On this week’s Billboard Hot 100 chart, Justin Bieber’s new single “Sorry” zooms to an No. 2 debut thanks to 277,000 downloads sold in its first week according to Nielsen Music, over 23 million U.S. streams and 34 million all-format radio impressions (all stats per Billboard). That lofty debut follows the arrival of Bieber’s “What Do You Mean?” single on the chart in September, which launched at No. 1 following an epic 30-day social media rollout and became the singer’s first career Hot 100 chart-topper.
With both songs coming from his upcoming album Purpose, Bieber is the first artist to have back-to-back singles debut at either No. 1 or No. 2 on the chart in five years, when Eminem did it with “Not Afraid” and “Love the Way You Lie” in 2010. If “Sorry” had debuted at No. 1 — which it might have, had it come out on a normal week! — Bieber would be the first artist to collect back-to-back No. 1 debuts in two decades, since Mariah Carey did so with her Daydream smashes “Fantasy” and “One Sweet Day.”
But then again, last week was not a normal week. Last week was Return Of Adele Week.
Bieber’s “Sorry” was released on Oct. 22, just hours before Adele returned with her new single “Hello”; the lead track to 25 easily debuted at No. 1 and busted chart records upon its arrival, most notably becoming the first song ever to sell over 1 million downloads in the U.S. in a single week. The Hot 100 chart currently reads “Hello” at No. 1 and “Sorry” at No. 2, but in reality, those two songs aren’t very close on the chart.
As we enter November and gear up for the biggest releases of the year, this week’s chart feels emblematic of this year’s fourth-quarter pop conversation: Bieber’s doing great, but wow, look at Adele! With one week separating the release of Bieber’s Purpose and Adele’s 25 this month, it’s becoming increasingly clear that the Biebs will have to be content with the second-brightest spotlight of Q4, because no person, place or thing is escaping or denying Adele’s long-awaited return to power.
And really, that’s a minor shame for Bieber, who is enjoying a spectacular comeback himself. The commercial resurrection of Bieber’s career after countless mistakes in 2013 and 2014 would be a sexy storyline by itself, but combined with a trio of songs — “Where Are U Now” with Diplo and Skrillex, “What Do You Mean?” and now “Sorry” — that all rank among the year’s best pop singles, the 21-year-old’s phoenix-like rise to brilliance has been nothing short of captivating.
A troubled young star getting his act together, fulfilling his potential as an adult artist and dropping smash single after smash single is made-for-TV juicy on its own. Throw in the added elements of superstar collaborators, a release-date showdown with the biggest pop group of the decade and recently leaked nude photos circulating the gossip blogs, and you have what should be the music story of the year.
Or rather, what was the music story of the year, before Adele started teasing her music return in mid-October.
The U.K. singer’s 2011 album, 21, was such a blockbuster success that whenever Adele did decide to return with a new album, with whatever type of music she damn well wanted, it was going to be a Really Big Deal. “Hello” was destined to be inescapable no matter what it sounded like, simply because demand for new Adele music was sky-high; ditto for 25, which will easily score the biggest sales debut of the year in a few weeks by existing as the follow-up to 21.
This is what happens when a popular artist follows up the project that made him or her gigantic, when a star becomes a supernova and the general public wants to see if they can sustain that type of supremacy. We saw it happen with Lady Gaga’s Born This Way in 2011, with 50 Cent's The Massacre in 2005, and with Britney Spears’ Oops!… I Did It Again in 2000 — all of those albums represent their respective artists’ largest career sales weeks, but the follow-ups to their signature albums, not the signature albums themselves. Adele will likely be best known for 21 when all is said and done, but right now, she is ruling the pop universe with its sequel.
One last thing to consider: Adele is undoubtedly benefiting from a relatively short lead-up to 25. While Bieber has been on radio with “Where Are U Now” since the summer and began hyping his new album as early as July, Adele (not surprisingly) played things close to the vest when it came to information about 25. Rumors swirled about her return to music, but nothing was concrete until the week of Oct. 23, when fans received a release date, track list, new single and cinematic music video for that single — and immediately, Adele began to dominate the cultural conversation. The rollout vaguely recalls Beyonce’s surprise release of her self-titled fifth album in December 2013, which arrived after flashy projects by Lady Gaga, Katy Perry and Miley Cyrus had already come out that fall and proceeded to show up all of them. This year, the focus was on “Justin Bieber vs. One Direction”… and then Adele showed up and changed it.
So, sorry Justin Bieber (pun intended): The world can’t wait to hear Purpose, but the fall of 2015 is all about 25. As we are seeing now, there’s no shame in accepting the silver medal when Adele is in the race.