Welcome to The Contenders, a midweek column that looks at artists aiming for the top of the Billboard charts, and the strategies behind their efforts. This week (for the upcoming Billboard 200 albums chart dated Nov. 12): Taylor Swift’s Midnights blockbuster faces competition from superstar labelmate Drake’s team-up with 21 Savage, while fellow pop icon Rihanna leads the new Black Panther: Wakanda Forever sequel soundtrack.
Drake and 21 Savage, Her Loss (OVO/Republic/Slaughter Gang/Epic): Following the rare commercial downturn of June’s surprise-released club detour Honestly, Nevermind — which still debuted atop the Billboard 200, albeit with relatively low numbers by Drake’s pace-setting standards — the historically successful rapper looks to rebound with last Friday’s (Nov. 4) Her Loss. It’s a 16-track team-up with frequent collaborator 21 Savage (who also appeared on Nevermind’s lone breakout hit, the Billboard Hot 100-topping “Jimmy Cooks”) and many of the album’s bad-guy bars set social media on fire over the weekend (for both positive and not-so-positive reasons).
Collaborative albums in hip-hop often add up to less than the sum of their parts — take March’s Better Than You, a team-up of DaBaby and YoungBoy Never Broke Again that charted lower on the Billboard 200 (No. 10) than either rapper’s then-most-recent solo LP. Both Drake and 21 Savage have scored in this lane before, though — Drake topped the Billboard 200 in 2015 with the Future team-up What a Time to Be Alive and 21 Savage did the same in 2020 with the album he made with marquee producer Metro Boomin, Savage Mode II.
Various Artists, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever – Music From and Inspired By (Roc Nation/Def Jam/Hollywood Records): The soundtrack to the original Black Panther movie was a blockbuster success nearly on the level of the superhero film it accompanied, topping the Billboard 200, spawning a pair of Hot 100 top 10 hits and even scoring a rare nomination for album of the year at the 2019 Grammys. That soundtrack had the benefit of curation from a then-red hot Kendrick Lamar, who also appeared on several tracks (including both top 10 hits, “All the Stars” with SZA and “Pray for Me” with The Weeknd) and stitched its disparate tracks into a cohesive full listen.
Lamar isn’t involved with the 19-track Black Panther: Wakanda Forever soundtrack, which is built around Afrobeats hitmakers like Tems, CKay, Rema and Burna Boy. But the set is led by another veteran global superstar on Lamar’s level: Rihanna, who makes her long-awaited return to popular music with “Lift Me Up,” the set’s first single and the Bad Gal’s first new solo song in six years. The ballad, written in tribute to late Black Panther star Chadwick Boseman, debuts at No. 2 on the Hot 100 this week and should give Wakanda Forever an excellent head start in next week’s Billboard 200 race.
Joji, SMITHEREENS (88rising/Warner): Few artists probably cursed the news of Drake and 21 Savage bumping Her Loss back a week from its initial Oct. 29 release date more than Joji, who would have been a frontrunner for the highest debut in another week with his new SMITHEREENS. That’s thanks to a sizable cult fanbase and strong streaming numbers — grown over a half-decade since the artist formerly known as Filthy Frank pivoted from Internet comedy to intimate R&B — and the recent success of lead single “Glimpse of Us,” which became his first major crossover hit on the Billboard Hot 100 over the summer, hitting the chart’s top 10.
IN THE MIX
Russell Dickerson, Russell Dickerson (Triple Tigers): Dickerson has been a regular visitor to the top of Billboard’s Country Airplay chart, besting the tally with four consecutive singles in the late ‘10s and early ‘20s. Neither of the advance cuts from his self-titled third album reached the chart’s top level, but Jake Scott collab “She Likes It” has been one of the most enduring country songs on the Hot 100 this year, lasting 30 weeks before finally falling off this week.
Billy Joel, Live at Yankee Stadium / Barbra Streisand, Live at the Bon Soir (Columbia): A pair of new Columbia-released live albums threaten to put the charts in a New York State of Mind this week, as both Joel’s 1990 set at the Bronx baseball stadium and Streisand’s 1962 gig at the famed Greenwich Village club come out on streaming and CD. (The Billboard 200’s No. 1 spot is a familiar venue for both artists, who have topped the chart a combined 15 times.)
Quavo and Takeoff, Only Built for Infinity Links (Quality Control/Capitol/Motown/YRN): Infinity Links debuted at No. 7 on the Billboard 200 dated Oct. 7 and had fallen to No. 84 as of the Nov. 5 chart. However, the set has received renewed interest following the tragic Nov. 1 death of co-creator Takeoff, resulting in a rebound to No. 12 on this week’s Billboard 200 — and possibly an even higher placement next week.