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Five Burning Questions: Metro Boomin’s ‘Heroes & Villains’ Debuts at No. 1 on the Billboard 200

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December can be a tough month for any big artist to get attention for their new release, let alone for a producer still best known for his behind-the-scenes work. But that doesn’t appear to be a problem for Metro Boomin, who scores his second No. 1 on the Billboard 200 albums chart this week (following Savage Mode II, his 2020 teamup with 21 Savage) with his star-studded Heroes & Villains set.

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The new LP, which features appearances from hitmakers like Savage, Travis Scott, The Weeknd, Future and Young Thug and even boasts narration from Oscar winner Morgan Freeman, moves 185,000 equivalent album units in its first week, a tremendous number for a producer-led set. It also scores Billboard Hot 100 debuts for each of its 15 tracks, including two top 10 debuts, with the Weeknd- and 21 Savage-featuring “Creepin’” (a remake of Mario Winans’ 2004 smash “I Don’t Wanna Know”) at No. 5 and the Future- and Chris Brown-assisted “Superhero (Heroes and Villains)” at No. 8.

How did Metro score such a big debut for his new set? And will “Creepin’” be a breakout hit to carries over well into 2023? Billboard staffers discuss these questions and more below.

1. Obviously an album with a guest list the size of Heroes & Villains‘ is going to get attention, but 185k is a pretty staggering first-week number for any producer-led set. Does it speak more to you to the featured names involved, or to Metro Boomin’s reputation as a producer and album artist? 

Eric Renner Brown: For listeners who aren’t immersed in music media – so, the bulk of who propelled this album’s first-week success – here’s how I imagine this went down: Devoted fans of one of Heroes & Villains‘ featured artists saw the artist they like had a new track out, followed the streaming service hyperlink to the album, inevitably saw a bunch of other artists they liked, and decided to press play. Metro Boomin’s name probably helped – years of hearing his name on your favorite songs engenders some trust – but I’m picturing many of this album’s listeners already being sold on listening to it, based on the A-list MCs involved.

But! Coming at the question another way, Metro Boomin’s reputation as a producer and album artist were key to the impressive first-week numbers: his reputation helped him land all these big names in the first place, and those names drove the album’s success.

Carl Lamarre: Nayvadius Cash said it best: If Young Metro don’t trust you… but seriously, I think Metro has blossomed into a perennial go-to producer because of his out-of-the-box concoctions. He doesn’t simply copy and paste gaudy features onto a tracklist – he’s a mastermind who skillfully maps out his records from start to finish. That and a genius rollout anchored by his Hollywood BFF Morgan Freeman draws intrigue every time. This blockbuster win is a deserved one for Metro and Co. 

Elias Leight: Metro Boomin has always benefitted from star-studded guest lists. Not All Heroes Wear Capes had 11 featured acts, from Drake to Travis Scott; Heroes & Villains added two more to the party. But the producer’s collaborative albums have also seen steady commercial growth. After Not All Heroes Wear Capes debuted at No. 1 behind 99,000 album-equivalent units in 2018, his 21 Savage team-up Savage Mode II repeated at the top of the chart with 171,000 units in 2020. With these numbers in mind, 185,000 units and another Number One for Not All Heroes doesn’t feel surprising.

Neena Rouhani: Star power doesn’t always equal chart-topping success. The performance of the album speaks to both longstanding chemistry and organic marketing. Throughout the last seven-plus years, Metro has released a handful of home-run projects alongside some of the featured acts, like Future’s DS2 and 21’s Savage Mode. We all know what to expect when these guys come together, and it’s top-tier. Which leads me to my second point: it’s a damn good album. The days following its release, I saw a considerable number of people in my circle posting about how great it is, adding screenshots of different tracks to their stories, which will make someone go check it out for themselves. That natural hype matters, and is less concentrated considering the influx of new music every day. 

Andrew Unterberger: I think it’s more about Metro Boomin, actually. We’ve seen plenty of producer-led sets from big names like Mustard and Mike Will Made-It debut with respectable, but hardly blockbuster numbers, and they’re usually just as star-packed as Heroes & Villains. Hell, even DJ Khaled’s latest, God Did — which boasts full dozens of the biggest names in the business — only did 107,500 units in its first week earlier this year. Metro has built a rep for both a high degree of quality control and full-album cohesion with efforts released under his name, and I think that matters more than the guest list for getting listeners to play the whole LP front to back, rather than just the 2-3 songs with their favs as features.

2. Metro Boomin has taken to promoting his full-length releases like movies, with accompanying trailers and shorts, a guest list that plays like a cast of characters and even narration from acting great Morgan Freeman. Have the numbers for this set (and 2020’s Savage Mode II) proven this an effective and/or replicable release strategy, or do you think it’s mostly incidental to their success? 

