Radio Hits One: T-Pain Escapes Lead Single Purgatory


On Thursday Jive Records announced that T-Pain’s fourth album rEVOLVEr would be out on December 6. That same day, the rappa ternt sanga’s single “5 O’Clock” reached a new Hot 100 peak of No. 25 . The timing wasn’t exactly coincidental. The track, on which T-Pain is supported by Lily Allen and Wiz Khalifa, is the sixth single he’s released in support of the album, and it has quickly become the most successful to date. But for over two years, he was lobbing one song after another into the marketplace, and each time it would quickly fall off the charts, and Jive would delay the album and start over from scratch.

The press release announcing the album calls “5 O’Clock” the second single from rEVOLVEr, designating “Best Love Song” featuring Chris Brown as the first. Truthfully, they’re the sixth and fourth singles, respectively, but they’re also the only top 40 hits from the campaign so far—which means everything else that missed will likely be tossed out, or only included as bonus tracks on certain editions of the album.

Not long ago, an album with half a dozen Hot 100 hits would be considered a runaway success. But the bar for singles-chart success to serve as a benchmark for potential album sales has been raised so high in recent years that rEVOLVEr has struggled for two years to find its way into stores, and other albums like it have as well.

In June, Sound of the City’s Jayson Greene ran down an epic list of failed attempts at lead singles for Game’s The R.E.D. Album. While that assortment of failed would-be hits was impressive, many of those songs were mere leaks, not given a proper single release or any radio airplay. In T-Pain’s case, all six of rEVOLVEr singles were given the full push—they were worked at radio, made available for purchase on iTunes, and had money spent on slick official videos. And each one had at least some modest success before being quickly forgotten and disavowed when the next ‘lead single’ came along a few months later. Radio singles haven’t been Game’s strong suit for a while now, but for someone whose name is virtually synonymous with hitmaking hooks, failure to produce a smash was enough to keep T-Pain in release-date limbo for years.

On September 22nd, 2009, T-Pain first announced RevolveR (as the title was then stylized). It was to be released later that year, and preceded by the lead single “Take Your Shirt Off.” After the track stalled at No. 80, it was followed in February 2010 by “Reverse Cowgirl,” which didn’t fare much better, peaking at No. 75. In June of that year, the pressure seemed to be getting to T-Pain; he went on a widely reported rant in which he claimed that his album was finished and mastered, but that he chose not to release it until music sales in general went back up. In 2011, album sales have risen for the first time in seven years, but by then he’d taken another tack, announcing on Twitter that he’d release the album when he reached a million followers on the social-networking service (he’s currently got six hundred thousand).

In October 2010, T-Pain released my favorite RevolveR single to date, “Rap Song.” It featured Rick Ross and had a great, eye-catching video, but peaked at only No. 89 for the project’s least successful single to date. This year, he finally started to catch a break, with March’s release of “Best Love Song” doing well on pop radio and peaking at No. 33 on the Hot 100. In July, he returned to his strip club-themed roots with “Booty Wurk (One Cheek At A Time),” which reached No. 44 with moderate urban radio airplay.

“5 O’Clock” is a runaway success by rEVOLVEr‘s modest standards, but it’s not too impressive for a guy who appeared on over a dozen top 10 hits since debuting in 2005, five of which came from T-Pain’s first three solo albums. In fact, only one of those hits, Pitbull’s “Hey Baby (Drop It To The Floor),” has been released in the last two years. Jay-Z’s 2009 single “D.O.A. (Death Of Autotune)” may not have accurately predicted the demise of the still-ubiquitous vocal effect, but the man who popularized AutoTune on pop radio has been struggling to get airplay ever since. Artists like DJ Khaled, Snoop Dogg, Nelly and Bun B have continued to enlist the hookman for singles, but that’s not the ticket to a surefire hit that it once was.

Although T-Pain’s struggles to release his fourth album have been extreme, they’re far from unique. The history of popular music is littered with albums that were shelved, delayed or retooled because of the failure of initial single offerings. But throughout the 20th century, that happened primarily to untested new artists, or acts that tried a risky new direction that seemed doomed for commercial failure. Established hitmakers, of course, made flops all the time, but they were at least allowed to release those records and let the market deem them so. If the lead single underperformed, a second and probably third would be given a chance to redeem the project, and sometimes an artist’s fanbase would prove willing to buy an album without hits.

As little as a decade ago, examples of popular artists disowning a lead single to delay and retool its parent album were occasional, exceptional situations. In 2001, Usher was prepping an album called All About U as the follow-up to his massive breakthrough My Way, when an embarrassingly cheesy single called “Pop Ya Collar” stalled at No. 60 on the Hot 100. Later that year, the album was retitled 8701 and properly launched with the chart-topping “U Remind Me.” In 2002, Monica released the single “All Eyez On Me” as the title track from her planned third album. After it peaked at No. 64 and a follow-up, “Too Hood,” failed to chart at all, the album was shelved and she returned in 2003 with an almost entirely different album, After The Storm, and a top-ten single, “So Gone.”

