Summer Walker broke Apple Music’s record for the biggest album release for a female artist. Her team talks about the strategy that made it possible.
When planning out the release of R&B singer Summer Walker’s record-breaking sophomore album, Still Over It, LVRN co-founder Justice Baiden says the label wanted to “open the floodgates for the genre.” And that, they did.
The album, which was released on November 5 under LVRN/Interscope Records, debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 chart, moving 166,000 equivalent album units and landing all 18 of its eligible tracks on the Billboard Hot 100. Walker’s project marks the best first-week performance for an R&B album this year, and 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.
“Going into this album, we knew that she has a potential to push the R&B genre along,” says Baiden. “We wanted to take it from what the R&B debuts normally are and push it into a pop space, which I feel like she over-achieved.”
Of the 191.1 million U.S. audio streams, according to MRC Data, for Still Over It‘s debut week, Apple Music says its service is responsible for 135.4 million streams. The explosive songstress also broke a handful of Apple Music records according to the platform, including the biggest album release for a female artist across genres, and the biggest ever R&B album debut.
“That’s what happens when the artist breaks at Apple,” says Apple Music’s head of R&B, Alaysia Sierra. Sierra worked extensively with Walker from the early days of her career, after discovering the singer through a friend at LVRN. “I was just looking at her Instagram, and it was this really contrasting thing of this alternative Black girl, but she was singing these really sultry neo-soul songs. That’s not what I expected,” says Sierra. “I thought she was going to be a rapper or doing rock.”
At the time, Walker’s music was minimal, videos of the illusive singer serenading followers with a guitar in hand and buttery vocals across her Instagram and YouTube pages. After releasing her debut project with LVRN and gaining a Hot 100 entry with “Girls Need Love” featuring Drake, Walker’s potential became further evident. “Summer approaches [music] like a girl from Atlanta who used to clean houses and strip for a living then ended up on this path,” she says. “The vulnerability piece and the realness of who she is has never changed.”
This vulnerability is what Gary Kelly, the Global Head of Streaming & Strategy at Interscope Records, says contributed greatly to Walker’s success. “Her honesty with the challenges of life resonate deeply with fans, and it shows with overall engagement,” he says. Another more obvious contributor to the album’s dominance was the impact of streaming. “Summer came of age during the streaming era, where her fans were comfortable with leaning in via the DSPs,” he explains. “Her debut album never left the Billboard 200 chart in the 110 weeks since release, so there was a clear expectation that her fans would continue to want to experience the album via streaming.”
While Walker bares it all in her heart-wrenching songs, her public persona is far more reclusive. Baiden says the LVRN team had to formulate a rollout that worked for a less media-facing singer. “She’s not the artist that loves to go on the road and do press,” he says. “So for us it’s really just creating a world that can speak for her, without her having to speak.”
For Still Over It, the goal was to open Walker up to a larger global market, something Sierra says album producer and songwriter Sean Garrett played a role in. “[The album] brought together two worlds,” she explains. “Summer is really raw, unapologetic — along with Sean, a seasoned veteran in the game who’s done something more structured and intentional.”
The project’s collaborative moments, including “No Love” alongside SZA and “Ex For A Reason” with JT from City Girls, also bolstered the album’s success, says Baiden. “[Summer and SZA] share similar fans,” he explains, “and people are excited when their favorite artists work together.”
Walker, who was an Apple Music Up Next artist in 2019, exists within a community of emerging artists, including Giveon and Victoria Monet, who Sierra says are poised to transform the positioning of R&B. “Summer could be as big as she wants to be. I think she will be one of the leaders that helps bring R&B to the forefront in the pop sensibility,” she explains. “How we feel about the ’90s and early 2000s R&B — I think it’s poised to make that comeback, if we put the attention, love and money back into these artists.”