Eric Renner Brown: I think this strategy was incidental to H&V‘s success, mostly because I don’t think it was a sales strategy in the first place. For decades, musicians have used concept albums, however vague or focused, as clearinghouses for their cinematic impulses. And as superhero flicks have become the center of gravity for American moviegoers – sorry, filmheads – it tracks for me that musicians would want to mimic some of their hallmarks: stuffed casts, grandiose themes, and yes, hype-driven rollouts. (The name of this specific project really drives this point home.)

But I think the impetus behind that is more about prestige than business, especially for a producer like Metro Boomin, who has more in common with a Hollywood director wrangling stars and a creative vision than a single rapper might. It’s about how Metro sees himself: an auteur helming rap’s equivalent of a Marvel movie. (In this analogy, maybe DJ Khaled is rap’s DC, churning out projects that underwhelm despite their beloved IP and huge stars.) I’m sure some Metro diehards enjoyed this rollout, so I wouldn’t say it was ineffective – I just wouldn’t credit much of the album’s eventual success to it.

Carl Lamarre: While great music trumps any and everything, it’s the storyline that is the measuring stick in today’s climate. Metro is already elusive when speaking to media, so the most we’ll get from him besides that one publication cover look is through his trailers and social media posts. Despite being press-shy, he’s a true gunslinger with storytelling, and building up anticipation for that thrill ride we always yearn for. 

Elias Leight: While Morgan Freeman’s narration is an amusingly over-the-top touch, it’s likely that most hip-hop fans would press play on this album simply for all the big names. It also helps that there’s a dearth of new releases this time of year as everyone succumbs to the tyranny of holiday playlists.

Neena Rouhani: I’d say it’s both, but it doesn’t boil down to narrators or characters. I think people appreciate a tight, cohesive set with a distinguishable throughline, rather than a bunch of songs the producer hopes will hit the radio or go viral smacked together haphazardly. With that being said, Metro has a stellar reputation as a producer. Even without the theatrics, the project would’ve still done well for its first week — but the staying power may have faltered. 

Andrew Unterberger: I think it matters, especially for artists like Metro Boomin who have proven that their albums do play in a legitimately cinematic fashion. Excitement over the album trailer was certainly how the set first made my radar online, and I’m sure far from the only one whose curiosity was stoked by it. I don’t know how replicable it is for other artists, but I generally think anything that makes your album feel like a fully immersive experience and not just a compilation of tracks is only ever going to help your overall numbers.

3. “Creepin’,” with The Weeknd and 21 Savage — which is essentially a cover of Mario Winans’ ’00s hit “I Don’t Wanna Know” — has shot out to the early lead among the album’s tracks in our chart metrics, debuting at No. 5 on the Hot 100 and ranking as the highest-charting non-holiday release this week. Does it feel like a hit that’ll last well into 2023 to you, or is it a one-week or one-month wonder mostly owing to the star power of its creators and novelty of its source?

Eric Renner Brown: I doubt “Creepin’” will stick around. The dearth of new releases in December makes it an easier playing field to score a minor hit, especially for stars as established as The Weeknd and 21 Savage. And the novelty of the source material probably helped too: “Hey, [insert friend or loved one’s name here], did you hear this new Weeknd and 21 Savage song that redoes Mario Winans? You should check it out!” Then again, this would’ve be the first time I’ve severely underestimated the staying power of a Weeknd single. 

Carl Lamarre: The latter. It’s a great song and a replay-worthy record, but the thrill will dissipate after a few weeks. I say that only because we’re dealing with limited attention spans. The record can be a top 20 – top 30 player after a few weeks, but I can’t foresee “Creepin” peaking higher than its debut position, especially if artists begin aggressively attacking that first quarter à la Gunna and Weeknd last year. 

Elias Leight: Radio especially is obsessed with songs like this — what amounts to oldies karaoke disguised as a new single — because it allows them to play something that’s already familiar to their audience. Expect this one to get a lot of spins once radio shakes off Christmas-malaise in the new year.

Neena Rouhani: I love that song, I think it was a great flip and a standout moment on the album. But whether or not it endures I think has a lot to do with social media and how it performs on apps like TikTok. If a massive trend takes hold of it, the rest is written. If not, I could see the song fading into the background.  

Andrew Unterberger: I dunno if the song will ever reach higher than No. 5 on the Hot 100 — though it’s pretty telling that it would’ve hit No. 1 if not for the holiday rush — but I don’t see it just fading away, either; everything about the past two years in pop music tells us that the novelty of hits borrowing from other hits does not wear off as quickly as we may have once thought. (And this one is both more novel and better executed than most, I’d say.)

4. Though we’ve talked a great deal about samples and interpolations in Five Burning Questions this year, discussion of covers — or perhaps “remakes,” since technically “Creepin’” has both a different title and different rap verse than Winans’ and Diddy’s original — has been relatively scarce. Does the early success of “Creepin’” demonstrate that maybe there’s something more or different to be gained by not just borrowing from large swaths of an established hit song, but actually redoing the whole thing? 

