The following evaluation draws from an analysis of data compiled on Wikipedia’s “List of best-selling music artists” page, as well as Wikipedia pages for the discographies of Drake, Lil Wayne, and Jay-Z.
All Wikipedia pages used cite many primary sources including Billboard, Nielsen SoundScan, Spin Magazine, the RIAA Database, AllMusic, and recording industry databases of dozens of countries including Australia, Denmark, Japan, Poland, and Sweden. The following are links to each page:
If I was any more strategic, I’d have an artist record sales comparison article out every month after the success of my Rihanna vs. Beyoncé piece. I don’t regret writing about cultural phenomena that genuinely inspire me, but damn. I like doing numbers too.
That being said, I can confidently say I’m writing this piece in pursuit of both a necessary checkpoint for the culture and numbers for ATC.
Regardless of your stance on him, Drake is someone you have to keep track of if you care at all about the music game. Given his longevity, his seemingly unending commercial peak, and that uninspired “Best In The World Pack” he dropped, I think it’s time to work a little harder in finding Drake’s place in music history. What better way to start than by comparing the cold, hard record sales numbers of Drake and two legends he’s heavily linked to, Weezy and Jay-Z?
How We’re Keeping Score
As explained in my Rih/Bey piece, a “record sale” is a physical or digital sale (including stream or view accumulation), of singles, albums, and music videos. Because digital stores and streaming services changed the game of sale certification, the “certified units” numbers of highly-active artists post-2010 can be enormous. This is definitely the case with Drake, who’s certified units are actually more than two times his claimed sales.
Meanwhile, rap grandfather Jay-Z and Drake’s mentor Lil Wayne have certified unit and claimed sales numbers that are roughly matching:
These numbers say a few things:
- Drake’s digital sales are too insane right now for the claimed sales to keep up
- The only person who can compete with Drake in the first generation of streaming-age artists is Rihanna (“You go up higher than meeee somedays,” -Drake, “My Side”)
- Drake is on pace to enter Beatles/Elvis/Michael Jackson sales territory (and Rih already has). There’s no one left in hip-hop for him to pass up. Considering how much later he started than Jay and mentor Wayne, that is incredible
The role of streaming: cheat code or just different?
As mentioned earlier, Drake’s certified units sold is a remarkable 260+ million. Since his music is hauling in streams by the millions every day, it makes sense that the claimed sales number from Drake’s camp will update less frequently than the certified number. The streaming success of Drake is so obnoxious, we have to ask if such a playing field gives artists of today a clear commercial edge over artists who were in their primes pre-streaming.
Billboard has been a reliable source on the industry’s transition into counting streams and music video views as record sales. According to this 2018 piece on Drake’s record-breaking digital sales, here are the equivalencies:
- 1 song sale = 150 on-demand audio/video streams
- 1 album sale = 10 tracks sold from album = 1,500 on-demand audio/video streams
I’m not here to convince you if those equivalencies are fair or not. But just know that Drake doesn’t go quadruple-Diamond every time he reaches 100 million streams on a single. So, when it’s noted that Drake has more RIAA-platinum singles as a lead artist (43) than Lil Wayne (20) and Jay-Z (17) combined, his chart dominance becomes very hard to ignore.
For more fun facts, here are the platinum plaque counts to date for each artist as a featured artist:
- Drake – 28 (and Weezy had a 10-year head start!)
- Lil Wayne – 25
- Jay-Z – 9 (not nearly as many total feature verses as the other two, fwiw)
It’s also worth noting that Drake’s album sales were hitting Weezy-level numbers by his second album, Take Care, in an age where album sales are much harder to come by because of rabid single and video consumption. Also in the link above (DJBooth), it is clear that the discographies of Drake, Wayne, and Jay-Z are comparable in quality. While there is no consensus Drake classic yet, he has a rotation of albums arguably more consistent in quality than either of the older GOAT contenders, not to mention superior sales numbers with fewer projects and arguably greater influence on his respective generation of artists.
“Okay…you still can’t convince me Drake harder than Wayne or Hov“
You’re absolutely right. But consider this: in their primes, Wayne and Jay were doing exactly what Drake is doing now and Drake is better at it than both of them.
Any comically-serious rap “purist” might invoke Weezy or Hov as rappers several classes above Drake who were also “realer.” They weren’t pop artists, hit chasers, or media darlings like Aubrey is. But when we stop trying to rewrite history because of our feelings, the truth is unavoidable: Jay Z and Lil Wayne crossed over harder than Allen Iverson.
Two of the “realest” and most “pure” GOAT candidates prioritized pop numbers for years—with Linkin Park and Jay Sean collaborations and shifts toward memorable chants/singalong hooks—once they reached top-dog status in rap. In fact, Jay-Z’s singles discography shows a hit-oriented approach since the late-90s (e.g. the cute Annie sample in “Hard Knock Life”). His biggest strength, after all, is telling clever, easy-to-swallow tales of Bed-Stuy struggle and Brooklyn kingpinning. Still, neither artist hit the charts as hard or for as long as Drake is right now.
If game didn’t recognize game, why would either Hov or Weezy continue to respect or work with Drake? And for those who think Weezy’s cosign is what made Drake who he is, why would some corny scrub earn the respect of a titan like prime-Lil Wayne?
Many of your favorite rappers highly value(d) pop appeal. For better or worse, Drake is the best pop-rapper ever. What are these “golden age” standards we are holding onto?
Comparing numbers between artists inevitably takes us to a who’s-better discussion. While this piece puts the record sales of Drake, Lil Wayne, and Jay-Z into helpful perspective (which, admittedly, aids Drake’s GOAT case a lot more than the other two), this piece is not a thesis arguing Drake’s artistic superiority. All this article does is strongly confirm something we already knew: Drake is an unprecedented commercial artist.
That being said, there are plenty of chinks in Drake’s armor if you’re still interested in using this article as part of a hip-hop GOAT debate. For instance, unlike Hov and Wayne, Drake wasn’t the outright best rapper out when he turned up his pop status (i.e. hi Kendrick). There’s also the never-ending debate over which, if any, of Drake’s albums are classics—a problem Wayne, Hov, and Kendrick do not have.
Have fun beefing with your friends, uncles, and online trolls. Just poppin’ in and out with some facts.
UPDATE 5/17/2021: Edited for brevity and formatting