If you’ve been keeping track of the charts this week, the historic success of Olivia Rodrigo’s debut single “drivers license” may have been stealing most of your attention. Don’t let that distract you from another culture-shifting chart moment that will be solidified with the upcoming Billboard update.
Morgan Wallen’s Dangerous: The Double Album, his sophomore record, is expected to debut at #1 in the U.S. with 235,000-250,000 sales units according to Hits Daily Double. This total includes a staggering 210-220 million streams estimate. He busted onto the scene with “Up Down” and “Whiskey Glasses,” but this is Wallen’s superstar moment. As the music industry has transitioned from the digital sales era to the streaming era, genres like rap, pop, and Latin have easily adapted to the new landscape. On the flipside, country music has struggled. Of course, the genre wouldn’t have had this issue if the gatekeepers didn’t let their racism stop them from embracing “Old Town Road” two years ago. Nevertheless, in 2020, the genre made great strides posting a 19% increase in streams according to Rolling Stone Charts. Dangerous will debut with the biggest streaming week ever for a country album. It’s customary to see >200 million first-week streaming totals for albums from Ariana Grande, The Weeknd, or Drake, but for country stars, pure sales have still been their strength relative to the rest of the industry. As that consumption medium continues to falter and streaming grows ever stronger, stars like Wallen and Luke Combs are leading the charge. Late last year, Combs surprised some chart watchers when his “Forever After All” battled Ariana Grande’s “positions” for the #1 debut on the Billboard Hot 100. Due to country’s slow transition to streaming, songs from the genre have recently stalled outside of the Top 10 on the Hot 100 although the contributing points from radio give them some longevity on the chart.
“Forever After All” ultimately landed in the #2 spot, but the more interesting streaming success story actually came from a Wallen song a few months earlier. On the August 29, 2020 edition of the Billboard Hot 100, Morgan Wallen’s “7 Summers” debuted at #6 making Wallen the first solo male country artist to launch a song in the Top 10 since Chris Gaines did it with “Lost In You” in 1999. 21 years separate the first and second solo male country artists to debut a song in the Top 10 on the Hot 100. How did Wallen do it? TikTok. Morgan Wallen’s big chart moment spans several months, and the first chapter is the success of “7 Summers.”
“7 Summers” became a hit on TikTok before its full release. The audio from a performance of a snippet of the song on Wallen’s Instagram quickly gained traction on the app. To date, the official “7 Summers” sound has racked up 17,000+ videos on TikTok. This number doesn’t include 51,800+ videos made to the audio ripped from Wallen’s Instagram. On TikTok alone, the hashtag “7summers” holds 49.9 million views, “7summersago” holds another 3 million views, and “7summersmorganwallen” has 23,200 views. All this is to say that “7 Summers” genuinely connected with fans and Morgan’s base was hungry for this song to drop. In fact, they basically forced Wallen’s hand as he was initially “on the fence about it” and hesitant to include it on Dangerous. More importantly, those fans actually showed up when it came time for the song’s full release. Sure, some fans were disappointed with how the full song sounded, but “7 Summers” still went on to break the record for highest first-day streams for a country song on Apple Music and the record for highest first-day streams for a song from a solo country artist on Spotify. This sort of phenomenon is something that you would see from an artist like Drake, not a former The Voice contestant turned country music star.
