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Is Justin Timberlake’s Album a Success?

‘Man of the Woods’ hit no. 1 on the Billboard 200, but the response has been mixed, at best. What does a hit pop album actually look like in 2018?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Credit where it is due: The memes making fun of Justin Timberlake’s Man of the Woods are truly excellent. Everything about the album — the on-the-nose tracklist, the Jessica Biel spoken word, the pop-up shop, the self-serious video that announced its arrival, the fact that the songs actually aren’t woodsy at all — is a deep well of comedic material. Which is why you can get lost in the JT memes (or woods) for hours, and why, if you spend enough time on the internet, it starts to seem like Man of the Woods was a failure.

Memes, and rude tweets, and tepid reviews, and a largely forgettable Super Bowl halftime show, do not necessarily correspond to sales. Though his halftime show outfit was compared to the background of a Mac operating system, JT’s album sold 293,000 units in its first week — a better performance than any album since Pink’s Beautiful Trauma in October. Man of the Woods debuted at no. 1 on the Billboard 200, the traditional mathematical definition of a hit in the music industry. Yet these first-week sales are a quarter of the 968,000 that Timberlake’s last album, The 20/20 Experience, opened with in 2013. Man of the Woods has not yet generated a hit single. All in all, Timberlake’s commercial performance is much closer to Harry Styles (230,000 in first-week sales in 2017) than Taylor Swift (1.2 million).

How should we judge a major album’s success in 2018? It’s a confusing time, when album sales still matter but are offset by streaming stats and YouTube views, amorphous buzz, and aggregated review scores. Because the old means of measurement aren’t equipped to take all of those factors into consideration, I tried to come up with a method that does. The formula works like a grading system, in which five factors — Album Sales, Album Reviews, Streaming Stats, YouTube Views, and General Buzz — are rated on a scale of zero to 100, weighted appropriately, and then added together to make up an overall score. Just like in school, a perfect score is 100.

Before tabulating the score for Timberlake’s Man of the Woods — and seeing how it compares to some notable albums from last year — let’s dive into each of those five factors to explain how they’re formulated and how they’re weighted.

Album Sales (30 Percent of Overall Score)

This one’s simple: To come up with an album’s sales score, I compared its first-week numbers to the 100 best first-week album sales of 2017. The higher those numbers ranked, the higher the sales score was. As an example, Taylor Swift’s Reputation had the best first week out of any album in 2017, and therefore received a sales score of 100.

Album Reviews (20 Percent of Overall Score)

For the album’s review score, I used Metacritic, which aggregates an album’s reviews and gives the album a score out of 100. Why aren’t reviews weighted as much as album sales, you ask? To use Taylor Swift as an example again, go ask her and her bank account whether she cares that the commercially successful Reputation wasn’t reviewed as favorably as her other albums.

Streaming Stats (20 Percent of Overall Score)

This is admittedly the shakiest part of the scoring system. Because there are several different prominent streaming sites — Spotify, Tidal, Apple Music — and because they don’t all make their streaming statistics public, it’s not possible to measure an album’s streaming success with the utmost accuracy. So here’s the next best thing: Using Spotify’s Top 200 Chart, which ranks the amount of times songs are streamed on a weekly basis, I averaged an artist’s position on the chart over a span of time encapsulating their album’s rollout and the week following its release. If an artist had multiple songs on the chart in one week, the streaming numbers were added together and the artist’s ranking was adjusted accordingly. The weekly rankings were then averaged to arrive at a score that signifies the artist’s status as a streaming power over the given amount of time. Similar to Album Sales, the higher the ranking, the higher the streaming score.

Obviously, this method isn’t able to tabulate the full scope of how much an album is being streamed, nor does it take into account streaming sites that aren’t Spotify. But, presumably, the success of an album’s singles typifies its overall success, and while the demographics of Tidal and Apple Music users aren’t exactly the same as Spotify users, we are assuming for the purposes of this exercise that the streaming habits on those sites are at least somewhat similar. Like I said, this is the next best thing.