Usher and Monica’s ordeals were rare enough to be well-publicized at the time, but compared to what countless rappers and R&B singers faced in the ensuing years, their struggles were relatively minor, and reached happy endings in under a year’s time. Stars as big as Nelly, Busta Rhymes and Big Boi found themselves releasing single after single for over a year attempting to get albums released. Mike Jones released three failed singles for the follow-up to his platinum 2005 debut Who Is Mike Jones? before the album The American Dream was downgraded to an EP in 2007; his second proper major-label album, The Voice, came out in 2009. Interscope head Jimmy Iovine has kept so many albums on the shelf that it’s become a running joke to note that the label’s artists are in “Jimmy jail,” stuck in their contracts and recording music without being able to release it. The Pussycat Dolls’ Nicole Scherzinger recorded one solo album in 2007 that was permanently shelved after several failed singles; she’s now awaiting the domestic release of a second, Killer Love, which is already out and successful in the UK.

Of course, some hip-hop and R&B albums have protracted incubation periods that are only partly about underperforming singles. Missy Elliott first attempted to launch her album Block Party with a couple of singles in 2008, but it’s recently come to light that Elliott’s private health struggles played a larger role in the delays. Dr. Dre has been hemming and hawing about releasing Detox for a decade now, and even after finally releasing a pair of moderately successful singles in the past year, it seems we’re no closer to the notorious perfectionist letting the album out of his clutches. Lil Jon released the top 10 hit “Snap Yo Fingers” in 2006 to promote his then-upcoming album Crunk Rock, but his troubled label TVT was unable to promptly capitalize on it, and had folded by the time Lil Jon released the album in 2010 on another label.

The new industry standard of constantly delaying and re-recording albums until a major hit lands is, so far, mostly limited to urban music. Contemporary rappers (and, to a lesser degree, R&B singers) tend to record and release material on the mixtape circuit on a regular basis, to keep their buzz up and to keep up with the rapidly changing sounds and trends of the day. If an artist’s last single failed six months ago, odds are they’ve already been in the studio with some hot new producers trying to catch the next wave of the zeitgeist. That’s just not something most major label rock bands or country acts would be willing to do, or would even need to, to keep their careers on track.

Only a select few stars in hip-hop and R&B are big enough names that their albums come out as originally scheduled, regardless of how well their singles perform. It’s been a long time since Jay-Z has had to worry about that, although both The Blueprint 3 and the Kanye West-assisted Watch The Throne experienced delays that seemed to be more the result of the rapper fussing with the final product than the result of label executives being nervous about how “Jockin’ Jay-Z” or “H.A.M.” fared on the charts. When his wife’s latest project 4 got off to a rocky start, rumors swirled that Beyoncé’s label would postpone her latest album until it found a more suitable lead single than “Run The World (Girls).” Instead, 4 was released on time, to healthy sales, rave reviews, and more successful subsequent singles, vindicating a label that didn’t doubt the singer’s starpower.

And of course, there are urban acts that don’t need hit singles to get their albums into stores or even to move units. My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy was the first Kanye West album without a single top 10 hit, but a rapturous critical reception and the rapper’s previous track record still easily pushed the album to platinum status. J. Cole notched an impressive 200,000 sales for the first week of his recent debut album, which came out after more than a year of throwing out singles that didn’t dominate radio but helped build a fervent fanbase. If this was still the mid-2000s, J. Cole would probably be stuck alongside less radio-friendly rappers like Saigon and Joe Budden, who languished on major-label release schedules for half a decade before finally releasing albums on indies. But now that Cole has a chart-topping album, radio programmers are starting to show his singles a little more love.

Sometimes, however, the decision to delay an album and scrap early singles until a hit lands, it must be said, can work. Kelly Rowland tried out several lead singles for her latest album, Here I Am, before “Motivation” proved to be a major hit. If Nicki Minaj’s label had released Pink Friday hot on the heels of the underperforming first single, “Massive Attack,” instead of waiting for her solo output to catch up to her hit collaborations, it might not have become perhaps the most successful rap album in urban radio history. And Nicki’s mentor Lil Wayne remains the definitive case study in how release-date pushbacks and huge amounts of leaked music can translate to impressive first week sales.

One artist currently still in lead single purgatory is Young Jeezy. Like T-Pain, he released his third album, which was slightly less successful than its two predecessors, in 2008, and has seen his career quickly lose steam with each passing year that he attempts to launch a fourth. His first attempt at a lead single for Thug Motivation 103, “Lose My Mind,” ended up being one of Jeezy’s biggest singles in a career that has seen its greatest success in album sales. But instead of giving the album a release date then, Def Jam waited for a second hit, and Jeezy has now released five singles since then, none of them remotely as successful as “Lose My Mind,” the latest being “F.A.M.E.” featuring T.I.

Not only are labels skittish about releasing an album without having a hit single first, but sometimes, as in Jeezy’s case, they seem to be stalling to land multiple hits to ensure maximum success. Eve hasn’t released an album since 2002, and she came close in 2007 when the song “Tambourine” became a moderate hit. But instead of giving her fourth album, Here I Am, a firm release date, Eve’s label pinned their hopes on the follow-up single “Give It To You,” and after it flopped, the project never regained the momentum to ever get anywhere near being released again. And 50 Cent, whose pull at his label was once so powerful that he referred to himself as Curtis “Interscope” Jackson and bragged that he could delay albums by labelmates that feuded with him, has been especially unhappy to find karma catching up to him. His last album Before I Self Destruct cycled through four unsuccessful singles for over a year before being released in 2009. And judging from the modest performance of the first single for his fifth album, “Outlaw,” he’ll be in Jimmy Jail well into 2012—and perhaps 2013.