This Is What You Came For
Let's not pretend to each other that this is something it is not. As fascinating and absorbing as I hope this tale of this week's singles and albums charts are, I write this in the full knowledge that within short order it will become a forgotten story. Pretty much everything you read, hear, speak about or even contemplate in music this week will not be the epic album chart battle of this past week, nor the astonishing impact of two new versions of an already established hit. It will all be about the big album release of this present week and its forthcoming chart impact. You know it, and I know it. But if we can, let us park it for now. Because actually, this is an extremely interesting tale.
Jimmy Mastizzle Lays Truth Down
This week it is the normally moribund album market which generates the most headlines, for this week was a tale of two records, both very much on opposite sides of a musical and, dare I say it, a generational divide. In one corner was the incumbent chart champion, the sophisticated double Brit winner and critical darling Rag'N'Bone Man. In the other the brash young pretender Stormzy, a man whose entire appeal to date has been built up largely bypassing traditional means of musical distribution but whose first ever proper foray into the world of a long playing body of work clearly represented to him the next step forward in his newly discovered mainstream career. In what has been sold as one of the closest album chart battles in many months (despite being nothing of the sort), it is indeed Gang Signs & Prayer from the hot grime star which overcomes the opposition to sit proudly at the top of the Official UK Albums chart. "Grime" as a genre - young British street poets performing what can at times be largely improvised rhymes over the sparsest of beats and production - has been around in one form or another for the best part of a decade now, but this marks the first time one of its exponents has topped the charts with a record which is barely on nodding terms with what might be viewed as the commercial mainstream.
As you might expect for such a young-skewing record its 'sales' profile reflects the way much of Stormzy's audience like to consume their music. Tracks from Gang Signs & Prayer dominated the live tables of the core streaming services for much of the week and indeed the album this week records the most first-week streams of any Number One album to date, bypassing those of previous benchmark holders Drake and Justin Bieber.
The stark difference in the sales profile of the two albums at the top of the list throws into sharp relief just which markets they appeal to. Stormzy's release saw a full 30% of its 68,594 chart sales come thanks to its streaming performance. Human, by contrast, is Number 2 with a chart sale of 64,735 of which a mere 3,944 or just over 6% came thanks to online plays.
With Stormzy's album tracks all streamed in large numbers to varying degrees this inevitably follows through on the Official UK Singles chart too. The album's current hit single Big For Your Boots leaps back up the chart 17-6 (Sales: 13, Streams: 2) to eclipse the Number 8 peak it scaled upon its first release and duly become his highest charting single ever. But this is one of no less than 16 Stormzy performed tracks which litter the rest of the published chart as every single one of the tracks from Gang Signs & Prayer reaches the Top 100. Such a clean sweep of album tracks has only been achieved by three other acts - Justin Bieber, Beyonce and The Weeknd. We should note however that the smallest of Stormzy's clean sweep of hits is Crazy Titch which rests at Number 100. That's some way short of the record set by The Weeknd who placed all 18 of the tracks from Starboy inside the Top 81.
Whilst the concept of big new albums seeing a handful of their tracks land on the singles chart dates back to the dawn of the digital era ten years ago, veteran chart watchers will have noted that we've moved on from three or at the most four of the most popular tracks being cherry picked for purchase to an entirely new phenomenon in the last couple of years of entire albums briefly invading the singles countdown on a track by track basis. All because naturally, it is far easier (and cheaper) to repeatedly stream a hot new product than it is to buy tracks one by one. A look at the difference between the sales and streams tables this week throws that into sharp focus:
On the sales chart, just seven Stormzy tracks make the Top 100, and of those the only one inside the Top 40 is the existing single, the aforementioned Big For Your Boots. The most purchased album cut is Mr Skeng, way down at Number 77. By way of dramatic contrast, no less than nine Stormzy tracks sit inside the Top 40 streaming chart, with Big For Your Boots taking pride of place, as noted above, as the second most streamed track of the week. Over the past few years this column has taken no prisoners when it comes to discussing the great music industry headache of how the concept of the album is still wedded to a dying physical format and that the new streaming generation have little grasp of the concept of a set of tracks forming a complete body of work. Yet here, perhaps uniquely, is a faint glimmer of hope. A big underground grime star, of appeal to few under the age of 21, has made a point of releasing his first-ever commercial album and has seen it consumed thousands upon thousands of times as a body of work, even if it is predominantly via the new technology of online streaming. If he is able to make this work - and crucially manage enough scale to make money out of it - then perhaps others in the future can too.
But The Oldsters Still Buy Music Too
Meanwhile if you spend most of the week living under a rock and had no clue as to what I was intimating at in the opening paragraph, let me note for the record the continuing presence of x by Ed Sheeran in the Top 5 (up one place to Number 3 - its highest chart placing since October 2015) and + by Ed Sheeran at up one place to Number 12 (its highest chart placing since July 2015). Two albums which are set to be joined in spectacular fashion by a third this time next week. Along with every single one of its tracks on the singles chart for sure. And you can bet this time the sales/streams split will not be quite so pronounced.
