She might not have quite the household name status of some of the established pop superstars releasing albums this November — Ed Sheeran, Taylor Swift, Adele, Bruno Mars — but Summer Walker is putting up numbers that suggest she’s not that far off from their commercial class.
Walker’s sophomore album Still Over It becomes her first No. 1 on the Billboard 200 albums chart this week, moving 166,000 equivalent album units and charting all 18 of its eligible tracks on the Billboard Hot 100. It’s the best first-week performance for an R&B album this year, and also marks the all-time best single-week streaming performance for any R&B album by a female artist, with over 200 million on-demand streams, according to MRC Data.
How has Summer Walker grown this big this quickly? And what does it mean for R&B on the whole? Billboard staffers discuss these questions and more below.
1. Still Over It debuts at No. 1 this week with 166,000 equivalent album sales units moved — the best mark for any R&B album this year. What’s the primary reason Summer Walker was able to post such a big first-week number with this set?
Darlene Aderoju: With special guest appearances by fellow artists including Cardi B, JT, City Girls, SZA, Ari Lennox, Omarion, Ciara, Lil Durk, Pharrell Williams & the Neptunes, Summer Walker successfully delivers the long-awaited traditional R&B vibes that many music listeners have been missing. Additionally, Walker candidly dabbles into her personal life — which includes her high profile yet seemingly turbulent co-parenting relationship with music producer London on da Track – occasionally throws not-so-subtle shade and even name drops other hitmakers (like Drake and Young Thug) in pungent songs like “4th Baby Mama.” Plus, because it comes as a follow-up to her debut studio album, Over It, the album attracts both new and longtime Walker supporters who have been tuning in since her 2018 mixtape, Last Day of Summer.
Jason Lipshutz: Over the past two years, Summer Walker has put in subtly important work by keeping herself active in the artistic community — guest appearances on Justin Bieber, Pop Smoke and Trey Songz projects, plus a Sam Smith duet for the Dear Evan Hansen soundtrack — while continuing to stoke anticipation for the follow-up to 2019’s Over It, with a stopgap EP, Life on Earth, in between. The impressive debut of her first album elevated Walker to the upper echelon of R&B, and she’s spent two years refining her sound for a proper follow-up while also staying top of mind when need be. Simply put, Walker is a star, and she’s acted as such since her debut LP.
EJ Panaligan: Summer Walker is operating in a wide open R&B space right now. The genre’s contemporary mainstays, a la Frank Ocean and SZA among others, have been holding onto their full-length releases for one reason or another. Fans of the genre have been waiting for a “big” release in the realm for some time now — what better to deliver that than the follow-up to her 2019 twice-platinum record, Over It? Her latest record’s big first-week debut was the culmination of a perfect storm for the rising R&B star, along with some stellar choices for pre-release singles.
Neena Rouhani: It’s hard to say, but I’d go with her positioning in the genre and her honesty. I think platforms like Apple Music have prioritized the project but it would be unfair and inaccurate to attribute it solely to that. Summer fills a space in the R&B world that’s very specific to her. It’s different from where SZA or Kehlani live, all three really strong artists. Her music and image are very honest and accessible. I think because the world has had such a front row seat to her journey since Over It, everyone was anxiously awaiting her next offering. She doesn’t give much of herself to the world, outside of the music. So people were ready to devour that album.
Andrew Unterberger: She’s done an excellent job of establishing herself as an albums artist in the streaming space. Her other releases — EPs, one-off singles and feature appearances — haven’t connected with audiences in a particularly major way, but when it’s album time for Summer Walker, fans appear ready to swan dive in. It’s something about the late-night, confessional mood created by the two albums that inspires listeners to totally immerse themselves in them, lengthy and languorous tracklists be damned. And though it was a risky move — one that could’ve proved somewhat embarrassing if the album hadn’t landed the same way — naming the set as a sequel to her 2019 breakthrough debut appears to only have strengthened the brand as a result.
2. It’s not Summer Walker’s first time posting six digits in an opening week — Over It moved 134k in its debut back in 2019 — but it’s impressive that she’s continued to grow her numbers, even without having a particularly big crossover hit or a lot of big public looks. Why do you think her popularity is still on the rise?
Darlene Aderoju: Summer Walker’s popularity continues to rise because she’s been gradually opening up to the public through the years, steadily unveiling different layers of who she is as a person, artist and now mom. In addition to being incredibly vulnerable about her personal life and all too familiar relationship woes throughout the album, she’s continuously opened up about personal things including her complexities with social anxiety. In discussing her life openly in music and other forms, Summer’s fan base continues to expand as more music listeners feel they can relate with her messages and certain experiences.