Eric Renner Brown: “Creepin’” doesn’t feel too far from Drake and Future’s “Way 2 Sexy” from last year or Nicki Minaj’s “Super Freaky Girl” from August, which sampled massive, nostalgic hits in ways such prominent ways that they were key drivers to the success of those singles. Whatever nomenclature you want to use for “Super Freaky Girl,” anyone of a certain age who listens to it will go, “Oh, yeah, Nicki’s Rick James song!” Which is sort of the point, right?

Now, for an unorthodox comparison, I’m going to liken Metro Boomin to Phish, a band that despite having a deep arsenal of its own material, routinely covered a spectrum of artists it revered, new and old, and used covers to excite audiences – and hint at their creative inspirations and philosophies. Covers can be fun ways to engage and connect with listeners, and if songs like “Creepin’” demonstrate that they’re good for business, too, I bet we’ll see more in the months and years ahead.

Carl Lamarre: I appreciate the educational value that it entails. I remember seeing an Instagram post highlighting the samples and origins beyond Mario Winans’s “I Don’t Wanna Know” — which itself initially sampled the riffs from Enya’s song “Boadicea” and the beat from another ’80s gem in EPMD’s “You’re a Customer.” So for music geeks, it’s cool to do some digging, re-appreciate the story of certain songs and pay homage to the journey there. 

Elias Leight: I don’t see all that much difference between “Creepin’” and some of the wildly obvious lifts that have powered other hits this year — the in-your-face nod to Rick Astley on Yung Gravy’s “Betty (Get Money)” or Eiffel 65 on David Guetta and Bebe Rexha’s “I’m Good (Blue).” Building new hits from the bones of old hits has been common since at least the Bad Boy era (which of course spawned Mario Winans’ “I Don’t Wanna Know”). At a time when commercial success seems harder to predict than ever, more and more artists and producers appear to be leaning on this strategy.

Neena Rouhani: The verses and chorus (a.k.a. the most important parts) were entirely pulled from Mario Winans, not to mention that iconic drum pattern. They added to it in a way that felt fresh enough to keep those of us who knew the original interested, while keeping the parts that they knew would hook less-familiar listeners. But I don’t think we should make a habit of this. At that point, it’s going to feel like a bunch of covers rather than a sound expanding and evolving. The way we sample and interpolate has definitely become more overt and we’re using songs from less than 20 years ago. I think that could get old quick. 

Andrew Unterberger: The thought behind it is the same as any number of secondhand hits of recent years, but I do think there’s some sort of head-smackingly obvious revelation at play here: If you’re going to take so much of an older song that it basically feels like a cover anyway, why not just make it a (relatively) straight cover? There might be publishing reasons for that, of course, but I doubt any of the three artists involved really are hurting financially enough to squabble much over percentages for this one, and in the meantime they may get the easiest smash of their collective careers out of it.

5. Releasing a big-budget and/or long-anticipated album once the holiday season has already begun to hit: Good idea or bad idea?

Eric Renner Brown: Good idea! For the music media, Thanksgiving heralds a period of reflection – and year-end list season. For the rest of the world, December is just another month – and one where many people have more time off to listen to new music than at any other time of the year. To bring it back to Hollywood blockbusters: There’s a reason so many big movies drop during the holiday season or even on Christmas itself. That said, Metro’s album probably won’t make for quite as good a stocking stuffer for moms as Adele’s 25 did a few years ago.

Carl Lamarre: Bad idea. Let’s put aside the music heavyweights and think about medium-sized artists. Chances are, you’ll probably get snowed in by all of the Christmas releases and have zero chance to make any noise on the Hot 100 until the new year. My suggestion has always been to punch in the clock and start fresh in early January when everything is quiet, and the run for supremacy is on the table. It worked for Gunna last year, who had the best run of his career. Encanto and Olivia Rodrigo recently enjoyed huge wins and launched their shots around the first quarter. I would pack everything in and wait for Jan-Feb to go crazy.

Elias Leight: If your goal is to get a No. 1 album, this is a good time to release music — competition is slim. If you want a No. 1 single, December is ice cold: “Creepin” is stuck behind “All I Want for Christmas Is You,” “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree,” “Jingle Bell Rock,” and “A Holly Jolly Christmas” for at least two more weeks. Last year, the reign of “All I Want for Christmas Is You” lasted into January before contemporary music regained control of the top of the Hot 100 in the form of Adele’s “Easy on Me.” If “Creepin’” can stick around into the new year, it will have to compete with already proven hits that have managed to withstand the holiday onslaught — Taylor Swift’s “Anti-Hero,” Sam Smith and Kim Petras’ “Unholy” — as well as new singles from SZA, especially “Kill Bill,” which is already putting up impressive streaming numbers.

Neena Rouhani: Good idea because fewer artists are releasing new sets, so more attention on you; bad idea because we all know this is really Mariah’s time to shine.

Andrew Unterberger: Good idea, unless you really value your appearances on year-end lists.

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