"Albums – remember those? Albums still matter. Albums, like books and black lives, still matter. Tonight. Always." –Prince, 2015 GRAMMY Awards

On November 7, 2008, Usher’s album Confessions received a Diamond certification by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) after selling 10 million copies in the United States. Confessions marked the first time an album by an African American solo artist became certified Diamond since Stevie Wonder’s Songs in the Key of Life in 2005.

Confessions, Usher’s fourth studio album, was released on March 23, 2004, by Arista Records. After selling 1.1 million copies in its first week and 8 million copies by the end of the year, it was only a matter of time before Usher joined the list of twelve other African American artists (solo and groups) with certified Diamond albums by 2008. By 2016, Confessions had sold 20 million copies worldwide and helped establish Usher as one of the best-selling artists of the 2000s.

An RIAA diamond award.
Recording Industry Association of America Diamond award presented to Usher Raymond for "Confessions" album, 2008.
Gift of Usher, © Recording Industry Association of America

Michael Jackson became the first African American artist with a Diamond certified album in 1984 with Thriller, just two years after it was released (it became 20x Multi-Platinum on October 30, 1984). Lionel Richie followed in 1985 when Can’t Slow Down was certified Diamond, also two years after it hit the charts. Prince and The Revolution’s Purple Rain and MC Hammer’s Please Hammer Don’t Hurt ‘Em followed in 1989 and 1991—more examples of albums with incredibly fast sales. While the rise of these and many other Diamond albums was quick, a few have taken many years to sell 10 million copies. Stevie Wonder’s Songs in the Key of Life was released in 1976 but didn’t became Diamond until 2005.

The most recent certified Diamond album by an African American artist is The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill by Lauryn Hill, which was released in 1998 and became Diamond in February 2021. Other African American artists with Diamond albums include Boyz II Men (II), TLC (CrazySexyCool), Mariah Carey (Daydream and Music Box), Hootie and the Blowfish (Cracked Rear View), Whitney Houston (Whitney Houston and Whitney), Outkast (Speakerboxxx/The Love Below), 2Pac (All Eyez On Me and Greatest Hits), Notorious BIG (Life After Death), and Nelly (Country Grammar). 

An American Music Awards trophy given to Whitney Houston in 1987 for "Favorite Female Vocalist Soul / R & B".
American Music Award for Favorite Female Vocalist Soul/R&B given to Whitney Houston, 1987. 2014.161.6
Gift of the Estate of Whitney Houston

While the lucrative Diamond award is given out for record sales, many high-selling albums have also won critical praise and multiple awards. Whitney Houston’s self-titled 1985 album was nominated for and won multiple American Music Awards in both 1986 and 1987. In addition to winning Favorite Soul/R&B Female Vocalist in 1987, Houston also won Favorite Pop/Rock Album, Favorite Pop/Rock Female Artist, and Favorite Soul/R&B Album. The 1987 American Music Awards followed her 1986 wins for Favorite Soul/R&B Single (“You Give Good Love”) and Favorite Soul/R&B Video (“Saving All My Love for You”). These awards recognized Houston for her popularity and commercial success in multiple spaces within popular music. Her literal crossover between genres is a testament to her ability to breakdown genre boundaries.

I don't know how to sing Black—and I don't know how to sing white, either. I know how to sing. Music is not a color to me. It's an art. Whitney Houston, 1990
A gold metal statuette affixed to a cube-shaped green marble base.
Soul Train award for Artist of the Decade – Female given to Whitney Houston, 2000.
Gift of the Estate of Whitney Houston

Even though some areas of the recording industry embraced and celebrated Whitney Houston’s accomplishments, other spaces were not so welcoming. She was booed during the second and third annual Soul Train Music Awards in 1988 and 1989. The politics of pop music complicated Houston’s ability to be welcomed by the Soul Train Awards audiences and her crossover success hurt her in that space, instead of helped her. A narrative of Houston being “not black enough for black music” but “too black for white music” continued throughout her career. In 2000 Houston returned to the Soul Train Awards to accept the Female Artist of the Decade award for her extraordinary artistic contributions during the 1990s. Prince accepted the Male Artist of the Decade Award that same year, putting together two artists who consistently claimed creative space within multiple genres, or made their own.

A framed award commemorating the sale of over one (1) million copies of the album “1999” by Prince from the Recording Industry Association of America.
Platinum Record Award for the album 1999 given to Prince, 1983.

