When Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly was certified platinum by the Recording Industry Association of America last February, his label boss, Top Dawg, was unimpressed. TPAB hadn’t actually sold 1 million CDs or $10 downloads on iTunes — the figure also included the millions of streams the album had racked up on Spotify, Apple Music, and similar platforms. “We don’t stand behind this @RIAA bs,” Top tweeted. “Ole skool rules apply, 1 million albums sold is platinum. until we reach that #, save all the congrats.”
Since then, Top Dawg has likely been forced to change his calculus. Kendrick’s third major-label, full-length album, Damn., is expected to debut atop the Billboard charts with sales of 475,000, an all-time best for the Compton rapper. But that’s counting both album sales and streams, as has been customary since December 2014, when Billboard began equating 1,500 on-demand streams with an album unit. Damn. is expected to become the first album by an artist not named Drake to attain more than 200 million streams in a single week. In terms of physical and digital download sales alone, though, Damn.’s estimated 300,000 units will come in under TPAB’s 324,000 (the finalized figures will be revealed Sunday). By one measure, Kendrick’s popularity has slightly fallen. By another, he has ascended into a rap orbit occupied by only Drake, Kanye, Nicki Minaj, and [ducks] J. Cole.
The two years between the releases of To Pimp a Butterfly and Damn. were the window when streaming, after years of pundit prognostication, finally became the de facto way to consume music in the United States. The transition has happened especially rapidly for hip-hop and R&B. In 2016, 48 percent of all music consumption in those two genres was through streaming, compared with 41 percent for pop and 26 percent for rock. Hip-hop fans have always sought out the fastest, simplest, and cheapest way to attain music, even before the days of Napster. It’s only now that the legal modes of consumption have caught up to their listening habits.
As my colleague Justin Charity explored last year, the switch from buying to simply accessing songs has fundamentally broken the usefulness of charts as a way to gauge the popularity and impact of music. “Humble.,” the lead single from Damn., debuted at no. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100 and is now Kendrick’s biggest song by a huge margin. But “biggest” here rings a bit hollow when you think about the work that is likely to define Kendrick’s career arc — his breakout hit “Swimming Pools” peaked at 17; his black protest anthem “Alright” peaked at 81. “Humble.” already feels like it’s been subsumed by Damn., where it competes for attention with the even more belligerent “DNA.,” among others.
It’s not just the Hot 100 that’s out of whack. The Spotify Top 50, which used to be a younger-skewing but varied counterpoint to the Billboard charts, is currently clogged with every single song from Damn. There’s no arguing the chart’s accuracy — the daily play counts for each track are included — but these kinds of lists were more intriguing when they captured a variety of hits of the moment rather than empirically proving we’re all obsessing over the same dozen or so songs. A month ago the Top 50 was essentially a list of More Life songs, and the month before that it was filled with every track from Stormzy’s debut album. I’m guessing Logic, whose new album drops May 5, will be next to reshape the charts in his own image. It’s as if the filter bubbles that wall us in on social media have somehow spread to the most basic tools for measuring America’s cultural pulse.
All-consuming popularity is more fleeting than ever in the streaming era, but it’s important that an artist as cerebral and experimental as Kendrick can still seize it. good kid, m.A.A.d city was a crossover smash that used a Drake feature and an unintentional frat-party anthem to pull in a surprisingly diverse audience. To Pimp a Butterfly, by contrast, was hyperspecific in both its cultural moment and the audience it was addressing from its opening notes. Kendrick could have rapped himself into a niche that conscious rappers often drift toward. Instead, he’s proved that his brand of lyrical dexterity, constant self-recrimination, and vulgar West Coast bangers have broad appeal. That matters not only for Kendrick’s ego (“All I want to be was a gunman / Shooting up the charts, better, run man,” he raps on “God.”) but also for an audience that wants this man to have the time and resources to continue to explore new sonic frontiers. Kendrick sells, even when he’s no longer actually selling.