Singer closes rap gap, beating 'Nellyville'

Eminem reclaimed his throne at the top of the album heap last week — besting rival rapper Nelly in an ongoing chart-derby — while Arista records enjoyed a banner outing with a strong debut and an even stronger returning performer.

Slim Shady’s latest opus, “The Eminem Show” (Shady/Interscope), jumped into No. 1 despite a 3% sales decline from last week to 172,000. Eminem’s third full-length release has sold more than 5.2 million copies in the U.S. to date.

Former chart-topper Nelly slipped to No. 2 with “Nellyville” (Universal), as sales ebbed 11% to slightly more than 162,000. Fans need not despair for Nelly, however: The record is already nearing triple-platinum status with 2.9 million copies sold.

As the two hip-hop megastars battled it out at the top, teen rocker Avril Lavigne continued her slow but steady ascendancy, reaching a personal best of third place in the latest session with “Let Go” (Arista). Thanks to some well-targeted marketing, album has sold 1.3 million units so far, with 129,000 of them coming in this week alone.

Clipse finishes fourth

Just behind Lavigne was another Arista act — rap duo Clipse. Fueled by the popularity of radio single “Grindin’,” the Virginia-based brothers Gene and Terrence Thornton (aka Malice and Pusha T) debuted at fourth with “Lord Willin’,” selling 122,000 discs.

Jazzy singer-songwriter Norah Jones gained another three places to 10 with her critically acclaimed debut “Come Away With Me” (Blue Note). A strong word of mouth backing has propelled Jones gradually up the rankings over the past few months, and she is poised to break into platinum status with 966,000 sold to date.

Bowing just a notch below Jones was Gotham radio personality-turned-rapper Angie Martinez. The Hot 97 jock, who has collaborated with hip-hop luminaries like Redman and Mary J. Blige, sold nearly 62,000 copies of her second studio effort, “Animal House” (Elektra).

Other estimable debuts for the session included country “Something Worth Leaving Behind” (MCA Nashville) from Lee Ann Womack at 16, “Tropical Storm” (Virgin) from Beenie Man at 18, “Revolucion De Amor” (Warner) from Mexican rockers Mana at 22, and “Completely” (Arista) from country stars Diamond Rio at 23.

Smith clocks big gains

The biggest gains of the week were made by Christian artist Michael J. Smith. Singer/songwriter’s latest LP “Worship” (Provident/Zomba) leaped 50 places to 55 in the latest frame, almost doubling sales to nearly 21,000 units. Album, which has been on the charts for nearly a year, got a big bump from the recent release of a live DVD recorded in Alberta, Canada, label reps said.

Next week’s charts will almost certainly belong to superstar country trio the Dixie Chicks. After settling a long-running legal fight with their label, Sony Music, the Chicks are coming back strong with “Home,” their first album to be released on their Sony joint-venture label Open Wide.

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