YouTube Views (15 Percent of Overall Score)

To gauge an artist’s success on YouTube on a scale of 0 to 100, I first had to determine what 100 was. Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee’s “Despacito” is the most-viewed music video on YouTube of all time, with 4.8 billion hits. It is clearly the pinnacle of YouTube success. Now, because it wouldn’t be fair to use the overall views of “Despacito” as the bar by which Justin Timberlake’s videos — which have been out for only about a month — are judged against, the number 4.8 billion was divided by 13 (since “Despacito” was released 13 months ago, in January 2017) to arrive at our “100”: 369,230,769. JT’s video views were scored against that standard. Those scores were then averaged to arrive at an overall YouTube score. (The massive success of “Despacito” is a very tough standard to be held to, so don’t be surprised when you see low scores in this section.)

General Buzz (15 Percent of Overall Score)

Attention is good; people talking about your album is good, regardless of what they’re saying. An album’s general buzz was calculated using Google Trends’ “Interest Over Time” metric in relation to a replacement-level album. (In this case, Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy was used as the replacement-level album because it’s old enough that its interest level has plateaued.)

Meme Deductions

OK, one more thing. As I noted above, memes aren’t the best indicator of an album’s overall success — the factors we’ve mentioned so far are way more important. But memes still matter a little — albums that are more vulnerable to being memed ought to be penalized a little. The point deductions due to meme-ability are based on the amount of Google finds for the search terms “[ARTIST NAME/ALBUM TITLE] memes.” That total number was then divided by 10,000 to dull the severity of the penalty, because again, memes don’t matter that much, but they matter a little. (And because once in awhile, like in the case of Kendrick Lamar’s golf swing, memes can be positive.)

All right, we made it through the mathy part — now let’s see how Timberlake’s Man of the Woods scored, and how it compares to other major pop albums.

Justin Timberlake, Man of the Woods

Albums Sold (First Week): 293,000
Album Points (Weighted): 28.5

Review Score: 53
Review Points (Weighted): 10.6

Average Streaming Position: 24.4
Streaming Points (Weighted): 15.3

YouTube Rating: 4.1
YouTube Points (Weighted): 0.62

General Buzz Points (Weighted): 6

Meme Deductions: 2.04

Total Score: 59.00

The Takeaway: If this were school, and Man of the Woods were JT’s final essay, he would fail. The teacher might even write “See me after class” on his paper and also make him ask his parents to sign it, so they knew how badly he’d failed. (In this hypothetical, I choose to insert Jessica Biel as the parental figure, just for fun.) But! It is important to note that making albums is not the same as writing a paper — weird, right? It’s entirely possible that scoring a 100 in this rating system is quite difficult, and so we shouldn’t judge Man of the Woods’ 59.00 score based on our preconceptions about the American grading system. Instead, we should see how it compares to other albums, which is what we’ll do right now.

Jay-Z, 4:44

Albums Sold (First Week): 262,000
Album Points (Weighted): 28.2

Review Score: 82
Review Points (Weighted): 16.4

Average Streaming Position: N/A*
Streaming Score (Weighted): N/A*

YouTube Rating: 0.57
YouTube Points (Weighted): 0.09

General Buzz Points (Weighted): 5.1

Meme Deduction: 0.44

Total Score: 61.69*

*Because Jay-Z, co-owner of Tidal, does not allow his music to be streamed on Spotify, the streaming scores are unavailable. Because only 80 percent of Jay-Z’s album stats were calculable, the total score was prorated to fit the 100 percent scale.

The Takeaway: Jay-Z’s 4:44 scores merely two points more than Man of the Woods, which, on paper, is hard to believe — Man of the Woods seems unlikely to top Best of 2018 lists the way 4:44 did in 2017. So why are they so close? Well, first of all, it doesn’t help that Jay-Z doesn’t make his music easily streamable. It also doesn’t help that Jay-Z is old — more specifically, that Jay-Z’s fans are old and don’t watch videos on YouTube. The visual accompaniments Jay produced for 4:44 are beautiful, powerful, and artistic, but hardly anyone watched them. (That the videos were uploaded to YouTube after the album dropped rather than before — in which case they would have been clicked on more out of hype alone — likely also negatively affected Jay’s YouTube score.) “The Story of O.J.,” the most viewed video from the 4:44, has 59 million views in eight months; Timberlake’s “Say Something” has 47 million in three weeks.

Katy Perry, Witness

Albums Sold (First Week): 180,000
Album Points (Weighted): 27

Review Score: 52
Review Points (Weighted): 10.4

Average Streaming Position: 18.7
Streaming Score (Weighted): 16.46

YouTube Rating: 2.67
YouTube Points (Weighted): 0.4

General Buzz Points (Weighted): 10.8

Meme Deduction: 0.89

Total Score: 64.17

The Takeaway: An early surprise: Witness, a generally panned album with a painful rollout that lasted almost half a year, was statistically better than Man of the Woods. Perry picked up more points for two reasons: streaming, and because Perry was able to cultivate a decent amount of buzz. (Apparently that bizarre livestream stunt was worth something after all.)