“7 Summers” laid the streaming groundwork for Dangerous: The Double Album to dominate. Tracks from the album flooded the daily charts on Spotify and Apple Music similar to a release from Lil Uzi Vert or 21 Savage. As of this writing, tracks from Dangerous occupy five of the Top 10 spots of Apple Music’s daily Top 100 ranking (USA). Wallen’s appeal and success is a culmination of a number of things. Dangerous has all the hallmarks of your standard country album, but Wallen is the embodiment of music’s movement into a world beyond genre. On the album’s standout track, “Wasted On You,” he juxtaposes a doo-wop-influenced chord progression on acoustic guitar against robust trap snares. The ballad is closer to Jason Aldean’s “Burnin It Down” than, say, Lil Nas X and Billy Ray Cyrus’ “Old Town Road” on the trap-inflected country songs spectrum, but it’s a winner, nonetheless. This is a sound that is popular and works on streaming. Look at some of the biggest songs from Ariana Grande’s thank u, next or Billie Eilish’s When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go. Music’s biggest stars outside of hip-hop are blending elements of the genre into their songs. Rap is the new pop. I’m not sure how many times it needs to be said. “Wasted On You” follows Wallen’s earlier foray into the trap sphere with a dance-trap-country ballad hybrid called “Heartless.” A collaboration with Diplo, “Heartless” has reached #39 on the Hot 100 and earned a 3x Platinum RIAA certification for passing the 3 million sales units mark. A more straightforward country version of the song appears on Dangerous, but the original version is yet another reminder of where Wallen’s head is at. He knows how to push country into the streaming era and make genuine crossover hits.
Country’s relationship with hip-hop is nothing new (hello, Nelly!). In recent years, we’ve seen Ludacris collaborate with Carrie Underwood and Florida Georgia Line utilize rap cadences and call up Nelly for remixes. Of course, there was Sam Hunt, as well, whose “Body Like A Back Road” set the stage for Morgan’s streaming success. Wallen is the first time we’re seeing streaming success at this level from a country artist so in tune with these elements of rap. Luke Combs is also breaking streaming records, but his songs are fiercely traditional in comparison to Wallen’s with his trademark soaring ballads. This isn’t to say that all of Dangerous sounds like “Wasted On You” (it doesn’t), but that song proves that Wallen is keyed into what the future of country music looks like. Furthermore, Wallen approached Dangerous like a rapper. The streaming era has gifted (or plagued, depending on how you view it) us with lengthy albums like Nicki Minaj’s Queen, Future’s High Off Life, and Megan Thee Stallion’s Good News. Dangerous is reminiscent of the premiere streaming era double album, Drake’s Scorpion, the record holder for the largest streaming week in history (745.92 million). In terms of music videos, Wallen dropped an 8-minute short film for “7 Summers.” This comes a year after his first 8-minute short film for his cover of Jason Isbell’s “Cover Me Up.” Country music has notoriously drab visuals, so to see a new star, a male artist, in particular, put this kind of effort into his music videos shows that he is tapped into the importance of visuals in this era.
At the end of the day, country music is long overdue for a new major crossover artist. Ever since Taylor Swift transitioned to pop music (and then transitioned to an indie/folk iteration of pop music), country has been searching for its next crossover star. At one point, it looked like it could be Florida Georgia Line, but they never came close to replicating the crossover success of songs like “Cruise,” “H.O.L.Y.,” or “This Is How We Roll.” After Montevallo, and especially after the historic success of “Body Like A Back Road,” Sam Hunt looked to be next in line, but the lengthy five-year wait between Montevallo and Southside, his sophomore album, dampened his pull. With “The Bones,” “My Church,” and “The Middle,” Maren Morris seemed to be up next, but she still hasn’t hit the Top 10 as a lead artist. Currently, it looks like Dan + Shay could be making a play to be the next big crossover duo with his like “Speechless” and the Justin Bieber-assisted “10,000 Hours,” but they seem to lack the social media finesse that makes Wallen so singular. Wallen not only offers the genre its chance at a new crossover star, he also represents a new generation and greater changing of the guard happening across the industry. 2020 was a year that saw industry veterans either sitting the year out or getting outshined by newer acts in terms of content quality and success. Morgan Wallen’s big chart moment is his coronation as country’s next big superstar. Dangerous isn’t a showstopping album (it’s far too long and kind of drags), but it’s an important album for Wallen, the country genre, and music, in general. He understands the power of TikTok, he’s figured out how to navigate the pop landscape (read: hip-hop) while staying true to his home genre, and he feels fresh and authentic. Between Morgan and Olivia, this will go down as one of the most important chart weeks of 2021.