month, new country superstar Morgan Wallen has been a mainstay in the top ten of the Billboard 200 chart. Dangerous: The Double Album opened with 265K album-equivalent units in its first week and has been in or near the top ten all year. It’d be a safe bet that he will double that figure the next go-round (assuming he’s back in his label’s good graces anytime soon). His fans certainly gave him the benefit of the doubt.
Seven. Harry Styles.
The next two artists on this list were a toss-up. They both happen to be British superstars with Harry Styles emerging as the biggest solo singer from his former group One Direction. His last album, the nearly two-year-old Fine Line, opened with 478K album-equivalent units in December 2019. It’s safe to assume that its followup could do similar numbers if he strikes while the iron is still hot.
Eight. Ed Sheeran.
It’s been almost five years (March 2017) since Sheeran’s last studio album, ÷ (divide), which opened with 451K album-equivalent units in its first week. Those are hefty numbers by most standards, and with the momentum of his current hit single, “Bad Habits,” behind it, his next release = (equals) should easily take the No. 1 spot after it is released October 29.
Nine. Cardi B.
Rapper Cardi B is in rarified air when it comes to female MCs. She is the only femcee in the past nearly ten years to have a No. 1 album. The last set by a female rapper to hit No. 1 before Cardi’s 2018 opus Invasion of Privacy was Nicki Minaj’s Pink Friday: Roman Reloaded in April of 2012 (and yes that includes albums by Megan Thee Stallion, Doja Cat and Lizzo). Cardi has had two stand-alone No. 1 singles in the past year-plus with “WAP” and “Up!,” which only builds anticipation for her sophomore album—one that could easily exceed the 255K album-equivalent units that Invasion did nearly four years ago.
Few artist’s next releases have been as highly anticipated as Ri-Ri’s. Her last album, Anti, will turn six in January 2022. Anti suffered from a messy release (exclusive Tidal streaming and 1 million free downloads by way of a Samsung promotion), which prevented it from a lofty Billboard debut. It eventually overcame those obstacles to reach No. 1, and has been on the Billboard 200 for 288 weeks (five and a half years). It is the longest-charting album ever by a Black female. Her next album, which the Barbadian superstar recently teased in an associated press interview, should greatly benefit from comments like this: “Whatever you know of Rihanna is not going to be what you hear,” she noted. “I’m really experimenting. Music is like fashion. I should be able to wear whatever I want. I treat music the same way. So I’m having fun and it’s going to be completely different.”
Eleven. Lil Baby.
When it comes to the hip-hop Babys, it appeared that both rappers DaBaby and Lil Baby would continue to yo-yo back and forth for chart supremacy. But two things happened in the past 18 months: 1) Lil Baby released the biggest album of his career (and of 2020) in My Turn, which is still in the top 15 after 83 weeks, and 2) DaBaby opened his mouth. Now Lil Baby seems to have the infant-named rapper market cornered. All kidding aside, Lil Baby debuted with 197k album-equivalent units last time out. Next time should be even bigger!
Twelve. The Weeknd.
The Canadian superstar and “Blinding Lights” singer will find it hard to top his last album, the 18-month old After Hours. The former No. 1 album has been hovering around the top 20 in Billboard ever since its release, thanks in large part to “Blinding Lights,” which spent 90 record-breaking weeks on the Hot 100. Earlier this summer, The Weeknd officially declared the end of the After Hours era with the purported first single from his next album, a song called “Take My Breath.” The song debuted and peaked at No. 6 in August and currently sits at No. 22–ten spots lower than his last After Hours single, “Save Your Tears”—suggesting that his fans aren’t quite ready to let go of the AH era just yet.
Thirteen. Travis Scott.
This one is tricky. Scott’s last solo studio album Astroworld sold more than 530K album-equivalent units upon its release in 2018. But the 2019 compilation album JackBoys did less than a third of that total with 154K units. Fortunately for the Houston-based rapper, his next album can be billed as the official followup to Astroworld, which will no doubt raise its profile in the minds of fans who thought of JackBoys as a side project. Either way, Scott would fare better than most other rappers in a head-to-head battle, with the likely exception of those above him on this list.
When the South Korean boy band BTS achieved their fourth No. 1 album in America in February 2020, they’d never had a No. 1 single. Now they’ve had six—all since September 2020–making the K-pop septet the fastest to accumulate six No. 1 singles since the Beatles in 1966. Their last album Be (in December 2020) was their fifth No. 1 on the Billboard 200, making them the fastest to accumulate five No. 1 albums since, who else, the Beatles. It’s safe to say that it’s a risk for any artist to go head-to-head against a group who is among the biggest in the world since…well, the Beatles.
Fifteen. J. Cole.
Don’t look now, but Fayetteville rapper J. Cole is slowly climbing the hip-hop leaderboard with six No. 1 albums, and counting (behind only five other rappers). The latest, this year’s The Off-Season, debuted at the top with 282k album-equivalent units—not a bad number considering it came without a lot of the fanfare of this year’s other big-name releases by Drake and Kanye. North Carolina’s biggest hip-hop export has already announced the name of his next album, The Fall Off, whose release date is TBD.
Sixteen. Kanye West.
