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Chart Watch: Beyonce’s Christmas Surprise

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There's absolutely no suspense, but plenty of excitement, about what's going to be #1 when The Billboard 200 is announced on Wednesday. Apple reports that Beyonce's "Beyonce" sold 617K copies in the U.S. in its first three days of release. That would give "Beyonce" the fourth highest one-week sales total so far this year, following Justin Timberlake's "The 20/20 Experience" (968K), Eminem's "The Marshall Mathers LP 2" (792K) and Drake's "Nothing Was The Same" (658K).

Both Timberlake and Drake are featured on B's star-studded album, which consists of 14 songs and 17 videos. The album is an iTunes exclusive for now. A physical CD/DVD combo is due on Friday.

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This is the greatest total for an album by a female artist since Taylor Swift's "Red" bowed with sales of 1,208,000 in October 2012. It's the greatest total for an album by an "R&B artist" (though Beyonce obviously transcends that label) since Mary J. Blige's "Growing Pains" bowed with 629K in December 2007.

This is the fastest start for a Beyonce album. The old record was held by 2006's "B'Day," which sold 541K in its first week. "Beyonce" sold about twice as many copies in its first week as B's 2011 album, "4" (310K).

This was a stealth release that few knew about as late as last Thursday, when initial sales projections for the week had Garth Brooks holding on to the top spot for a second week.

Beyonce's album was put on the market without any advance hype; as Hits magazine put it, "without any wind-up, preamble or tease." This is contrary to the usual pattern with superstar releases, where there is a carefully-planned build-up that entails from two to four months. People in the industry are calling Beyonce's debut a "game-changer," raising the possibility that all the pre-release hype may have just added to a sense of calculation and may even, in some cases, have drained excitement rather than accentuated it.

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Only one album has ever sold more digital copies in one week. That's Lady Gaga's "Born This Way," which bowed with 662K in May 2011. (And an estimated 440K of those were sold for just 99 cents in Amazon's MP3 store). The price tag for Beyonce's digital album was fairly steep $15.99.

Beyonce's album sets a new record for the fastest start by a digital-only release. The old record was set by the all-star "Hope For Haiti Now," which sold 171K in its first week (and 143K in its second) in January 2010. The old record for a digital-only release by a single artist was Lil Wayne's "I Am Not A Human Being" (110K) in October 2010.

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With this debut, Beyonce will become the first female solo artist to reach #1 on The Billboard 200 with each of her first five albums. Only one other artist in chart history has hit #1 with his or her first five studio albums: Rapper DMX, who achieved the feat between 1998 and 2003. (Of course, Beyonce was already a major star when she released her first solo album in 2003, thanks to her work with Destiny's Child.)

Only three other African American women in chart history have amassed five or more #1 albums. Janet Jackson and Mariah Carey lead with six. Alicia Keys has also had five. (Carey and Keys are biracial.)

"Beyonce" is the seventh album of 2013 to sell 500K or more copies in its first week. This is the first year that so many albums have sold 500K in their first week since 2008.

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The chart news isn't as good for another female megastar. Britney Spears' "Britney Jean" is expected to tumble out of the top 10 in its second week. It will be Spears' first studio album to fall out of the top 10 after just one week. Her previous shortest run in the top 10 for a studio album was 2007's "Blackout," which spent just two weeks in the top 10.

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Michael Jackson had amassed 43 weeks at #1 on The Billboard 200 (with "Thriller" and "Bad") before Garth Brooks landed his first #1 album, "Ropin' The Wind," in September 1991. But last week, Brooks pulled ahead of Jackson in terms of total weeks at #1. Brooks' bargain-priced box set "Blame it All On My Roots: Five Decades Of Influences" brought his career total of weeks at #1 to 52. Jackson logged 51 weeks at #1.

But there's an asterisk. Jackson's total doesn't count his posthumous success with "Number Ones." The 2003 compilation was the best-selling album in the U.S. for six weeks in the summer of 2009, but wasn't listed on The Billboard 200 because rules in place at the time barred catalog albums from appearing on the big chart. (Billboard wisely abandoned that rule in December 2009.) If you add "Number Ones" to Jackson's total, he has had 57 weeks on top—five more than Brooks.

Two artists have had more weeks at #1 than Brooks: The Beatles (132 weeks) and Elvis Presley (67 weeks).

Brooks' album will be #1 on Top Country Albums for the third week.

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Kelly Clarkson's "Wrapped In Red" is expected to hold at #3 for the second week. The album benefited from NBC's airing last week of "Kelly Clarkson's Cautionary Christmas Music Tale." As of this week, "Wrapped In Red" is in a dead-heat with The Robertsons' "Duck The Halls: A Robertson Family Christmas" as the best-selling holiday album of 2013. There are two chart weeks to go in 2013. Which will come out on top? Stay tuned.

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R. Kelly's "Black Panties" is expected to debut at #6. It will be R. Kelly's 15th top 10 album. Only three other African American artists have had 15 or more top 10 albums. Johnny Mathis and Mariah Carey have each had 16. Jay Z has also had 15. ("Black Panties" is one of the most explicitly sexual album covers and album titles ever on a top five album. I've a feeling we're not in Kansas anymore.)

Childish Gambino's sophomore album "Because the Internet" is expected to debut at #7. His 2011 debut, "Camp," peaked at #11. Gambino (real name: Donald Glover) is exceptionally versatile. He was a writer on "30 Rock" and is a cast member on "Community." Despite his youthful-sounding stage name, he's 30.

Incidentally, this will be the first album with the word "internet" in the title to crack The Billboard 200. What took so long? (The Vandals' "Internet Dating Superstuds" made a little noise in 2002, but didn't chart. Too bad. That's a great title.)

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The "Frozen" soundtrack is expected to dip from #11 to #12 in its third week. The album will be #1 on Top Soundtracks for the third week. Idina Menzel and Demi Lovato are both, separately, climbing the Hot 100 with the album's key song. "Let It Go." That song was nominated for a Golden Globe last week. Will it also be nominated for an Oscar? Stay tuned. The movie slipped to #2 at the box-office, behind the debuting "The Hobbit: The Desolation Of Smaug."

"The Music Of Nashville, Season 2 Volume 1" is expected to make a solid debut. The first two Nashville soundtracks reached #14 and #13, respectively.

Neil Young's "Live At The Cellar Door" is also expected to make a solid debut. Young recorded the album in 1970. The Cellar Door was a popular club in Washington, D.C. from 1965 to 1981. Miles Davis and Richie Havens also recorded live albums there.

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