Jason Lipshutz: Walker has molded herself into an album artist — the type of dynamic talent that thrives across a cohesive body of work and will bring out A-list talent (like SZA, Cardi B and Lil Durk) to help tell that widescreen story. Even without a traditional hit preceding its release, Still Over It was among the most-hyped R&B projects of the year, and Walker delivered a sprawling, sumptuous statement with a nice mix of other voices but her own front and center. The combination of musical quality and thematic coherence — even at 63 minutes, Still Over It feels like a unified statement — has kept Walker on an upward trajectory.
Neena Rouhani: Because she puts out consistently great bodies of work. Summer isn’t one to churn out music just for the sake of releasing, she takes time to live life and then deliver something that is a real reflection of her reality. Considering everything she’s gone through in the last two years, from motherhood to tasting fame, her fans were eager to hear this project. Even her EP, Clear, was such an honest and authentic offering. People feel connected and want to know where she’s going next.
EJ Panaligan: It seems like she’s made the right chess moves following 2019’s Over It, appearing on features and remixes for established acts like Justin Bieber, 21 Savage and Khalid, steadily building her fanbase along the way. She hasn’t been shooting for the stars with cheap attempts at radio singles or anything of the sort, instead betting on organically growing a loyal fan base through consistent singles and features. That steady stream of growth has paid off with a No. 1 album.
Andrew Unterberger: First and foremost, the songs are getting better. But Cardi B also nails it with her “narration” on the album’s opener “Bitter,” when she instructs Summer Walker via voicemail: “Put that drama in your music.” It’s not a new lesson for Walker: Over It was a sensation in large part because of the album’s messiness — an impulsive, horny, occasionally violent sense of an artist just putting it all out there. But the connection that this directness and intimacy forged with fans has only been increased by Walker’s real-life presence in tabloid headlines — most in conjunction with producer and on-off romantic partner London on da Track — which she certainly doesn’t shy away from addressing on Still Over It, even with LODT behind the boards on nearly half the album’s tracklist. Such intrigue never hurt anyone’s streaming numbers, and Walker seizing on that public interest makes Over It more successful, both commercially and artistically.
3. “No Love” with SZA is the highest-charting of the set’s new songs, debuting at No. 13 on the Hot 100. Do you think it’ll become her first pop/radio breakout hit? Do you think any other songs on the album have a better chance?
Darlene Aderoju: “No Love” is already her first Hot 100 top 15 hit, which means it’s probably only a matter of time before the tune makes a steady chart climb in the pop radio realm. The song also evolves around a phase that many people have endured in their love lives; reflecting on a failed past relationship and imagining how they would have approached things with the former significant other if they could flip the script and play them first. In the case of Summer and SZA’s duet, the pair sing about having a relationship (or “situationship”) that was strictly benefical physically and financially, with no love to prevent heart ache. Walker opens the song with the attention-grabbing line, “If I had you back/ I wouldn’t have did all that,” and takes listeners on a sonically engaging adventure for the next nearly four minutes.
Jason Lipshutz: No idea what pop radio’s appetite is for new Neptunes beats these days, but “Dat Right There,” featuring Pharrell Williams and his hall-of-fame production panache, sounds like a smash from a bygone era that might still find a way to work today. “No Love” may give SZA another collaborative smash this year following “Kiss Me More” with Doja Cat, but the combustible “Dat Right There” has been the track on repeat for me.
EJ Panaligan: I’m partial to the overall catchiness and bounce of “Ex For A Reason” with City Girls’ JT, but “No Love” is more of that quintessentially slow, sensual Summer Walker sound that fans gravitate toward most. Aside from a very strong SZA verse — and not to mention fans have been foaming at the mouth for any hint at a new release from the TDE singer — the song doesn’t necessarily have the memorable hooks that will give it a fair shot at latching on to pop radio. I think its legacy will stick as an overall fan favorite, but I also would not mind being proven wrong here, because its No. 13 debut is quite telling of its commercial potential.
Neena Rouhani: I’m going to say yes and no, because it isn’t a pop song. I think that’s noteworthy, because a lot of R&B acts transition to pop in order to “break through” but Summer has dug her feet into R&B and rightfully so. I think “No Love” is a true R&B track with potential to be a mainstream breakout hit. Especially with a feature from fellow awkward R&B queen, SZA. Right now, it’s the most popular track on the project, but I could see “Ex For A Reason” resurface, or “Dat Right There” make a mark, too. Can’t go wrong with Pharrell and The Neptunes.
Andrew Unterberger: It might be a little too slow-and-low for pop radio right now — not to mention a little too vulgar on the chorus — but this could absolute catnip for R&B radio, which has really taken to such booming downtempo jams this year (H.E.R.’s “Damage,” Normani feat. Cardi B’s “Wild Side”). For all of Walker’s streaming supremacy, she’s never had a top five hit on Billboard‘s R&B/Hip-Hop Airplay chart, so breaking the seal there could be a pretty major victory for her in her own right.
4. The story of whether or not R&B is “back” as a major player in the popular music landscape has been ongoing for some time now — but does Summer Walker having the kind of massive streaming debut usually reserved for pop and rap stars seem particularly meaningful to you about the genre’s current health and vitality?
