Last Tuesday, Dreamville’s Ari Lennox released her debut album, Shea Butter Baby. Lennox, who signed to J. Cole’s label back in 2016, has been preparing for this moment for a minute. But fans might be surprised to see that the album debuted at #104 on the Billboard 200 album charts, which is pretty low.
But it was an intentional move. Dreamville does not want its emerging artists to worry about chart performance, so it purposely releases off-cycle. It’s a thoughtful measure, but it limits the artist’s exposure.
In 2015, Fridays became the worldwide de facto release date for albums. It’s also the first day that Billboard tracks weekly album sales. That’s why so many artists drop at midnight to maximize the sales window. Since Lennox’s debut dropped on a Tuesday, only three days counted.
Here’s a 2016 Forbes article that captures Dreamville’s perspective on this:
An artist first, Cole is all too familiar with the stresses of creating a Billboard-worthy single to combat a label’s skepticism.
“When we signed the deal, we walked into the Interscope boardroom with Cole and he laid out the plan for them,” said Bas, the first artist signed to Dreamville. “Cole said, ‘Look, I’m not putting any pressure on my artists to chase radio singles. It’ll take longer for them to break, but they’ll have long, sustainable careers.’”
This sentiment was echoed last fall when Dreamville rapper J.I.D. tweeted out a response to fans who questioned why he didn’t drop his latest album, Dicaprio 2, on a Friday:
I’m not playing the game they want me to play, we doing this shit our way and letting the people have the music how we see fit, I’m excited for Dicaprio2, the Level of shit talk I produced on “Slicktalk” is unparalleled, I tapped in on this project 😂
— (J.I.D) (@JIDsv) November 22, 2018
The “long game” strategy is influenced by Cole’s own career struggles. The KOD rapper regrets chasing radio plays on his 2011 debut album Cole World: The Sideline Story. The “double platinum no features” rapper found his greatest success when he stayed true to himself. Now, he wants his artists to follow the same path.
While the logic makes sense, cutting artists off from the Billboard charts is unnecessary. The Billboard 200 is still an opportunity to gain earned media exposure—something that’s clearly a priority given Ari Lennox’s rollout. The album’s lead single, also titled “Shea Butter Baby,” was featured in the Creed II soundtrack. The past month, she did promo runs on Billboard, The Fader, Vibe, and Beats 1. Each of those moves was done to boost her exposure for the album.
When an album charts in the top 5 of the Billboard 200—which Ari’s likely would have done—it becomes a news story on all the popular music websites. Sure, the Billboard chart performance may be a distraction, but all the streaming services have their own album charts anyway. Performance metrics are hard to avoid.
Dreamville comes from a good place. Other labels have used first-week album sales as a punitive metric to drop artists from the label. But there’s a world where Dreamville can keep its same mentality of ignoring Billboard performance, and still welcome the added exposure it can bring its young stable of artists.
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