The Main Event: Original Diva Battles New Diva For No. 1

Ed. note: Chris “dennisobell” Molanphy, our resident chart guru, looks at the upward, downward, and lack of movement on this week’s Billboard charts:

Forget that sleepy winter we just endured. We’ve got a horse race.

The top slot on Billboard‘s Hot 100 has turned into a revolving door, as Mariah Carey succumbs to the gal she replaced just two weeks ago.

Boosted by the U.S. release of her debut album, Leona Lewis rides her biggest week of digital sales yet (223,000 downloads) to recapture the top slot on the chart with “Bleeding Love.” Back in March, when the song first rose to No. 1, we snarked about the power of Oprah to make this British reality-show ingénue an American pop star. But at this point, it’s only fair to say that Lewis’ song is pretty much doing the heavy lifting on its own.

Lewis shouldn’t get too comfortable, however: Almost every other song in the Top Five could plausibly replace her next week, including “Touch My Body,” the Carey song she replaced.

That song makes an unusually large fall from the top slot, all the way down to No. 5–which says less about the weakness of Carey’s hit than it does about the strength of the four songs above her. True, sales of “Touch” were down a wincing 28% last week (117,000 downloads), but her airplay continues to grow (up a little over 4%), which is remarkable since “Touch” is already the second-most-played song in the country. In a sleepier week, Mariah’s middling performance would probably have kept her in the Top Three.

But she’s fighting off not just Lewis, but two rising smashes and one former No. 1 that’s still remarkably healthy. The rising hits are both duets, of a sort, and both are becoming ubiquitous on the radio: Lil Wayne’s “Lollipop” featuring Static Major at No. 2, and Jordin Sparks’ “No Air” featuring Chris Brown at No. 3.

Each of those songs has an explosive week of airplay growth. Sparks’ ballad increases its radio audience by nearly 20% and is now the fourth-most-played hit. As for Weezy, airplay for “Lollipop” is smaller (seventh overall), but its more than 40% growth is eye-popping. Each tune is also helped by strong digital sales. “Lollipop” was already strong and ekes out a 4% rise to 178,000 downloads. “No Air” is boosted by Sparks and Brown appearing on last week’s American Idol results show, propelling it by 34% to 154,000.

Usher’s “Love in This Club” with Young Jeezy, the aforementioned former No. 1, is now at No. 4. Still radio’s most-played song and still a relatively healthy seller, with 121,000 downloads, “Club” stands little chance of returning to No. 1. But the fact that Usher out-charts Mariah this week is fairly remarkable.

So what happens now? Who’s No. 1 next week?

Lewis’ digital sales will inevitably cool, along with her album in week two. So will Sparks’ song, now that her triumphant return to Idol with a hit record (like a high-school reunion, innit?) is past. But each ingénue’s airplay has lots of room to grow.

Speaking of Idol, the show dedicated a full week of shows to Mariah as part of Island Def Jam’s you’d-have-to-live-under-a-rock-to-miss-this launch of E=MC2. It’s expected to hit the album chart next week with the biggest debut sales of any 2008 album–around half a mil–and that’s going to boost her iTunes sales all around. So: comeback for “Touch My Body,” right? She does to Lewis what Lewis just did to her?

Not so fast: in her Idol performance, Carey showcased the album’s next single, “Bye Bye” (which is probably another No. 1 hit; damn thing’s catchy like a fungus). As of today, it’s already selling nearly as many copies on iTunes as “Body.” So basically, even while Carey moves truckloads of albums, she’s splitting the vote, as it were, by promoting her old and new singles at the same time.

As tempting as it is to view next week’s contest as a catfight (even Madonna is still a factor), all this up-and-down activity probably most benefits the one guy in the race: Lil Wayne. “Lollipop” has got the clearest momentum of any song on the chart right now, with sales solid as a rock and airplay on a tear–boosted by Top 40 as well as R&B/hip-hop radio, a combination only Carey has going for her.

In this year of smooth-talking guys outpolling hard-working women, don’t be surprised if Weezy emerges with his first No. 1 hit sometime soon.

Here’s a rundown of the rest of this week’s charts:

• This might just be me experiencing spring fever as New York City nears 80° today, but much as the “summer” movie season now begins closer to Mother’s Day, this week feels like it might be the start of summer music season. That’s got less to do with the qualities of the songs on the charts than with the revving up of the competition–signaling that radio’s hot-and-heavy season, pitting lots of new songs against each other, has begun.

Basically, you’ve got to work harder to move up the chart this week. On the Hot 100, Madonna falls an outsize five places to No. 7 with the JT-assisted “4 Minutes,” despite solid airplay growth and a modest decline in her blockbuster sales numbers (195,000 downloads, down 10%). On the R&B/Hip-Hop chart, the songs at Nos. 5 and 6, by Ray J and The-Dream, fall one notch each despite earning bullets from Billboard for growing airplay; both are likely pushed down by the rising Lil Wayne. A similar backward-bullet happens to Jason Aldean at No. 7 on the Country list; the culprit for his slippage is Phil Vassar. And on Modern Rock, a song that entered the Top 10 just last week, Ashes Divide’s “The Stone,” falls all the way back to No. 14 while maintaining its bullet, shoved back while the Raconteurs and Death Cab both reach the winners’ circle.

