Why Lil Wayne’s ‘Tha Carter IV’ Almost Sold A Milli

Lil Wayne performs in Mountainview, Calif., September 1, 2011. Photo: C. Flanigan/Getty Images

Lil Wayne‘s Tha Carter IV leaked with a resounding thud. Critical response was quick and overwhelmingly negative, popular reaction seemed mixed at best — #thingsbetterthancarteriv was a trending topic on Twitter for a little while. By all accounts it seemed like the first step towards Wayne’s creative downfall. And yet it Soundscanned 964,000 units in its first week of release. This is a pretty unbelievable number, so much so that many armchair internet critics were accusing label head Bryan “Baby” Williams of buying copies in bulk himself. (The conspiracy falls short of logic, especially since 300k of those sales came directly from iTunes, which would’ve required Baby to have either some particularly slick hackers or an army of credit card holders on his team.) To put things in perspective: that’s only about 50k shy of the first week numbers Tha Carter III did, despite significantly diminishing album sales overall in the four years since. If we were to factor for deflation it seems like he’s more popular today than he was at the height of so-called Wayne hysteria. He’s once again rewritten the rapper career arc, turning what should’ve been the beginning of his seemingly inevitable popular dip into a second commercial peak.

It’s the second highest debut of the year, falling just short of Lady Gaga’s Born This Way. That record was pushed over a million through 99 cent Amazon.com specials and weird telephone plan tie-in purchases. Wayne did his numbers with good old fashioned, full-price music sales. Despite all of his many missteps, Wayne is arguably the most popular album-oriented American music performer. He’s undoubtedly the most popular rapper, by a gigantic margin, having nearly doubled the first week sales of that little very important collaborative album that those other two most popular rappers released just a few weeks prior.

But why? How could a record that was so universally written off in our world (be that your ‘our’ is the rap world, the critical world or the internet music world) go on to be more popular than he was in the first place? While we thought Wayne was falling off, he was merely broadening his brand. Where we saw his atrocious rock project Rebirth as just that, it only served to convert more casual outside listeners. While we laughed at his zebra-print jeggings and late-in-life skateboarding failures as a sad bid for youth relevance, young people somewhere saw all that as a the very picture of relevance. While we saw his jail stay as a missed opportunity, he used it as a promotional push. While he was locked up he had two of the biggest pop rappers to emerge — Drake and Nicki Minaj — under his vanity label umbrella and constantly singing his praises. The beyond-middling rosters at  Kanye’s G.O.O.D. Music and Jay’s Roc Nation could provide this vicarious boost. And while Watch The Throne is all crit-bait album oriented art rap, Wayne is in the preferable position of having actual radio hits – “How To Love” and “She Will” both hovering around the Top 20.

We don’t want to admit it, but this is how you sell records today. For all this talk of the underground internet music conversation shaking the very foundation of the industry (Hooray for that indie rock band that won that thing!), the divide between the “serious” music listener and the popular one has never been wider. Radio listeners still buy albums and you still need a major label push to be on the radio. Point-of-purchase impulse buys by casual fans at Target checkouts drive the industry more than any amount of buzz. Like Eminem before him, Wayne’s been able to exploit this audience through the sheer force of ubiquity. His radio presence and cross genre saturation has helped him to touch as many of these low investment listeners as possible and now that he’s got their ears he’s charismatic enough to sell them anything. Even this, a mostly middling and straightforward rap album. This is how the industry still works. Pop stars are going to sell records to pop audiences until the day the earth burns out and right now Wayne is the best and biggest pop-rap star we’ve got. The quality of his music is irrelevant to that truth.

[Read Andrew Nosnitsky on Tha Carter IV here.]

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