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Eminem Shreds The Competition

For the third time in his career, Eminem has a new album debuting atop the Billboard albums chart.

Encore, the rapper’s fourth full-length LP, will bow at #1 on next week’s chart with more than 710,000 copies sold, according to SoundScan. What’s more impressive is that Shady pulled off the feat with less than a full first-week’s worth of sales.

Because the album leaked online, Encore went on sale Friday, four days before the previously scheduled release of Tuesday. Since SoundScan ends each week’s tally on Sundays at midnight, Em’s 710,000 copies, which is also the year’s fourth-largest first-week total, were sold after only three day in stores.

Encore is Eminem’s second album to be released early. Its predecessor, The Eminem Show, was released two days early, on Sunday, May 26, 2002. That album, which also debuted at #1, moved just 284,000 copies in its first week – but fueled by a full seven-day sales cycle the following week, the album sold more than 1.3 million.

Elsewhere, we might be a couple of weeks away from Santa Claus at the mall and overdosing on Thanksgiving leftovers, but the holiday season has already arrived, as evidenced by the albums that occupy the #2, #3 and #4 positions. Shania Twain’s best-of set, unmistakably titled Greatest Hits, led the pack by selling more than 529,000 copies to take next week’s #2 spot. It’s followed by Toby Keith’s hits sequel, Greatest Hits Vol. 2, with more than 435,000 copies sold. And the presence of three previously unreleased songs wasn’t enough to propel Britney Spears’ Greatest Hits: My Prerogative, any higher than #4, after it sold more than 254,000 copies.

The other indication that the fourth quarter is in full swing is the number of new albums that pepper next week’s chart, especially its upper region. More than half of the top 10 albums are brand new.

The wind from “Breathe” filling Fabolous’ sails wasn’t strong enough to top his previous album: Where 2003’s Street Dreams debuted at #3 with more than 184,000 copies, the rapper’s latest, Real Talk, will land at #6, with approximately 5,000 fewer copies.

Ja Rule’s sixth album, R.U.L.E., isn’t boding well for the rapper’s longevity. It will land at #7, Ja’s lowest-ever chart debut. And while the more than 165,000 copies it sold betters the first-week total of last year’s Blood in My Eye by about 26,000 copies, it’s a far cry from the maiden performances of 2002’s The Last Temptation, 2001’s Pain Is Love, and Rule 3:36, all of which moved well over 200,000 copies in their first weeks. Surprisingly, Ja’s disappointing figure comes on the heels of a hit single that teams him with R&B royalty R. Kelly and Ashanti (“Wonderful”) and another positioned to restore his street credibility (“New York”).

The rest of next week’s top 10 finds Now That’s What I Call Music! 17 vacating its spot at #1 for a home four notches down at #5 (with more than 231,000 copies sold); Usher’s Confessions falling from #4 to #8 (108,000); Nelly’s Suit slipping six spots to #9 (101,000); and George Strait’s 50 Number Ones losing four places to #10 (100,000) despite a slight increase in sales.

Destiny’s Child’s new album, Destiny Fulfilled, wasn’t supposed to go on sale until Monday, November 15, which would have meant that its sales would be tabulated on next week’s SoundScan report. However, some stores apparently stocked their shelves a few days early, allowing the trio’s fourth album to place at #19. Besides it being the group’s lowest first-week chart position since their 1998 debut, the new album’s 61,000 copies sold falls more than 600,000 copies shy of what 2001’s Survivor did in its first week out – but we’ll see what happens next week.

A premature release also affected Lil Jon & the East Side Boyz’s Crunk Juice.

Scheduled for release on Tuesday, November 16, two days past SoundScan’s cut-off, the album nevertheless sold more than 38,000 copies to bow in at #31. The same applies to Chingy, whose Powerballin’ sold more than 7,000 copies a week before its scheduled street date to debut at #172.

Other notable debuts on next week’s chart includes New Edition’s comeback LP, One Love, at #12; Elton John’s Peachtree Road at #17; Vanessa Carlton’s Harmonium at #33; Seal’s Best: 1991-2004 at #47; the soundtrack to “The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie” at #148; Handsome Boy Modeling School’s White People at #168; and the soundtrack to the video game “Halo 2” at #185.

Streets Can’t Wait Destiny’s Child, Lil Jon and Chingy’s albums charted before their official release dates due to “street-date violations” – the music industry’s term for stores selling product before they’re supposed to. Street-date violations are fairly frequent occurrences, especially with hip-hop and R&B releases, though it’s never happened as prominently as on next week’s chart.

And it’s all Eminem’s fault.

“I don’t think we would have been in this position if [the release date of] Eminem’s record hadn’t moved up,” explained Paul Burgess, executive vice president of TVT Records, who was forced to witness sales of the label’s new Lil Jon & the East Side Boyz album prematurely fall very short of expectations. “That created the feeling of the Wild West in retail stores. Then, when Destiny’s Child’s [release date was moved up to Monday], it made it worse.”

In order for records to hit shelves on Tuesday, stores receive their shipments from distributors on the prior Thursday or Friday. So when Eminem’s Encore hit shelves on Friday, cases of Destiny Child, Lil Jon and Chingy were already in stock. Since Encore was undoubtedly going to increase the traffic in the store, presumably by people who’d also be interested in Destiny’s Child, Lil Jon and Chingy, some overly eager managers decided to jump the gun.

“Once a retailer sees that a number of other stores have the album on shelves, they’re not going to hold back,” Burgess said. “In the case of Crunk Juice,, a small part of the retail community had the album out on Friday. More put it out on Saturday. By Sunday, everyone had it. I was in stores in New York this weekend, and I only saw three stores that didn’t already have it out.”

Word in this community spreads very quickly. Some stores send out spies to see if their competition is violating street dates. The offending stores are reported to the distributor, which then calls the retailers to tell them to stop selling the album. But when an album that breaks the street date is selling so well, distributors are put in a difficult position of asking retailers to stop making money.

“Some distributors have a policy where they take action against retailers who violate the street date,” Burgess said, “in terms of how they work with them in the future – what advertising they’ll do with them, what discounts they’ll be given, etc. But [when both parties are profiting], it’s a sticky situation. It’s a very difficult relationship to balance.”

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