Is Def Jam getting its groove back?

Venerable hip-hop label Def Jam has recently scored four consecutive No. 1 debuts on Billboard's Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums chart. The label's string of chart-topping titles includes Frank Ocean's "Channel Orange", Nas' "Life Is Good" and Rick Ross' "God Forgives, I Don't" (the Maybach/Slip-N-Slide release held the top spot for two weeks), followed two weeks ago by 2 Chainz' hotly anticipated solo debut, Based on a "T.R.U. Story".

The last time a label notched four No. 1 debuts in a row on Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums was in February/March 2007. That's when Atlantic hit the jackpot with Pretty Ricky's "Late Night Special" (on imprint BlueStar), Gerald Levert's "In My Songs", the Notorious B.I.G.'s "Greatest Hits" (on Bad Boy) and Musiq Soulchild's "Luvanmusiq". Three albums from Def Jam's streak-Nas, Ross and 2 Chainz-also topped the Billboard 200, the label's quickest succession of No. 1s on that chart since Dec. 9, 2006, to Jan. 6, 2007, when Jay-Z's "Kingdom Come" (Roc-a-Fella/Def Jam), Young Jeezy's "The Inspiration" (CTE/Def Jam) and Nas' "Hip Hop Is Dead" (Def Jam/Columbia) all reigned for a week each.

What's most striking, however, is the fact that Def Jam's market share has nearly doubled during the past few years, from 1.1% in mid-August 2008 to 2.0% as of the week ending Aug. 24 in terms of album sales plus track-equivalent-album sales (where 10 track downloads equal an album sale), according to Nielsen SoundScan. Closer examination reveals the rap portion of Def Jam's roster is responsible for this year's surge in market share, rising to nearly 16% for rap albums after hovering in the 10%-11% range in the genre for the last three years.

The surge arrives within the first six months of Joie Manda's tenure as president of Def Jam Recordings and is in keeping with the executive's mandate to reinvigorate the brand. "We're looking for originality, great songs and artists who know their vision and who they want to be," Manda says. He segued to Def Jam in March after two years as head of urban music at Warner Bros. Records. "The roster is why I was excited to come over here."

Further driving Def Jam's No. 1 assault, Island Def Jam senior VP of marketing Chris Atlas says, were campaigns focusing on digital marketing, radio and artist participation. After buzz singles laid the foundation and release dates were locked in, each project took on different nuances. Without the benefit of a strong radio hit, the Nas campaign focused on heavy online promotion, performances (including the ESPY Awards) and other high-profile looks (e.g., album tracks "Train" and "The Don" were used for ESPN's NFL Draft promotion). Meanwhile, backed by a strong radio push-with his own top 15 hit "Touch'n You" (featuring Usher) and cameos on DJ Khaled's "Take It to the Head" and French Montana's "Pop That"-Ross combined TV appearances, vlogging and key magazine covers (e.g., Rolling Stone) to build awareness.

In the case of R&B newcomer Ocean, his much-publicized personal confession, early performance on "Late Night With Jimmy Fallon" and exclusive one-week release on iTunes built strong consumer word-of-mouth. And lastly, breakout rapper 2 Chainz-with his skillful wordplay on guest verses for a spate of hit songs by Kanye West ("Mercy"), Nicki Minaj ("Beez in the Trap") and others, touring with Minaj and Drake, major press and his own Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs No. 1, "No Lie" featuring Drake-"created the perfect storm that resulted in a No. 1 album," Atlas says.

Manda is intent on keeping that momentum going. 2 Chainz returned to the road on Aug. 30 on his own solo tour. And Ocean has a one-two punch coming with performances on MTV's Video Music Awards (Sept. 6) and the season premiere of "Saturday Night Live" (Sept. 15). Next up in the Def Jam product pipeline is West's Sept. 18 collaborative project with the roster of his G.O.O.D. Music imprint, "Cruel Summer". The forthcoming set has already spun off the platinum-selling Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart-topper "Mercy." Manda says the album "will be a great platform to relaunch Big Sean and Pusha T and another good look for 2 Chainz."

Additional reporting by Keith Caulfield and Ed Christman.

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