Magazine Feature

JAY-Z Innovates Again With '4:44,' But Is It a Model Others Can Follow?

Jay-Z attends 2017 Roc Nation Pre-Grammy Brunch at Owlwood Estate on Feb. 11, 2017 in Los Angeles.
Ari Perilstein/Getty Images for Roc Nation

Jay-Z attends 2017 Roc Nation Pre-Grammy Brunch at Owlwood Estate on Feb. 11, 2017 in Los Angeles. 

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.

But can other artists follow Jay's lead, or is it only a path for superstars? The only precedent in recent memory for withholding first-week numbers, only to later report them for charting purposes, is West's stuttered release of The Life of Pablo. His extended six-week experimental rollout eventually did make Pablo a No. 1 album, almost entirely derived from streaming numbers after it went wide to Apple Music and Spotify, and released it for sale later still. One label executive suggests to Billboard that, while Jay is certainly in a category of artists that can give away 2 million copies of an album and still sell so many albums, others like Drake and Kendrick Lamar could also fit that mold.

Consider the projects released by Kendrick Lamar (DAMN.) and Drake (More Life) in 2017: the former debuted with 603,000 equivalent album units, with 353,000 traditional sales; the latter debuted with 505,000 equivalent units and 225,000 traditional sales (while breaking a streaming record). Both declined by 55-60 percent in their second weeks, to 239,000 units (89,000 sales) and 226,000 units (43,000 sales), respectively, in the neighborhood of 4:44's projections but mostly stream-driven rather than sales-driven.

But neither Kendrick nor Drake essentially gave away 2 million copies of their projects, pointing to just how formidable JAY-Z remains at this point in his career even compared to other superstars, leaving aside the obvious quality of the album itself.

"JAY-Z is in an elite group of entertainers who can market and release a project this way," says Marathon Agency co-founder Karen Civil. "What you have to love about him is he continues to release his work in ways that elevate him as an incredible businessman."