Albums Matter

Awards, Sales, and Recognition

"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.

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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 Bad by Michael Jackson, which was released in 1987 and became Diamond in 2017. 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), Outkast (Speakerboxxx/The Love Below), 2Pac (All Eyez On Me and Greatest Hits), Notorious BIG (Life After Death), and Nelly (Country Grammar). Out of the 121 Diamond albums, 19 are by African American artists.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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