Morgan Wallen’s "One Thing at a Time" is an 18-wheeler of an album, with 36 songs that run for a total of nearly two hours. That more-is-more formula could make it one of the biggest blockbusters of the year.
The album, released Friday and Mr. Wallen’s first since a public scandal in early 2021, has scored the largest first-week numbers of 2023, according to initial data from Luminate. "One Thing at a Time" is expected to top the Billboard 200 chart, fueled by a projected 450 million U.S. streams, according to industry publication Hits Daily Double. (For comparison Taylor Swift’s 20-track "Midnights" racked up 550 million streams in its first week.) If Mr. Wallen, a 29-year-old from East Tennessee, lands at least 28 songs on the Hot 100 singles chart, he will set a new record.
His outsize presence on the music charts reflects the popularity of his music—a slick combination of classic country songcraft, rock-guitar hooks and hip-hop or trap beats. Over the past few years, Mr. Wallen has become one of the most significant new stars across pop music, breaking out with breezy hit singles ("7 Summers") and catchy album tracks ("Me on Whiskey"). Yet his streaming success is also the result of a music-release strategy that more artists, especially in hip-hop, are adopting as they seek to keep up with changes in how Billboard measures music-listening in the streaming era.
The thinking is simple: Fans listening to an album for the first time are likely to listen all the way through, so artists should give them more songs when they can. It’s a strategy that borrows from the playbook of hip-hop stars and has caught on with pop phenoms including Taylor Swift, Ariana Grande and Lana Del Rey. Long track lists don’t just boost first-week numbers, they keep the streams coming—and keep the album higher on the charts—if the album proves popular.
Like many artists, Mr. Wallen amassed a backlog of songs during the pandemic, which mostly explains why his 2021 album "Dangerous: The Double Album" ended up with 30 tracks. But his team also noticed the streaming successes of outsize albums, such as Drake’s 25-track "Scorpion," which currently holds the Billboard Hot 100 chart record for most simultaneous song rankings.
"Seeing someone as big as Drake—arguably the biggest artist on the planet—put out such a track list certainly had me asking questions," says Seth England, Mr. Wallen’s manager and chief executive of Big Loud Records, the artist’s label home.
"As it turned out, with the modern-day rules, there certainly was a strategy in having bigger track lists," Mr. England says. Mr. Wallen declined to be interviewed.
Mr. Wallen’s streaming feats wouldn’t have been possible a decade ago, when the charts only measured album purchases. In late 2014, the Billboard 200 chart started to include streaming numbers in addition to sales. Before 2009, a title like "Dangerous" would have been removed from the chart based on its age.
Keith Caulfield, managing director of charts and data operations at Billboard magazine, says these changes help certain artists who stream well dominate the charts in a way they could not before. "The chart itself is tabulated in such a way in order to engineer longer runs now," he says.
"Dangerous" was a huge commercial success, eventually landing 10 weeks at No. 1 on the Billboard 200. Then a video of Mr. Wallen making a racial slur went viral. Big Loud Records suspended his record contract, and radio stations and streaming services temporarily stopped promoting his music. Despite the blow to Mr. Wallen’s public image, "Dangerous" became the most popular album in the U.S. in 2021 across all genres, according to Luminate. It has gone on to notch more weeks in the top 10 of the Billboard 200 (109 weeks) than any other album by a single music act in the history of the chart, which goes back to March 1956. (Only the cast recording of the musical "My Fair Lady," from 1956, has more top-10 weeks.)
Mr. Wallen apologized after the 2021 scandal. While his reputation has not fully recovered, the music industry—radio, streaming, concert promoters—has re-embraced him and country-music fans have stood by him.
Having so many tracks on an album only works if people actually like the music, Mr. England says. He bristles at criticism that Mr. Wallen’s streaming success rests only on quantity. "There’s actually so much more to it than that," he says.
With "One Thing at a Time," Mr. Wallen again had a wealth of material. "Morgan is a very active songwriter" who writes on tour, says his producer Joey Moi. Industry songwriters, meanwhile, were bombarding him with songs, hoping to get on his record. Mr. Wallen’s team decided to go the 30-plus route again. In fact, the album could have been longer. Starting with roughly 100 songs, Mr. Wallen and his team narrowed the album down to 42 tracks before settling on 36 songs.
Mr. England sees "One Thing at a Time" as what he calls a "reverse deluxe" album. Many artists these days release an album and then follow it up with a deluxe edition containing more tracks, another chart-placement-juicing stratagem. Mr. Wallen is just doing it all at once.
"People are now treating Morgan Wallen’s albums—these big track lists—as their preferred country-music jukebox," he says.