It wasn’t necessarily the smoothest of rollouts for Justin Timberlake in the weeks leading up to last Friday’s Man of the Woods album release.
He’s been largely mocked in the media for his overly serious LP trailer, his clumsy attempts to embrace activism and for reports of some ill-advised designs for his then-upcoming Super Bowl halftime show — even though some of those didn’t end up coming to fruition, if they were ever really in his plans to begin with. The LP is currently set to debut at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 albums chart with around 300,000 equivalent units — the best first-week number for an album since Taylor Swift’s Reputation, but only about one third of the numbers he moved in The 20/20 Experience‘s first week a half-decade earlier.
And whether it’s correlative to his bad press or just overall bad timing, the advance tracks from Man of the Woods have been met with a similarly chilly reception. Opening volley “Filthy,” Timberlake’s first new song since 2016 and first lead single since 2013, entered at No. 9 on the Billboard Hot 100 — exceptional for an average pop artist, but underwhelming for a star like Timberlake, whose previous single (Trolls soundtrack contribution “Can’t Stop the Feeling!”) debuted atop the chart in ’16 — and has sunk like a stone since, falling to No. 51 in its third week. The response to second blast “Supplies” was even more muted, with the song cameo-ing at No. 71 on the Hot 100 in its first full week of tracking (starting the Friday after its Thursday afternoon debut) and dropping off the chart entirely from there. (“Supplies” is connecting at some radio formats, as it jumps 33-25 in its second week on the Rhythmic Songs chart; “Filthy,” however, holds at its No. 16 peak on Pop Songs, down in plays.)
One might assume that the set’s third advance track, the Chris Stapleton-featuring “Say Something,” would continue JT’s downward trending. But something fans and critics alike might’ve missed in the deluge of debate over his halftime performance at Sunday’s Super Bowl LII: “Say Something” actually debuted in the Hot 100’s top 10 this week, at No. 9 — matching the first-week bow of “Filthy.”
That’s more impressive than it even might look at first blush. No. 9 might’ve been a disappointing spot for Timberlake’s first single in two years to debut, but it’s a pretty resounding landing spot for his third new song in two weeks. (For a point of comparison, when Taylor Swift made her long-anticipated Reputation return, lead single “Look What You Made Me Do” vaulted to No. 1 in its first full week of tracking but by the time of the set’s third advance track, “Gorgeous” (which was not promoted to radio, unlike the three JT songs), she was down to a No. 13 bow. Also, even though “Filthy” cleanly lined up its first tracking week with its first week of release by dropping at midnight on Thursday night, “Say Something” had a Thursday noon debut, meaning that (like “Supplies”) the stats behind its No. 9 debut don’t account for the song’s first 12 hours of release — which included 3.2 million streams and 25,000 in sales, according to Nielsen Music.
What’s more, though Man of the Woods‘ first two tracks saw their numbers begin to plummet after their first weeks of release, “Say Something” still looks to be doing pretty strong in its second frame. As of publishing, the song still ranked No. 3 on the real-time iTunes chart, and on Spotify — not usually a platform friendly to country-leaning pop/rock songs like “Say Something” — the song is still pulling over 700,000 stateside streams a day, currently sitting at No. 17 on the service’s United States Top 50 chart.
Of course, Timberlake is benefiting from an increased profile this week following Super Bowl LII and the release of Man of the Woods, but it’s worth mentioning that despite him not actually playing “Say Something” at his halftime gig, it’s still selling and streaming better than not only any of the other Woods tracks, but also any of the 10 songs he did perform at music’s most-watched gig of the year (including “Filthy”). Could it be that the third time was the charm for Man of the Woods in producing that one thing Justin Timberlake has always seemed reliable for in his two decades of pop stardom: a hit single?
If so, it might mean that fans were more ready for Timberlake’s Man of the Woods phase than it may have previously seemed. Where “Filthy” was mostly a return to the robo-squawking beats and low-slung funk of his beloved FutureSex/LoveSounds period, and “Supplies” saw him flirting with the swirling trap production style currently dominating the pop mainstream, “Say Something” is a much closer dip into the rootsier, more introspective songwriting style JT seemed to be teasing with MOTW all along. The live, one-shot music video similarly emphasized the song’s more organic nature, in sharp contrast with the first two songs’ accompanying visuals, which were both sprawling exercises in future shock, heavily reliant on visual effects and sci-fi-ish narratives.
And as strange as it may be to say, given the two artists’ respective career resumes, Timberlake may benefit heavily on “Say Something” from the guest star power of Stapleton. No, Stapleton doesn’t have even a fraction of the crossover presence or top 40 smashes Timberlake has enjoyed over the last 20 years, but he unquestionably has at least one audience on lock: The singer-songwriter recently tied a Billboard record by claiming each of the three top entries on the Top Country Albums chart. That’s a relatively new demo for JT to court — although not without precedent, as he and Stapleton famously hooked up at the 2015 CMA Awards for a two-song duet that helped make Stapleton a star, while solidifying Timberlake’s Tennessee bonafides. Perhaps the success of “Say Something” is the result of a fan base-in-waiting still excited at the duo’s exciting collaboration finally coming to fruition as a recorded product.
If “Say Something” is indicative of the version of Justin Timberlake that’s most mainstream-accessible at this point in time, it will be interesting to see how that reflects the rest of Man of the Woods‘ rollout from here. Will Timberlake’s team reorient their radio focus on pushing “Say Something” — perhaps as much to country stations (or even R&B, where Stapeton has seen surprise success) as to pop? (The song climbs 26-20 on the Feb. 10 Adult Contemporary chart and 32-22 as the Greatest Gainer on Adult Pop Songs.) Will it influence further single choices, resulting in nocturnal groovers like “Montana” and “Midnight Summer Jam” being passed over in favor of more acoustic ballads like “Flannel” and the title track? At the very least, the song’s success has given critics reason to pause snarking over Timberlake’s turbulent 2018 so far — and that in itself is really saying something.