By BEN SISARIO NY Times
How do you make it to No. 1 on the Billboard chart? Sade’s strategy: take a decade off and remain mysterious.
Last week Sade, the Nigerian-born singer whose song “Smooth Operator” has been a radio staple for a quarter-century, released “Soldier of Love” (Epic), her first album in 10 years, and it zoomed past all competition. It reached No. 1 with a remarkable 502,000 sales, according to Nielsen SoundScan, a better debut week than Jay-Z, U2 and Britney Spears had for their latest albums.
“Soldier of Love” has received strong reviews. But the album’s success also points to the consumer power and loyalty of older listeners, who helped make Susan Boyle’s album “I Dreamed a Dream” (Syco Music/Columbia) the second-best selling album of 2009. No. 1 was “Fearless” Taylor Swift (Big Machine).
“It’s easier to reach an older, more traditional consumer by using the old means of promotion,” said Carl Mello, buyer for Newbury Comics, a music and media chain in New England. “You can build awareness with younger people, but fewer of them will actually put their hand in their wallets and pay for it.”
“Soldier of Love,” Sade’s first No. 1 album in 24 years, runs contrary to prevailing sales trends. Her previous album, “Lovers Rock,” sold 370,000 copies in its first week in 2000. Since then overall album sales have dropped by more than 50 percent, and most artists have gotten used to the pattern of gradual sales erosion; Sade’s sales — at least for this first week — have increased significantly.
She is not the only R&B artist to have come back recently from a long absence with a splash, however. Last year Maxwell, gone for eight years, came back at No. 1 with “BLACKsummers’night,” as did Whitney Houston, whose “I Look to You” was her first since 2002.
To promote her new album, Sade said little but sang much. She performed on “Today,” “The View” and “Late Show With David Letterman” but gave very few interviews. That reticence — which goes against every rule in the current pop-marketing playbook — may have worked to her advantage on the radio, said Doc Wynter, vice president of urban programming for Clear Channel Radio.
“The audience was really thirsting to hear more of her music,” he said. “I was particularly surprised when a number of our mainstream stations that play hip-hop and R&B gravitated to the song as well. The beat is timeless, and she’s just got that X factor that makes people curious.”
Also on this week’s chart Lady Antebellum’s “Need You Now” (Capitol Nashville) falls to No. 2 with 208,000, and Lil Wayne’s “Rebirth” (Cash Money/Universal) drops two spots to No. 4 with 89,000 sales. Several new albums charted high: Jaheim’s “Another Round” (Atlantic) opened at No. 3 with 112,000, Josh Turner’s “Haywire” (Mercury Nashville) is No. 5 with 85,000, and “Tonight” (ForeFront) by the Christian rapper TobyMac is No. 6 with 79,000.
On the singles chart the remake of “We Are the World” opened at No. 2, behind Ke$ha’s “Tik Tok,” which holds at No. 1 for the ninth week in a row.
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