Darlene Aderoju: It’s refreshing to see a traditional style of music attain so much mainstream success after a years-long streak of evolving music styles (like melodic rap) dominating the charts. It’s also proof that the more vulnerable artists are about their experiences, the more they appear to connect with a larger audience. Summer Walker really embodies the meaning of rhythm and blues as she sings about some of the painful aspects of heart break with such rhythmic and soulful sounds. A great example is in “Broken Promises” as she sings lyrics like, “Fourth one you said it’d be different/ And I believed you … I built you up/ And I held you down.” R&B is at an incredible height and as nostalgia for its golden age continues to trend, more artists will likely dive back into the genre.
Jason Lipshutz: This No. 1 debut is simply more proof of the incredibly healthy place R&B is in right now commercially and artistically, as artists like Walker, SZA, Giveon, Normani, H.E.R., Daniel Caesar, Jhene Aiko, Kehlani and several others honor the central tenets of the genre while expanding its contours to make room for their points of view. Meanwhile, a veteran like Jazmine Sullivan could be a major Grammys player with one of the best albums of the year, Silk Sonic brought classic R&B back to the top of the Hot 100 this year, and as of today, we have new Maxwell music. 2021 has been the most satisfying year for R&B in recent memory, and 2022 may very well top it.
EJ Panaligan: I think the R&B genre will always thrive regardless of its commercial success and impact on popular music. The underground, lesser-known realms of the scene have some of the most promising artists in music right now. I am hoping that, after the strong debut of Still Over It, more of the genre’s established artists start to feel compelled to rev up their own releases. Frank Ocean and SZA are both going to do monstrous numbers whenever they decide to return — fans have been waiting that long for them.
Neena Rouhani: Yes, I think it’s meaningful. It’s really impactful to see an artist stay true to the genre and achieve such great numbers. It shows other artists and labels, you don’t need to abandon the genre to break records and shake things up. She’s really drawing on her own painful experiences in love — something that was a core component of the genre but sort of dissipated in the mainstream in recent years. So it’s really exciting to see.
Andrew Unterberger: Kinda. I think R&B has been a pretty undeniably healthy place for the past few years already — but it has kinda been lacking in this sort of blockbuster drop, if for no other reason than because a handful of the genre’s marquee artists have been quiet on the full-length album front. I don’t think it’s particularly meaningful about the genre growing at a faster rate in 2021 than in 2020 or 2019, but I think it sorta validates the growth that’s been there all along.
5. Now that Summer Walker’s long-awaited sequel album is out, who do you think the next R&B artist will be to generate similar excitement and/or streaming numbers withe a new LP? (Not counting long-established crossover stars like Beyoncé or The Weeknd.)
Darlene Aderoju: Since so many artists today boast that they are genre-less or can do anything, there’s no telling who the next underdog, breakout or come back star will be to debut at No. 1 with an R&B project. With artists like Summer who last released an album in 2019 and both Lizzo and Nigerian sensation CKAy who both rapidly conquered the charts with years-old songs that gained a new life, it is clear that any song, old or new, can generate a buzz and become a hit.
Jason Lipshutz: I’m keeping an eye on Giveon, whose “Heartbreak Anniversary” proved a crossover smash earlier this year and who received a major co-sign as a guest star on Justin Bieber’s Hot 100 chart-topper “Peaches.” His recent single “For Tonight” is richer than the sound of his first album, and could set up a big year for the singer-songwriter.
EJ Panaligan: It’s Brent Faiyaz’ time to blow up. I’m ready for him to take over. The hype surrounding him has grown steadily since his last EP, F–k The World, in early 2020 and he’s also been attaching himself to the right artists for collaborations. In 2021 alone, he appeared on “Gravity,” from producer DJ Dahi alongside Tyler, The Creator — a soothing R&B track that meditates on the waning vitality of a relationship amid Brent’s rising stardom that peaked at No. 71 on the Hot 100. Later in the year, his Neptunes-produced loose single “Wasting Time” looped in a verse from Billboard Artist of the 2010s Drake — an effort that peaked at No. 49 on the Hot 100. His recent Instagram tease of new music coming next month tells me he knows he’s primed for stardom too.
Neena Rouhani: I’m really eager to see what Ari Lennox, SZA and Kehlani do. Giveon too, although the last single leaned far more pop, so I’m interested to see what direction he’ll go in with the next album.
Andrew Unterberger: The obvious answer is Summer’s “No Love” partner SZA, who should have a major bow awaiting her whenever she returns for her sophomore follow-up to 2017’s unanimously acclaimed Ctrl — “Good Days” even became her biggest solo hit this year as a one-off, despite being as uncommercial as anything to hit the top 10 this year. Just a question of if she and her TDE label can ever make peace for long enough to get the thing out in the world.