Some albums are like indie movies: They open small and build momentum before they become huge hits. Then there are the blockbuster CDs that blow the doors off in their first week, smashing records and wrecking the competition.
If you thought Justin Timberlake was going to sneak back onto the charts with his long-awaited comeback album, The 20/20 Experience, well, you've clearly not been near a TV, radio, computer or other communication device for the past few months.
No, Timberlake is guaranteed to smash the charts Wednesday when Billboard announces the first-week figures for his third solo album. The only question is: How big? Before the album's release, the first figures projected by Billboard had the Timbaland-produced effort coming in at around 500,000 copies sold. But then, the day after it hit virtual and physical shelves, that number was upgraded to 750,000, then 850,000 a day later and, on Sunday, 950,000-975,000.
These projections are based on a combination of orders from physical and digital retailers, comparisons of how lead single "Suit & Tie" is doing versus comparable artists' first singles and how many radio formats the single is being heard on, according to Keith Caulfield, associate director of charts/retail for the magazine.
"He's not really doing anything wrong and, in fact, has done everything right," Caulfield said of the effective, highly impactful media blitz accompanying the album. "He's been very careful in the kind of promotion he's done for the album, and it's paid off."
Instead of trying to hit every morning and late-night talk show and major radio station, Timberlake focused on buzzed-about visits to two outlets he's very comfortable with: "Saturday Night Live" and "Late Night With Jimmy Fallon." In friendly confines, he participated in performances and skits that invariably went viral, instead of watering down his message by repeating the same stories over and over.
And though "Suit & Tie" has not hit #1 on Billboard's Hot 100 singles chart — peaking at #4 to date — the song is a rare crossover hit at multiple formats, from pop and urban to adult contemporary. "It's unusual to have hip-hop and R&B stations playing songs that also are getting on at adult-leaning and pop stations," Caulfield said, pointing to Alicia Keys and Adele as the few other artists capable of achieving that kind of broad appeal. (The song has been #1 on the Hot R&B songs chart for the past seven weeks.)
From his pre-Super Bowl concert and jaw-dropping Grammy performance to last week's CW special and a well-received SXSW gig, Timberlake has gotten massive bang for his buck since making the surprise January announcement about the album.
Caulfield said his other smart move was hooking up with Target for a deluxe-edition package with two extra tracks. "It's so incredibly helpful when they get behind a record and ... let's face it: He's the biggest male pop star we have right now," he said. "It was so disappointing for so many that the biggest male pop star would take a vacation from music, and people are so excited, they're just grabbing it. I can picture a whole bunch of moms at Target with their kids, who maybe haven't heard the single or seen a snippet of it and saw the CD on the end cap and said, 'Oh, I love Justin and 'SexyBack,' and they just grabbed it."
Add in a major push from iTunes, which streamed the album a week early, and last week's CW/iHeartRadio special, and you have the kind of big partnerships that Caulfield said can really move the sales needle. "It's not just him going on to sing a song or chat for two minutes," he said. "It's making a great impression with a unique moment in each of those [appearances]."
Another potential bonus for Timberlake is that his fanbase is likely a bit older than the teen and tween bedrock for contemporary singles-driven acts such as Rihanna or Justin Bieber. "I think the streaming helped sell it to people and I think once you hear the whole thing you really wanted to experience it as an album," Caulfield said.
So could 20/20 become only the 19th album it the SoundScan era — and first since Taylor Swift's Red — to sell 1 million in a week? Caulfield said it's too early to tell, but either way, it will surely be Timberlake's biggest solo debut and a career milestone for an artist who continues to make it look too easy.
And, if it doesn't sell a million? Well, there's always part two in the fall.