At midnight this morning, Justin Timberlake released his  long-awaited new single, "Suit & Tie," featuring Jay-Z, on his website, with RCA Records simultaneously servicing the song to radio and the iTunes Store. The retro-soulful "Suit" previews Timberlake's third album, "The 20/20 Experience," due later this year.
In its first day at radio and retail, the song has rocketed to an extremely impressive start.
As of this posting, the song already ranks in the top five on the Mainstream Top 40 building airplay chart with approximately 1,000 plays, according to Nielsen BDS, aided heavily by top-of-the-hour spins on a majority of CBS- and Clear Channel Media and Entertainment-owned reporters, while Cumulus Media stations have also quickly added the song to rotation. (The BDS tracking week for the Mainstream Top 40 chart runs from Monday through Sunday, so "Suit & Tie" will benefit from a full week of airplay when the tally is compiled next Monday [Jan. 21] morning.)
Also helped by promotional play on Clear Channel rhythmic, R&B/hip-hop and adult top 40 stations, "Suit" is already trending in the top 10 on the Rhythmic building chart and the top 15 of the Mainstream R&B/hip-hop and Adult Top 40 building tallies.
Predictably, "Suit" is also selling swiftly and could earn Timberlake his best sales week ever for a digital song. The track is currently atop the best-sellers list in the iTunes Store, where it's exclusively available as a retail single.
Based on early data from label sources, Billboard forecasts that "Suit" may sell at least 400,000 downloads by the end of the tracking week on Sunday, Jan. 20. That projection, however, could easily change tomorrow morning, once we have the song's first full-day's worth of sales to examine.
If "Suit" shifts more than 400,000, it would be the biggest debut for a digital song since Taylor Swift's "I Knew You Were Trouble." moved 416,000 on the Hot Digital Songs chart dated Oct. 27, 2012, according to Nielsen SoundScan.
Timberlake's previous best week came courtesy of "SexyBack," which bowed with 250,000 on the Sept. 9, 2006, chart, in the fairly early years of digital music sales. That number seems small in comparison to today's top figures, when hit songs regularly sell 300,000 or more. Put in perspective, the opening for "SexyBack" was, at that point, the biggest start ever until Rihanna's "Umbrella" opened with 277,000 the week of June 9, 2007.
HEATING UP FOR HOT 100
When the Billboard Hot 100 ranking is compiled on Wednesday (Jan. 16), "Suit" could chart based solely on its first two days of airplay, as the Hot 100's airplay tracking week runs on a Wednesday through Tuesday cycle. Sales and streaming, however, will not factor into the song's Hot 100 rank this week, as those data fields cover a Monday through Sunday tracking period.
"Suit," thus, could follow the chart arc of another recent lead single from a much-anticipated new album by a star act: Taylor Swift. Her "We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together" entered the Hot 100 at No. 72 the week of Aug. 25, 2012, after its first two days of airplay, which amounted to 40 million in audience (and a No. 25 start on Hot 100 Airplay). Once sales - 623,000, marking the highest one-week digital sales sum for a woman - joined the mix the following week, the track blasted to No. 1 on the Hot 100. "Suit" has amassed 16 million in all-format audience since midnight and is available for streaming exclusively at Myspace.com (a company in which he has a financial interest). Again, that streaming data will factor into next week' s Hot 100, not this week's.
Timberlake last appeared as a lead artist on the Hot 100 with a radio-promoted single five years ago with "Until the End of Time," with Beyonce, one of six top 20 entries from his 2006 album "FutureSex/LoveSounds." The set, which has sold 4.4 million copies in the U.S., according to Nielsen SoundScan, generated the Hot 100 No. 1s "SexyBack," "My Love," featuring T.I., and "What Goes Around...Comes Around."
RADIO: 'SUIT' FITS
A sampling of radio programmers shows almost consensus early approval for "Suit."