In 1983, Prince received a plaque to commemorate the sale of over 1 million copies (Platinum certification) of his 1982 album, 1999. This album with his band The Revolution was Prince’s first top 10 album. By March 1999, the album 1999 had sold 4 million copies in the United States. While Purple Rain would become Prince’s most successful album in terms of sales and awards, 1999 is considered his breakthrough album as well as one of his most influential. Heavy on the Minneapolis sound that Prince helped pioneer the decade before, 1999 further solidified his growing body of work as unique and beyond category. In addition, before Whitney Houston’s music videos were being nominated for awards, the videos for "1999" and "Little Red Corvette" were some of the first videos by a black artist to be played regularly on MTV. Even if he wasn’t explicitly saying it, 1999—as with all his work—was rooted in Prince’s identity as a black man in America and a black man in the music industry. He didn’t just claim a creative space that existed and make it his own—he created new sonic and cultural spaces for his music to exist, and invited the rest of us in.

The success of Usher’s Confessions has artists like Prince and so many others to thank for being trailblazers and building platforms that would allow for black music to thrive in popular “mainstream” spaces. In addition to a Diamond certification, the album won three Grammy Awards, four American Music Awards, four Soul Train Music Awards, and eleven Billboard Music Awards. Confessions presents a level of vulnerability and storytelling that gets to the core of contemporary R&B, while the production of the album bridges sonic gaps between regions and generations. By including younger Southern songwriters and producers such as ­­­Jermaine Dupri and Bryan-Michael Cox as well as legendary sonic architects Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, Confessions features a variety of sounds that appeal to multiple audiences. These sonic elements combined with the content, aesthetic, marketing, and Usher’s dynamic talent made it possible for Confessions to sell records in a climate that was quickly moving away from physical albums being bought off the shelves to digital downloads. Confessions is a different kind of crossover album. It simultaneously exists in mainstream popular spaces, while remaining firmly centered in an African American cultural and sonic space. Confessions set a new standard for success and recognition in contemporary R&B, and Usher’s Diamond award represents its legacy.

View All Music Awards in the NMAAHC Collection

Written by Timothy Anne Burnside, Museum Specialist
Published on June 25, 2020; Edited September 27, 2021

Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award issued to Ella Jenkins.  The award is in two pieces, the top crystal and the base,
Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award issued to Ella Jenkins, 2004.
1971 Country Music Association (CMA) award for Male Vocalist of the Year, awarded to Charley Pride. The base of the award is white plastic with a gold metal plaque. Etched lettering on the plaque says "CHARLEY PRIDE / MALE VOCALIST OF THE YEAR / 1971."
Country Music Association Award for Male Vocalist of the Year awarded to Charley Pride, 1971.
A molded bronze colored metal gramophone mounted on a square frustum wooden base.
1974 Grammy Award for Best Soul Gospel Performance awarded to the Dixie Hummingbirds for their song "Loves Me Like a Rock."
An award plaque issued to Dizzy Gillespie by Downbeat Magazine.
Plaque awarded to Dizzy Gillespie by DownBeat Magazine, 1974. Gift of Paxton and Rachel Baker

RESOURCES

LIST OF DIAMOND ALBUMS BY AFRICAN AMERICAN ARTISTS

  • Michael Jackson Thriller (1982) – Diamond certified (20x Multi-Platinum) October 1984
  • Lionel Richie Can’t Slow Down (1983) – Diamond certified December 1985
  • Prince and The Revolution Purple Rain (1984) – Diamond certified February 1989
  • M.C. Hammer Please Hammer, Don’t Hurt ‘Em (1990) – Diamond certified April 1991
  • Whitney Houston The Bodyguard: Original Soundtrack Album (1992) – Diamond certified November 1993
  • Whitney Houston Whitney Houston (1985) – Diamond certified January 1994
  • Hootie & the Blowfish Cracked Rear View (1994) – Diamond certified October 1995
  • Boyz II Men II (1994) – Diamond certified (11x Multi-Platinum) December 1995
  • TLC CrazySexyCool (1994) – Diamond certified June 1996
  • Mariah Carey Music Box (1993) – Diamond certified November 1997
  • Mariah Carey Daydream (1995) – Diamond certified December 1998
  • Notorious B.I.G. Life After Death (1997) – Diamond certified January 2000
  • Outkast Speakerboxxx/The Love Below (2003) – Diamond certified December 2004
  • Stevie Wonder Songs in the Key of Life (1976) – Diamond certified March 2005
  • Usher Confessions (2004) – Diamond certified November 2008
  • 2Pac Greatest Hits (1998) – Diamond certified June 2011
  • 2Pac All Eyez On Me (1996) – Diamond certified July 2014
  • Nelly Country Grammar (2000) – Diamond certified July 2016
  • Michael Jackson Bad (1987) – Diamond certified February 2017
  • Whitney Houston Whitney (1987) – Diamond Certified October 2020
  • Lauryn Hill The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill (1998) – Diamond certified February 2021

View all RIAA Diamond certified albums. 

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