Radio Hits One: Drake, Lil Wayne, Nicki Minaj, Katy Perry, And The Era Of The Hit Bonus Track


Superstar pals and Young Money labelmates Lil Wayne and Drake released two of the biggest albums of 2011—Tha Carter IV and Take Care—and both are still spinning off hits well into 2012. But a look at the singles charts reveals something odd: the biggest current hits off both albums aren’t available on every copy of the album, but are instead bonus tracks from their deluxe editions. Drake’s “The Motto,” which features Wayne, currently tops the R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart and is at No. 19 on the Hot 100 after peaking at No. 16. And Wayne’s own “Mirror,” featuring Bruno Mars, is Weezy’s highest current solo entry on the Hot 100, at No. 68 (it also peaked at No. 16). If you go into one of the few stores still selling CDs today, though, odds are that the versions of Tha Carter IV and Take Care in the racks won’t include those current hits.

Drake’s and Weezy’s hits aren’t from recent expanded reissues, but from deluxe editions available on the albums’ original release dates last year. In Drake’s case, “The Motto” was earmarked as a hit even before the album was released; he premiered it on an L.A. radio station two weeks before Take Care‘s November release date and shot a video for the song later that month. “Mirror” has had a more gradual rise; its video only premiered a few weeks ago, and it was sent to radio in November. But it’s also the first single released from Tha Carter IV, which came out in August, and it was its highest-charting track back when pretty much every song from the album popped up on the Hot 100 the week after it arrived on iTunes. (Let’s face it—nobody gets in the studio with Bruno Mars these days without an eye on landing a major pop hit.)

It’s tempting to speculate that Young Money is deliberately trying to engineer a bonus track hit, and it’s pretty clear why it would be interested in doing so. In late 2010, the label’s third superstar rapper, Nicki Minaj, released her debut Pink Friday. And while the album sold steadily and its initial single releases dominated urban radio, reviews were mixed, with some noting that the deluxe edition’s bonus tracks were better than much of the album proper. Months after the album’s release, those critics were vindicated when a grassroots surge of support for one of those bonus tracks, “Super Bass,” led to it being released as an official single. It quickly became the album’s first top 10 hit and one of the biggest songs of 2011, a huge crossover smash that eclipsed the success of all the other Pink Friday singles.

Soon after “Super Bass” blew up, Young Money re-released Pink Friday so that all future pressings of the album would feature its biggest hit. At the time, I thought the label was perhaps chastened by the experience of sleeping on “Super Bass,” and would be more cautious about leaving potential singles off universal editions of future albums. After all, who knows how many people picked up a copy of Pink Friday in a store, scanned the tracklisting for their favorite song, and decided against the purchase when “Super Bass” wasn’t included? But perhaps Young Money actually made a major profit off of having a bonus track popular enough to steer consumers toward the more expensive deluxe edition—or to the iTunes store to buy the digital single, which ultimately sold 3 million units. In light of that, it’s hard not to suspect that “The Motto” and “Mirror” were purposefully groomed to serve the same purpose.

Bonus tracks and songs unique to particular editions of albums have a long, scattered history in the recording industry. During the ’60s British invasion, acts like the Beatles and the Rolling Stones would often see the UK editions of their albums resequenced or even retitled for American release to emphasize different singles. At the time, non-LP singles were also far more frequently chart hits, sometimes appended to an album’s original running order or remaining uncollected on any full-length until appearing on compilations years later. That transatlantic tradition continued for decades, and even now, Elvis Costello’s standalone UK singles, appended to US editions of his early LPs, have been grandfathered into the canonical versions of those albums: “Watching The Detectives” is now considered the last track of My Aim Is True, not the first bonus track on the expanded reissues.

Michael Jackson’s Bad came out in 1987, just as CDs were replacing vinyl as the most popular physical medium for music. Jackson’s label took advantage of the expanded running time of compact discs by including a bonus track that wouldn’t fit on the vinyl release on its CD editions. By the time “Leave Me Alone” was released as the blockbuster album’s eighth single outside of North America, it was already 1989 and the world was even closer to accepting CDs.

Throughout most of the ’90s, as labels rushed to bring their classics and blockbusters into the compact disc age, expanded editions with bonus tracks were largely the province of reissues of older albums. Occasionally an artist would score a hit collaboration or soundtrack contribution that would warrant being appended to their album to court some extra sales, but it was only an occasional practice. In the 21st century, deluxe editions released six to 12 months after an album’s first issuing became a standard victory lap. After 50 Cent sold a few million copies of 2005’s The Massacre, he added a few extra songs (including a new single) and a bonus DVD as a way of milking a little more money out of that cash cow.

For pop and R&B singers who trade their rep on chart-topping singles as much as album sales, deluxe editions became a way to dramatically extend singles campaigns and add to their tally of No. 1s. After Usher topped the Hot 100 with the first three singles off of 2004’s Confessions, he released a special edition with a new single, “My Boo” featuring Alicia Keys, that brought the album’s tally to four No. 1s. Rihanna’s initial 2007 release of Good Girl Gone Bad included the megahit “Umbrella,” but two of the three chart-toppers from the album’s lengthy singles campaign were bonus tracks from 2008’s Good Girl Gone Bad: Reloaded. Likewise, after Mariah Carey’s 2005 comeback The Emancipation of Mimi gave her her first chart-topper in years, “We Belong Together,” the deluxe reissue’s “Don’t Forget About Us” also hit No. 1.