• Sorry, I’m not trying to turn this into the American Idol column, but its annual “Idol Gives Back” show has songs pinging all over the charts.

Daughtry scores his… er, their biggest hit since last summer, as “What About Now” debuts all the way up at No. 18 after a live performance on the show.

Making a much, much bigger comeback is Annie Lennox, appearing on the Hot 100 for the first time since 1995–1995, people!–with her cover of Jimmy Cliff’s “Many Rivers to Cross” at No. 80.

Also scoring with a cover is Carrie Underwood, debuting at No. 27 with George Michael’s heaviest No. 1 hit, “Praying for Time.” It’s the second time that remaking a hit from the early ’90s for “Idol Gives Back” has worked for Underwood, whose cover of the Pretenders’ “I’ll Stand By You” peaked at No. 6 on the Hot 100 last year.

Finally, the entire Idol top eight, from Archuleta to White, just miss the Top 40 with the No. 43 debut of their Contemporary Christian singalong “Shout to the Lord.”

The implied message of these chart appearances: Daughtry > Underwood > the Lord > Lennox. Does that seem backward to anyone else but me?

• It’s too old a song to appear on the Hot 100, but perhaps the biggest Idol Gives Back beneficiary is the late Israel Kamakawiwo’ole, whose ukelele-infused cover of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” sells 59,000 downloads. Jason Castro strikes again!

Top 10s Last week’s position and total weeks charted in parentheses:

Hot 100 1. Leona Lewis, “Bleeding Love” (LW No. 2, 9 weeks) 2. Lil Wayne feat. Static Major, “Lollipop” (LW No. 4, 5 weeks) 3. Jordin Sparks with Chris Brown, “No Air” (LW No. 7, 15 weeks) 4. Usher feat. Young Jeezy, “Love in This Club” (LW No. 5, 9 weeks) 5. Mariah Carey, “Touch My Body” (LW No. 1, 9 weeks) 6. Ray J & Yung Berg, “Sexy Can I” (LW No. 6, 11 weeks) 7. Madonna feat. Justin Timberlake, “4 Minutes” (LW No. 3, 4 weeks) 8. Chris Brown, “With You” (LW No. 8, 20 weeks) 9. Sara Bareilles, “Love Song” (LW No. 9, 24 weeks) 10. Flo Rida feat. T-Pain, “Low” (LW No. 10, 25 weeks)

Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs 1. Usher feat. Young Jeezy, “Love in This Club” (LW No. 1, 10 weeks) 2. Mariah Carey, “Touch My Body” (LW No. 2, 10 weeks) 3. Lil Wayne feat. Static Major, “Lollipop” (LW No. 7, 5 weeks) 4. Keyshia Cole, “I Remember” (LW No. 3, 24 weeks) 5. Ray J & Yung Berg, “Sexy Can I” (LW No. 4, 14 weeks) 6. The-Dream, “Falsetto” (LW No. 5, 19 weeks) 7. Rick Ross feat. T-Pain, “The Boss” (LW No. 10, 14 weeks) 8. Ashanti, “The Way That I Love You” (LW No. 12, 9 weeks) 9. Alicia Keys, “Like You’ll Never See Me Again” (LW No. 8, 25 weeks) 10. J. Holiday, “Suffocate” (LW No. 6, 28 weeks)

Hot Country Songs 1. Trace Adkins, “You’re Gonna Miss This” (LW No. 1, 19 weeks) 2. George Strait, “I Saw God Today” (LW No. 2, 10 weeks) 3. James Otto, “Just Got Started Lovin’ You” (LW No. 4, 26 weeks) 4. Chris Cagle, “What Kinda Gone” (LW No. 3, 39 weeks) 5. Taylor Swift, “Picture to Burn” (LW No. 5, 14 weeks) 6. Phil Vassar, “Love Is A Beautiful Thing” (LW No. 8, 24 weeks) 7. Jason Aldean, “Laughed Until We Cried” (LW No. 6, 36 weeks) 8. Brad Paisley, “I’m Still a Guy” (LW No. 10, 8 weeks) 9. Rascal Flatts, “Every Day” (LW No. 9, 8 weeks) 10. Alan Jackson, “Small Town Southern Man” (LW No. 7, 23 weeks)

Hot Modern Rock Tracks 1. Puddle of Mudd, “Psycho” (LW No. 1, 24 weeks) 2. Seether, “Rise Above This” (LW No. 3, 8 weeks) 3. Atreyu, “Falling Down” (LW No. 4, 12 weeks) 4. Foo Fighters, “Long Road to Ruin” (LW No. 2, 25 weeks) 5. The Bravery, “Believe” (LW No. 5, 28 weeks) 6. 3 Doors Down, “It’s Not My Time” (LW No. 6, 8 weeks) 7. The Raconteurs, “Salute Your Solution” (LW No. 11, 3 weeks) 8. Panic at the Disco, “Nine in the Afternoon” (LW No. 8, 11 weeks) 9. Foo Fighters, “The Pretender” (LW No. 7, 37 weeks) 10. Death Cab for Cutie, “I Will Possess Your Heart” (LW No. 12, 4 weeks)

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