Stormzying The Market
There's a Stormzy factor affecting the very top end of the Official UK Singles chart too, although you wouldn't know it to look at it. Ed Sheeran's Shape Of You is, almost needless to say, still at Number One this week for its eighth week on the bounce. Yet it is there with its largest chart sale since release, all thanks to the availability during the week of two brand new mixes, one by Major Lazer and the other featuring a new vocal contribution from Stormzy as premiered at the Brit Awards ceremony the week before last. Chart rules allow for different mixes of the same track all to count for the same chart position and so sales and streams of these enormously popular new versions of the song all combine to give the Sheeran track a combined sale of 144,000 including once again almost 11 million streams. That's its highest number since it debuted at Number One with a combined sale of 227,000 back in January.
It scarcely requires me to point it out, it is just impossible for anyone else to compete against the Sheeran juggernaut at the present time. We've now had a nine week Number One followed by an eight week chart champion. Only twice before in chart history have two consecutive Number One hits spent at least eight weeks at the top - the last time back in 1954 when Doris Day's Secret Love was replaced after eight weeks by David Whitfield's Cara Mia which would go on to spend ten weeks at the top. Before that it was Oh Mein Papa by Eddie Calvert which had a nine week run at the top at the start of that same year, following on from Answer Me by Frankie Laine which had been on top for 8 - even if one of those was shared with a rival version by David Whitfield in one of the thankfully rare occasions the old NME chart listed a joint Number One. In any event, if Shape Of You remains at Number One next week (it surely will) it will be the first time ever that two consecutive Number One hits have spent nine weeks at the top of the charts.
Raise A Glass Of Organic Cocktail
Ed Sheeran doesn't have it all his own way this week as for only the second time since January there is a conscious uncoupling of his Top 2 domination. With a full sales week having now elapsed since the ceremony we can safely credit the Brits effect for chart moves, and surely none more significant than the 30-2 leap (Sales: 2, Streams: 4) made by Chainsmokers and Coldplay with Something Just Like This which they performed on the night. It is now the third Top 3 hit for Chainsmokers, following their 2016 brace of hits Don't Let Me Down and Closer which reached Numbers 2 and 1 respectively. For Chris Martin and Coldplay this is rather more of a triumph, their highest chart placing for over five years as they return to the Top 3 for the first time since Paradise sneaked a week at the top of the charts in the first week of 2012. In all, it is their 18th Top 10 single since 2000.
Not Bouncing, Sliding
It seems almost wrong to be regarding the highest new entry of the week as something of an afterthought, but such is the way things have panned out. Mind you 'panned' is an appropriate word to describe the reception for Calvin Harris' new single Slide as I spotted more than one reviewer noting that the track sounds for all the world like an album track promoted inappropriately to single status - an odd situation given Calvin Harris albums are pretty much collections of hits in the first place. No matter, the single enters at Number 10 (Sales: 11, Streams: 13) to give the superstar producer/performer his third Top 10 single in a row as lead artist, exactly ten years to the week that he made his chart debut with Acceptable In The 80s. The new track features contributions from Frank Ocean (this now far and away the largest hit single of his own chart career to date) and rappers Migos who regular readers of this column will recognise as the performers of the track Bad and Boujee which notably failed to emulate its American chart success when it stalled at Number 30 a fortnight ago. No video yet, but we are told one is due imminently.
You Will Be Loved
In a way you have to have an enormous amount of sympathy for what you might call the mid-table hits at present, caught up in a perfect storm of what seems set to be two straight weeks of a single chart clogged up with random album cuts and so in a sense not in a position to reflect their true popularity. However, battling gamely against the rising tide are Maroon 5 and Future whose collaboration Cold manages to make steady progress, lifting to Number 24 (Sales: 23, Streams: 34) this week. The track is, in theory, the second single to be taken from the group's forthcoming sixth album, following up Don't Wanna Know which reached Number 5 at the tail end of last year. Despite their imperial phase at the start of the decade when tracks such as Moves Like Jagger and Payphone were instantaneous and enormous smash hits, Maroon 5 singles of late have tended to be slow burners, ones that burrow their way into public appeal - so watch the progress of this track carefully. All it has to do next week is negotiate the carnage that is likely to result as Ed Sheeran's ÷ finally hits the shops and streams. He seems set for a chart domination that is, well, Stormzy-esque in its totality.
Standing On The Shoulders
Hey, remember last week when we noted the the arrival of the new Take That single Giants and its own very odd sales profile which saw a larger proportion of its sales come via a special CD release, designed to appeal to their huge legacy fanbase whose music tastes date from a time when buying the CD single of your favourite act was very much the thing to do. The crunch was always going to come when that first week surge died away, leaving the single to fend for itself in a largely digital world. I can offer little analysis of this beyond noting that Giants this week slides from Number 13 last week all the way to Number 92.
Stay Beautiful Tonight
Finally, for this week we should acknowledge the one other non-Stormzy Top 40 new entry, Stay from Zedd & Alessia Cara of which doubtless much more over the next few weeks and which sits at Number 33 (Sales: 19, Streams: 59). I should though echo the fun stats quoted in Music Week this week where Alan Jones notes that this is now the 23rd hit single to bear that name, further extending its lead as the most popular song title of the chart era. Crazy is next in line, with 20 different hits having used it to date although the last of these was a single by Lumidee which crept to Number 74 in August 2007. I've been around long enough to remember when Tonight held the record for the most-used song title, although that too has fallen out of favour of late, unused since Jay Sean released a track of that name in 2009 and so became the 11th act to do so.