With new album 4:44 expected to become his 14th No. 1 title on the Billboard 200, the veteran MC once again charts his own path -- but can others follow his model?
Now that it's almost certain that JAY-Z will return to the top of the Billboard 200 in the week ending July 13, it's hard to call the rollout of his latest album, 4:44, anything but a success. But while the Roc Nation and Tidal boss switched things up again for this release, with a Sprint partnership -- part of its $200 million Tidal investment in January -- and a one-week Tidal exclusive that cherry-picked aspects of rollouts by Rihanna, Kanye West and Beyoncé, there aren't many who could emulate Jay's model.
The album has soared despite a series of choices that might have been seen as potential impediments to sales. Initially, it was available to existing Sprint and Tidal subscribers, but (confusingly) only to those who had signed up before June 26, prior to the album's June 30 release date. That frustrated fans -- Mark Ronson and Snoop Dogg among them -- and, according to piracy analytics company MUSO, 4:44 was illegally downloaded 971,000 times in its first 72 hours. By July 2, Sprint had begun offering the album for free to those with a promotion code -- earning Jay a platinum plaque from the RIAA -- though by then, the buzz that had pushed Tidal up 327 spots to No. 1 at the iTunes App Store had begun to wane.
And yet, despite giving away 1 million copies, an untold number of free Tidal trials and seeing another 1 million escape to pirates, 4:44 is expected to earn 240,000 equivalent album units -- among the 10 highest debuts of the year so far -- in its second week after release, but first week available for sale and at all streaming services, save Spotify. Bucking an industry trend, forecasters predict that 75 percent of those units will be traditional album sales, with two-thirds of that sum digital downloads. Contextually, in Nielsen Music's 2013 year-end report -- covering the year Jay last released an album, 2013's Magna Carta...Holy Grail -- album sales plus track-equivalent albums totaled 415.3 million; in 2017 so far, according to Nielsen Music, sales plus TEA are on pace to total 225.2 million, while streaming continues to explode. Since Jay owns his masters, that still adds up to a substantial payday -- not that money is what's driving him anymore.