Chart Watch

Week Ending Sept. 21, 2008: Rucker Crosses Country Music’s Color Line

Chart Watch

You know the voice even if you've forgotten the name. Darius Rucker was the lead singer for Hootie & the Blowfish, which burst out of South Carolina to a record a string of hits in the mid-'90s. And then, almost as quickly as they found fame, they seemed to vanish. Rucker is back and finding success in an unexpected place-the country charts. His single, "Don't Think I Don't Think About It" jumps to #1 on the country chart. It's the first #1 by an African American artist since Charley Pride's "Night Games" topped the chart in July 1983. Pride, the most successful African American country artist of all time (admittedly, it's a short list), had 29 #1 country hits between 1969 and 1983. The best known is 1971's "Kiss An Angel Good Mornin'."

Rucker also enters the country album chart at #1 with his second solo album, Learn To Live. Rucker is the first African American artist to top this chart since Ray Charles scored in March 1985 with Friendship, a collection of duets. The only other African American to top the chart was Pride, who had 12 #1 country albums between 1968 and 1980. All three of these artists are sons of the South. Rucker, 42, was born in Charleston, South Carolin. Pride, 70, was born in Sledge, Mississippi. Charles, who died in 2004 at age 73, was born in Albany, Georgia.

The country format wasn't always welcoming to African Americans. Ray Charles failed to crack the country singles chart until 1980, even though numerous singles from his two volumes of Modern Sounds In Country And Western Music in 1962 were big hits. Between them, the country-steeped albums spawned four Top 10 pop hits: "I Can't Stop Loving You," "You Don't Know Me," "You Are My Sunshine," and "Take These Chains From My Heart."

It's odd that so few African Americans have become country stars, because country and R&B have much in common. Both genres are quintessentially American. Both are often described as "music of the people." That was the point of the 1994 album, Rhythm Country And Blues, which consisted of 11 collaborations by such pairings as Vince Gill & Gladys Knight, George Jones & B.B. King and Patti LaBelle & Travis Tritt. The album hit #1 on the country chart and was nominated for Album of the Year at the Country Music Association Awards. It also went top 20 on the pop and R&B charts. Nelly seemed to be suggesting a rap/country link when he titled his 2000 breakthrough album, Country Grammar.

Rucker's album enters The Billboard 200 at #5. This far outpaces his first solo album, Back To Then, which peaked at #127 in 2002. It's Rucker's first top five album since Hootie & the Blowfish's third album, Musical Chairs, hit #4 in 1998. Hootie's two previous albums, Cracked Rear View and Fairweather Johnson, both reached #1. Cracked Rear View was a phenomenon. It logged 55 weeks in the top 10 (a total topped by only 10 albums) and spawned three top 10 singles, "Hold My Hand," "Let Her Cry," and "Only Wanna Be With You." (Its success enabled Hootie to win the Grammy for Best New Artist in 1996, beating out Alanis Morissette, who had a phenomenal hit of her own with Jagged Little Pill.) Cracked Rear View has sold 10,151,000 copies, which makes it the #13 album of the Nielsen/SoundScan era (which dates to 1991).

The album's runaway success proved to be a mixed blessing. Like Peter Frampton, Christopher Cross, Huey Lewis & the News and Wilson Phillips, all of whom were seen as having success disproportionate to their musical heft or distinctiveness, Hootie may have been penalized for being too successful. Fairweather Johnson sold less than one-quarter as many copies as its predecessor, and Musical Chairs sold about a third of that.

Rucker is the second pop veteran in as many weeks to debut at #1 on the country chart. Jessica Simpson topped that chart last week with her first country album, Do You Know. A third pop veteran, Jewel, bowed at #1 on the country chart in June with Perfectly Clear.  Pop veterans have been trying their hand at country since before the inception of the country album chart in 1964. Bing Crosby released Don't Fence Me In (Songs Of The Wide Open Spaces) way back in 1946.

In other news, Metallica holds at #1 for the second week with Death Magnetic, bringing its sales total after two weeks to 827,000. It's already #19 for the year-to-date. This week's tally pushes Metallica over the 50,000,000 mark in total sales in the Nielsen/SoundScan era. Metallica is the first hard rock act-and only the fifth act overall-to reach that milestone. To mark the achievement, I'm preparing a Chart Watch Extra to run on Friday in which I count down the top 15 acts with the greatest album sales in Nielsen/SoundScan history. Pink Floyd is on the list, but is Pink? One rapper made the cut, but is it Jay-Z or Eminem? One Jackson is on the list, but is it Michael, Janet or Alan? Check back on Friday and find out.