Kanye West is another wildcard on this list. While his 2021 album Donda showed he still has chart muscle, it took a lot of promotion and hype to get the album above the 300k-album-equivalent-unit mark, a level the Chicago rapper hadn’t seen with his previous four studio efforts (2013’s Yeezus was the last one to open with more than 300k units before Donda). It’s likely that Kanye will continue to release albums, if for no other reason than to keep pace with fellow rap leaders Jay-Z, Drake and Eminem—all of whom, like Kanye, have ten or more No. 1s on the Billboard 200.
Don’t count out Slim Shady, whose last ten albums have debuted at No. 1 and who’s been charting since 1999. With the proper spacing and lack of over-saturation, the Detroit legend has shown that he can generate enough numbers to win in most weeks throughout a calendar year. His last album, Music To Be Murdered By, debuted with 279k album-equivalent units in January 2020.
Queen Bey hasn’t had a No. 1 album since 2016’s Lemonade, which is officially her last solo, non-soundtrack related, non-collaborative album. So one could argue that she hasn’t released a proper album since then. With that as a premise, Lemonade debuted at No. 1 with 653k units in the spring of 2016. While her profile has lowered somewhat since then, and she has reached the dreaded pop female age of 40 (a gender-based double standard, btw), when Bey does decide to release her next LP, there aren’t many artists who would want to go head-to-head with her.
Nineteen. Billie Eilish.
Like Drake and Kanye West, pop star Billie Eilish has very recent data to show where she stands on the pop music landscape. Her sophomore album, the introspective Happier Than Ever, debuted in August 2021 with 238k album-equivalent units consumed in its first week. Those numbers are respectable, but a tad lower than what one might have expected from an artist whose first album was one of the biggest and most critically acclaimed just two years earlier. Still, three weeks at No. 1 is nothing to sneeze at, and Happier remains in the top ten two months later.
Twenty. Ariana Grande.
Ariana’s latest album, the one-year-old Positions, became one of the earliest cases of Billboard’s new policy of not allowing album bundles and concert ticket tie-ins to count toward sales and chart positions. Positions entered the chart at No. 1 last fall with a respectable 174k album-equivalent units, the highest consumption under the new policy at that point. As artists and labels adjust to Billboard’s stricter terms, I’m sure they’ll find ways to beef up sales again, especially for an artist of Grande’s popularity.
Twenty-one. Justin Bieber.
The Biebs is another artist with recent data to show the kind of first-week numbers he’s capable of pulling. His latest effort, Justice, debuted at No. 1 in early April with 155k album-equivalent units after being previewed by four single releases over the previous six months. The 155k number is modest compared to earlier releases, especially given his singles saturation. His prior album Changes debuted with 231k only 13 months earlier, suggesting that the releases may be coming too frequently. Bieber’s high watermark remains 2015’s magnum opus Purpose, which debuted with 649k album-equivalent units that autumn.
Twenty-two. Dua Lipa.
Twenty-first century disco-pop queen Dua Lipa is still enjoying the immense success of her latest album, Future Nostalgia, which debuted at a modest No. 4 in April 2020 with an even more modest 66k album-equivalent units consumed. But that was before its first single “Don’t Stop Now” went on to become the biggest hit of 2020 by a female and its latest single “Levitating” threatened to do the same in 2021. In fact, “Levitating” is now the second-longest charting top-10 hit in Billboard Hot 100 history behind only The Weeknd’s “Blinding Lights,” and is on track to be the biggest single of 2021 when Billboard’s year-end rankings are released in a couple months.
Twenty-three. Bruno Mars/Silk Sonic.
In an ironic plot twist, the duo of Bruno Mars and Anderson .Paak, also known as Silk Sonic, announced on Friday (Oct. 8) that they were moving up the scheduled release of their debut album from spring 2022 to Nov. 12 of this year. For those paying attention, that is the same day Taylor Swift is issuing Red (Taylor’s Version). Assuming the schedule doesn’t change again, that will be the only head-to-head matchup in 2021 between artists on this list, a battle that will immediately test this blog’s theory (and its rankings).
The down-but-never-out Charlotte, NC rapper DaBaby is trying to recover from being the latest (and highest profile) MC to be maligned by (dumb) homophobic comments. What his next project does will largely depend on whether his label will back him and whether various outlets will allow him to promote it. Note to readers: cancel culture doesn’t work the same for homophobic rappers as it does for country stars who utter racist remarks, so DaBaby will likely struggle where Morgan Wallen didn’t…just sayin’.
Twenty-five. Lil Wayne.
The Louisiana native Lil Wayne used to make a habit of moving a million units in a single week. But times have changed since his heyday of a decade ago. After a lengthy layoff, however, he’s recently shown that he’s still capable of topping the charts, as he achieved his fourth and fifth No. 1 sets in the past three years, with Tha Carter V moving 480k album-equivalent units in the fall of 2018. The followup, last year’s Funeral, topped the chart with just 139k units…a 71% drop-off from its predecessor’s opening week.
Wildcards: Luke Combs, Lady Gaga, Megan Thee Stallion, Youngboy Never Broke Again, Lil Uzi Vert, Future, Young Thug, Jay-Z, Nicki Minaj, Justin Timberlake, Jason Aldean, Shawn Mendes, Britney Spears, Chris Brown
So what do you think? Is the list about right? Who would you have excluded or included, and in what order would you have ranked them? Feel free to comment in the section below or in any of the social media feeds where the article is posted.
DJRob (he/him) is a freelance music blogger from somewhere on the East Coast who covers R&B, hip-hop, pop and rock genres – plus lots of music news and current stuff! You can follow him on Twitter at @djrobblog.
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