"Over the years, we've come to expect the unexpected with Justin's music, which I think is fantastic," Mainstream Top 40 panelist WHTZ New York program director Sharon Dastur says. "'Suit & Tie' doesn't sound like anything else out in pop music right now and we can certainly use those kinds of songs. For some people, it'll be a slow build, while others love it after the first listen, including myself. We welcome Justin back with open arms."
"I love it," Mainstream Top 40 reporter KIIS Los Angeles assistant PD Julie Pilat concurs. "Just like Justin brought Pharrell and Timbaland's beats to the mainstream in 2002, R&B has been having a huge resurgence in the underground with Frank Ocean, the Weeknd and Miguel. I think Justin will bring that movement to the mainstream in 2013. I couldn't be more excited that he's back and from the look of social media posts and hallway chatter, many fans are feeling the same way."
Clearly, female PDs are factoring the appeal of Timberlake to fellow women, who aren't likely to complain that Timberlake (even as a newlywed, to Jessica Biel) has brought his sexy self back.
"What woman over the age of 25 doesn't love Justin Timberlake?" asks Charese Fruge, PD of Adult Top 40 panelist KMXB Las Vegas. "As for whether this song is a long-term hit? I guess we'll find out."
"I think 'Suit & Tie' is very different and I feared that his time away from the music industry would produce an out-of-touch single, like Mariah Carey's last year ['Triumphant (Get 'Em)," which stalled at No. 53 on R&B/Hip-Hop Songs]," Pattie Moreno, PD of Mainstream Top 40 reporter KHHM Sacramento, Calif., says. "However, he managed to bring a very sexy record to the table. Jay-Z adds grown-man credibility and Timberlake's R&B touch and Robin Thicke-esque vocals add a smooth edge.
"I do believe this record is a hit, and his social media tease with a website countdown to today before the launch was genius. Good job, Justin. Show them youngsters like Justin Bieber what being a pop artist is all about!"
Male PDs likewise value the 'event' status that Timberlake provides. "Anytime a huge artist releases a song, the audience expects to hear it on their local contemporary pop station," says Chase Murphy, PD of Mainstream Top 40 contributor KXXM San Antonio, Texas. "In this case, Timberlake hadn't dropped single in more than five years, so there's at least a curiosity with both the audience and the radio community. We're expected to expose the audience to ('Suit'). It's what we do.
"Personally, I like it and think it will be a hit. I think it's different and might be a sign of the times on where the format and texture of music is headed," Murphy muses. "It serves as a relief from a lot of the adult, folk-rock sounds that seem to be gaining a lot of momentum." That, says Murphy, is a good thing. "The format flourishes when we have many different styles from which to choose."
Of PDs contacted by Billboard today, only the gatekeepers at Mainstream Top 40 panelist WBBM Chicago seem more than slightly concerned about the viability of "Suit" at the format. Even then, they feel that the song will ultimately be embraced. Seemingly worth remembering: a similar consensus reticence accompanied "SexyBack," which many programmers and fans deemed jarring before similar-sounding songs by the Black Eyed Peas arrived and the EDM movement blossomed. "(Suit) doesn't seem to be creating a ton of chatter with our listeners as of yet," says PD Todd Cavanah. "Still, it's Justin Timberlake. I would not bet against him. We'll let the audience decide."
"Suit" is generating "somewhat mixed opinions thus far," adds WBBM assistant PD/music director Erik Bradley. "I'd say it's 50/50. But, it's No. 1 on iTunes and still trending on Twitter. It's definitely going to get the chance to prove itself. Personally, I liked it after the first listen, liked it even more after the second and, once I heard it on the radio, I totally loved it. It's Justin and he typically comes with game-changing lead singles, so I'd expect the same in this case."
Clearly, the start of "Suit" could be just the start of pop radio's potentially strong bond with "The 20/20 Experience."
"Simply put, don't doubt JT," says Dylan Sprague, PD of Mainstream Top 40 reporter WXKS and Rhythmic panelist WJMN Boston. "He is always doing something different; in this case, an update on past R&B."
Keep checking Billboard.biz and follow @Billboard on Twitter for updates on the speedy start for "Suit" at radio and retail.
Additional reporting by Keith Caulfield.