This week's showdown between Ne-Yo and Nelly to be the top new entry on The Billboard 200 was more than a contest between two popular artists. It was a face-off between two iconic images of African-American masculinity: the dapper, romantic type and the strong, aggressive type; the lover and the fighter. In this week's contest, the lover won out. Ne-Yo's Year Of The Gentleman enters the chart at #2, beating out Nelly's Brass Knuckles, which opens at #3.

Kanye West's "Love Lockdown," from his forthcoming album, 808's & Heartbreak, debuts at #2 on Hot Digital Songs. West performed the song on MTV's recent VMA telecast. It's his first all-singing, no-rapping single. West's album is expected in November. Pink's "So What" tops the chart for the third straight week. It sold 218,000 downloads this week, bringing its total after five weeks to 920,000. Pink is red-hot!

Here's the low-down on this week's top 10 albums.

1. Metallica, Death Magnetic, 337,000. This is the band's first album to stay on top for a second week since Load in 1996. Also, it has sold more copies after two weeks (827,000) than any Metallica album since Load (which had sold 982,000 at this point). The album sold 337,000 copies this week, the heftiest tally any album has posted in its second week since Alicia Keys' As I Am shifted 348,000 copies in November. Nearly 36,000 copies were sold digitally, making this the week's #1 Digital Album. Two songs from the album are listed on Hot Digital Songs, topped by "Unforgiven III" at #79.

2. Ne-Yo, Year Of The Gentleman, 250,000. Even though this just missed becoming Ne-Yo's third album in a row to debut at #1, it is his third album in a row to debut with first-week sales of 250,000 or greater. In My Own Words bowed in March 2006 with sales of 301,000. Because Of You opened in May 2007 with sales of 251,000. Incidentally, this week's total would have placed Ne-Yo at #1 in all but 11 weeks of 2008. Three songs from the new album are listed on Hot Digital Songs, topped by "Closer" at #16.

3. Nelly, Brass Knuckles, 84,000. This is Nelly's fifth studio album in a row to debut in the top five, but the rap star won't be celebrating when he hears about the tepid first-week sales tally. Nelly's 2002 album Nellyville debuted at #1 with first-week sales of 714,000. In 2004, Suit and Sweat, released simultaneously, had combined first-week sales of 738,000. I have a feeling Nelly could use some good news: This is the highest-charting of five rap albums in the top 10. "Body On Me" (featuring Ashanti and Akon) vaults from #107 to #37 on Hot Digital Songs.

4. Kid Rock, Rock N Roll Jesus, 64,000. The album slips a notch to #4 in its 15th week in the top 10. This matches Lil Wayne's Tha Carter III for the longest stay in the top 10 by a current inhabitant. In addition, the album tops the 2 million mark this week (current total: 2,025,000). It's Mr. Rock's fourth album to top the 2 million mark. Rock Heroes' version of "All Summer Long" enters Hot Digital Songs at #15, with 63,000 paid downloads this week. Hit Masters' rendition of the song dives to #175, having sold 267,000 downloads to date.

5. Darius Rucker, Learn To Live, 60,000. This is Rucker's first appearance in the top 10 in exactly 10 years. Hootie's Musical Chairs debuted (and peaked) at #4 10 years ago this week. "Don't Think I Don't Think About It" jumps from #60 to #52 on Hot Digital Songs.

6. Young Jeezy, The Recession, 60,000. The album slips from #2 to #6 in its third week in the top 10, which suggests that this will be a Recession of only moderate duration. (Somehow I suspect the nation's economic woes will last longer.) "Put On" (featuring Kanye West) dips to #34 on Hot Digital Songs.

7. DJ Khaled, We Global, 49,000. This new entry is the highest-charting album to date for the Miami-based producer and radio DJ. Listennn: The Album peaked at #12 in 2006. We The Best reached #8 last year. DJ Khaled, a Palestinian-American, has two songs in the top 40 on Hot Digital Songs. "Go Hard" (featuring Kanye West and T-Pain) bows at #35. "Out Here Grindin" (featuring Akon, Plies, Young Jeezy, Rick Ross, Ace Hood, Trick Daddy & Lil' Boosie) dips to #40.

8. Buckcherry, Black Butterfly, 47,000. This is the L.A.--based rock group's fourth album and its first to crack the top 10. Buckcherry's previous highest charting album was 15, which debuted at #48 in April 2006 (first week sales: 26,000). It peaked at #39. Two songs from that album, "Crazy Bitch" and "Sorry," have sold a combined total of 2.8 million downloads. No songs from the new album are listed on Hot Digital Songs.