At the time, I attributed the victory-lap trend to the music industry’s desire to keep the blockbuster album alive in an era of quicker hype cycles and shorter attention spans. In the ’80s and ’90s, major labels perfected the art of squeezing every possible single out of a successful album over the course of up to two or three years. Pop stars like Michael and Janet Jackson did it with event videos, which reignited interest in songs fans might have grown bored with as album tracks; later urban acts did it with remixes, adding a hot new beat or guest rapper to already-existing songs. In the iTunes era, big stars can count on first-week sales sending lead singles way up the charts, while follow-ups tend to suffer without having that surge goosing the chart peak. Debuting a new bonus track after an album’s initial release, then, became a way to send hardcore fans back to iTunes for an easy No. 1. By the late 2000s, it took even more than one or two new songs to maintain interest in an album past the six-month mark. Larger bundles of new songs became discrete EPs or mini-albums that could be bought separately by fans who’d already snapped up the original album, such as Lady Gaga’s The Fame Monster, which added eight songs to The Fame, or Ke$ha’s Animal supplement, Cannibal.

Lately, newly appended bonus tracks have even been used to reignite interest in failing albums; Maroon 5’s “Moves Like Jagger” was a chart-topping megahit in 2011 that salvaged their 2010 flop Hands All Over. Jessie J’s debut album Who You Are was a huge success in her native U.K. but landed with a thud in the states, so the recently appended bonus track “Domino” served as both a victory lap single for the British “platinum edition” of the album and as a face-saving Hail Mary in America, where it became her first top 10 hit. And as far back as six years ago, Sony Music sent Shakira back into the studio on the heels of Oral Fixation Vol. 2‘s initial failure to score an American hit; the result was “Hips Don’t Lie,” a worldwide smash appended to later pressings of the album.

When Katy Perry’s 2010 album Teenage Dream racked up five chart-toppers, she tied Michael Jackson’s record for most No. 1 singles off of one album without the aid of a deluxe edition, although she often relied on guest star-heavy remixes to goose sales for later singles. With the coming March re-release of Teenage Dream: The Complete Confection and a new single, “Part Of Me,” along with it, Billboard finally put its foot down and declared that from now on, deluxe reissue bonus tracks will not be counted in an album’s tally of single campaign achievements. Usher’s Confessions gets to keep its quadruple No. 1 stat, but “Part of Me,” which hit No. 1 last week, won’t be officially added to Perry’s official tally of Teenage Dream chart-toppers, which will remain unchanged unless she wants to start pushing one of the old songs from the original 2010 album.

In the last couple of years, “victory lap” re-releases have become less common, with bigger releases being issued in both standard and deluxe editions on the initial release date, and other bonus tracks earmarked for specific retailers. You know an album is an event when iTunes, Target, Best Buy and Amazon each get their own bonus tracks. And often, those songs are what would’ve in another era been b-sides: low-key or unexceptional studio outtakes that weren’t quite good or accessible enough to make the cut for the album proper. As urban labels increasingly leave rappers and R&B singers in lead single purgatory, and shelve albums until a single takes off at radio, the earlier singles end up becoming bonus track fodder. When Young Jeezy’s Thug Motivation 103 was finally released in December after nearly two years of advance singles, two of the biggest pre-release hits, “Lose My Mind” and “Ballin’,” were relegated to bonus tracks on the deluxe edition.

Last year Washington, D.C.-based rapper Wale released a successful sophomore album, Ambition, after plugging along for a few years as a local star and critical darling with moderate national success before becoming an urban radio staple by linking up with Rick Ross’s Maybach Music Group. I live in Maryland and had heard Wale’s song “Bait” on the D.C. hip-hop stations for months before Ambition was released in November. So I was a little surprised when “Bait” was relegated to a bonus track on the deluxe edition; it wasn’t the first time one of his local hits was left off of his major-label releases, but one would think burgeoning rap stars know by now to capitalize on their regional successes. Since then, Wale has released a video for “Bait” as well as a star-studded remix for the song featuring Ross, Trey Songz and 2 Chainz, but the aggressive song remains a bonus track, while softer R&B collaborations like “Lotus Flower Bomb” and “Sabotage” operate as the album’s official radio singles.

My colleague Chris Molanphy recently lamented the demise of the “deep cut” as iTunes track sales have helped labels get wise to which album tracks resonate with listeners and crowdsource the selection of later singles from an album campaign. These bonus tracks could be the new frontier for deep cuts, if not b-sides. After all, what is the success of “Super Bass” if not a huge victory for deep cuts? Mainstream hip-hop artists have released tons of music on mixtapes, something of a legal gray area, for years. But now, as major labels attempt to play catchup with the mixtape market by releasing music from their most popular artists year-round, there’s more and more big-budget, radio-ready music being left in the margins, ripe for reclamation by savvy fans and DJs.

Even major-label pop acts record more music than reaches the public, and often the tracks that inevitably leak from studio sessions take on a cult following of their own. Last year when Rihanna was prepping Talk That Talk, a brief, unfinished track called “Birthday Cake” made its way onto the internet, and voracious fan demand helped land it on the album. But the album version was the same 78-second interlude as the leak rather than a finished song. That didn’t stop the track from charting, though, and I’d been hearing “Birthday Cake” in radio mix show rotation quite a bit even before Rihanna recorded a headline-grabbing remix with her ex, Chris Brown. I just hope that the success of “Birthday Cake” doesn’t lead to record labels getting even more cynical and releasing albums with only brief snippets of hits, which are slated to be released in their entirety later on.