Branch locked in second as J Records stable still strong

R&B songstress Beyonce Knowles charted a new destiny on the album rankings with her solo debut this week, claiming the No. 1 spot and staving off a formidable challenge from teenage pop-phenom Michelle Branch.

The Destiny’s Child front woman rode a hefty publicity campaign and strong radio airplay to sales of almost 317,000 copies of her first disc as a solo artist, “Dangerously in Love” (Columbia), according to data compiled by Nielsen SoundScan.

Figure was about half of the 660,000 in sales registered in the first week by “Survivor” (Columbia), Knowles’ most recent disc with Destiny’s Child. But it compares favorably with recent solo perfs from such fellow divas as Mariah Carey (240,000) and Whitney Houston (205,000).

Taking the runner-up spot was Maverick Records’ Branch, who shifted nearly 157,000 copies of her second studio effort, “Hotel Paper.” Singer pushed last week’s No. 2, “Dance With My Father” (J) from Luther Vandross, down to third.

J jumpin’

But Vandross still managed to lead a trio of J artists — including Monica and Annie Lennox — to their second week in the top 10. Monica’s “After the Storm” slipped from the top spot into seventh, and Lennox fell to 10th from fifth in her third week.

The third-highest debut came from Tennessee-based rap crew Three 6 Mafia, whose latest disc “Da Unbreakables” (Columbia) came in at fourth, with sales of 95,000 discs. And 10 spaces further down was yet another Columbia release, the soundtrack to “Charlie’s Angels 2: Full Throttle,” with just under 50,000 units sold.

This week’s three strong Columbia perfs marked a resurgence for the label — and its parent, Sony Music — after a prolonged dry spell. Sony’s last release to crack the top 10 was Train’s “My Private Nation” (Columbia), which bowed in sixth on June 11.

Other bows

Also taking to the charts in a debut-heavy week were “Ownerz” (Virgin), from veteran rap act Gang Starr, at No. 18, with 48,000 copies sold; “Almost Famous” (Universal), from Lumidee, at 22 (37,000 sold); and alt-rocker Liz Phair’s self-titled fourth LP (Capitol) at 27, selling 35,000 discs.

Further down in the top 50 were the Black-Eyed Peas with “Elephunk” (Interscope) at No. 33, Guster’s “Keep It Together” (Warner Bros.) at 35, Blu Cantrell’s “Bittersweet” (Arista) at 37, the Mars Volta’s “De-Loused in the Comatorium” (Universal) at 39 and Willie Nelson’s “Willie Nelson & Friends: Live and Kickin’ ” (Lost Highway) at 42.

Next week’s charts could see a new diva at the top of the rock pile. Universal/Murder Inc. singer Ashanti is set for a top five bow with her CD “Chapter 11.” Also bowing are releases from rapper Daz Dillinger, live albums from the Who and Our Lady Peace and the soundtrack to “Legally Blonde 2: Red White & Blonde.”

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