9. Lil Wayne, Tha Carter III, 43,000. The album holds at #8 in its 15th week in the top 10. That's the longest run by a rap album since Eminem's Encore had 17 weeks in the top 10 in 2004-2005. (Unless you count Black Eyed Peas' Monkey Business as a rap album. The hip-hop smash had 28 weeks in the top 10 in 2005-2006.) Five songs from the current album are listed on Hot Digital Songs, topped by "Got Money" (featuring T-Pain) at #17. This is the 16th consecutive week that five or more songs from the album have been listed on that chart.

10. The Game, LAX, 42,000. The album slips from #7 to #10 in its fourth week in the top 10. This is the second time it has ranked ahead of Slipknot's All Hope Is Gone, the album that defeated it for the #1 spot three weeks ago by the slimmest of margins. "My Life" (featuring Lil Wayne) jumps from #28 to #22 on Hot Digital Songs.

Five albums drop from the top 10 this week. Jessica Simpson's Do You Know dives from #4 to #18, Slipknot's All Hope Is Gone falls from #5 to #12, Jonas Brothers' A Little Bit Longer drops from #6 to #11, LL Cool J's Exit 13 exits the top 30 by tumbling from #9 to #33 and the Mamma Mia! soundtrack dips from #10 to #13.

Raphael Saadiq's The Way I See It bows at #19. This is Saadiq's first top 20 album in a career that stretches back more than 20 years. Saadiq had four albums with the R&B trio Tony! Toni! Tone!, the highest-charting being Sons Of Soul, which made #24 in 1993. His previous highest-charting solo album was Instant Vintage, which hit #25 in 2002.

Two hard rock bands are off and running. All That Remains' Overcome bows at #16. The band debuted in 2006 with The Fall Of Ideals, which reached #75. Avenged Sevenfold's Live In LBC/Diamonds In A Rough opens at #24. This is the band's third top 30 album in a row.

Taylor Swift's Taylor Swift dips a notch to #25 in its 100th week on the chart. Even better, the album this week becomes the best-seller by a female artist so far in 2008. It swipes the title from Mariah Carey's E=MC2. Swift's album has sold 1,178,000 copies so far this year, about 6,000 copies more than Carey's album. The most striking part of all this is that Swift's album has been out since October 2006. It was among Nielsen/SoundScan's top 10 best sellers of 2007 and it may well be among the top 10 sellers of 2008 as well. Swift's second studio album, Fearless, is due November 11.

AC/DC's 1980 smash Back In Black is #1 on the Catalog Albums chart for the second week in a row. The album sold 11,000 copies this week and would have ranked #44 on the big chart if older, catalog albums were eligible to compete there.

Ups & Downs: LL Cool J's Exit 13 drops from #9 to #33 in its second week, posting a 66% decline. That's a sharper decrease, on a percentage basis, than any other album in the top 200. Estelle's Shine jumps from #82 to #64 in its 21st week, with a sales gain of 20%. That's a greater increase than any other non-debuting album. The superb  "American Boy" (featuring Kanye West) holds at #9 on Hot Digital Songs for the second week in row, now that it's once again downloadable. (My friend Warren Perry tells me that's not a word. Well, it should be. Merriam-Webster, are you listening?)

R.I.P. Norman Whitfield, who died last week, was one of the greatest songwriters and producers of the modern pop era. He was the #1 producer of the year on Billboard's year-end charts for both 1969 and 1970. He produced the first Motown recording ever to win a Grammy, the Temptations' "Cloud Nine." His many other hits include the Temps' "Papa Was A Rollin' Stone," Edwin Starr's "War" and Rose Royce's "Car Wash."

Heads Up: Pussycat Dolls' second album, Doll Domination, is expected to be next week's top debut. The group's debut, PCD, opened (and peaked) at #5 in September 2005. It spawned five Hot 100 hits, including three that made the top five. Joe, who has had a pair of #2 albums, will try again for #1 with Joe Thomas, New Man. Demi Lovato, the female star of Camp Rock, bows with her first solo album, Don't Forget. Plain White T's follow their top 10 album Every Second Counts (which spawned the #1 smash "Hey There Delilah") with Big Bad World. Kings Of Leon returns with its fourth album, Only By The Night. The first single, "Sex On Fire," enters Hot Digital Songs at #106. Also due: Bette Midler's Jackpot and TV on the Radio's Dear Science.

Make Your Predictions: As I mentioned earlier, I'll have a Chart Watch Extra on Friday listing the top 15 album sellers of the Nielsen/SoundScan era (May 25, 1991 through this week's chart). Why don't you try your hand at predicting the top 15? I've already given you two of the names-Metallica and Pink Floyd. See how many of the other 13 you can come up with.


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