Delving further into Perry’s numbers, and specifically her YouTube score, it’s clear that Witness had the potential to greatly outperform Man of the Woods, and maybe even some of the more successful albums further down on this list. In short, she diluted her product. The videos for “Chained to the Rhythm” and “Bon Appétit” were massive hits — 454 million and 443 million views at publication, respectively — but in her overly long rollout, she also released nine other videos, including two “Making of ‘Chained to the Rhythm’” videos. That killed her YouTube score.

She should’ve taken a page out of the book of Taylor Swift, who dropped only six videos — three lyric videos and three full-fledged videos — in the rollout for Reputation. The way that Taylor kept her video releases sparse essentially turned each one into an event, and her YouTube score reflects that. Speaking of Taylor Swift …

Taylor Swift, Reputation

Albums Sold (First Week): 1.2 million
Album Points (Weighted): 30

Review Score: 71
Review Points (Weighted): 14.2

Average Streaming Position: 2.72
Streaming Score (Weighted): 19.65

YouTube Rating: 13.47
YouTube Points (Weighted): 2.02

General Buzz Points (Weighted): 5.1

Meme Deduction: 2.59

Total Score: 68.38

The Takeaway: Reputation’s score is probably a good line marking the difference between an album with above-average success and one with great success. The album sales, YouTube views, and streaming numbers are good, but it’s interesting to see Reputation lose ground because of mediocre reviews and an inability to garner buzz. Also, no surprise here, but Reputation had the most points deducted for meme reasons. It all adds up to a good but not great score. Reputation is the B-minus of albums in terms of overall success.

Kendrick Lamar, Damn.

Albums Sold (First Week): 603,000
Album Points (Weighted): 29.7

Review Score: 95
Review Points (Weighted): 19

Average Streaming Position: 11.75
Streaming Score (Weighted): 17.85

YouTube Rating: 7.74
YouTube Points (Weighted): 1.16

General Buzz Points (Weighted): 7.5

Meme Deduction: 0.76

Total Score: 74.45

Ed Sheeran, Divide

Albums Sold (First Week): 451,000
Album Points (Weighted): 29.1

Review Score: 62
Review Points (Weighted): 12.4

Average Streaming Position: 1
Streaming Score (Weighted): 20

YouTube Rating: 19.67
YouTube Points (Weighted): 2.95

General Buzz Points (Weighted): 10.5

Meme Deduction: 0.33

Total Score: 74.62

The Takeaway: There’s one reason that Sheeran’s Divide has the highest score here: “The Shape of You,” which was the most streamed song in 2017 and had a ridiculously successful music video that has racked up 3.2 billion views. You might be haunted by the sound of Sheeran drumming on his guitar like the one guy at summer camp who INSISTED ON BRINGING HIS ACOUSTIC, but he puts numbers on the board in every way possible. Divide was far and away the most successful album of 2017.

As for Kendrick Lamar, it’s interesting to note how reviews do matter. Damn. was one of the best reviewed albums of 2017, and the extra points he picked up in that category (along with a surprisingly impressive showing in the YouTube section) went a long way in making Damn. the second-most-successful album of last year.

Finally, take note that Man of the Woods wasn’t more successful than any of the other albums discussed thus far. Releasing an album that’s commercially and critically successful, with a video as big as “Despacito,” isn’t easy, as it turns out — which is why all of the above scores don’t even come close to notching an A on the report card — but comparatively, it’s hard to view Man of the Woods as anything but an overall flop. Swift, Jay-Z, Kendrick, Sheeran, Perry — these are presumably JT’s contemporaries and main competitors, and overall they outperformed him. It might be time to stop thinking of Timberlake as one of the biggest musicians on the planet, and instead start comparing him to artists in the downslope of their careers. For example, just as a fun exercise, let’s stack up Man of the Woods against Timberlake’s fellow poncho wearer/Montana vacationer John Mayer and his 2017 album, The Search for Everything.

John Mayer, The Search for Everything

Albums Sold (First Week): 132,000
Album Points (Weighted): 24.9

Review Score: 61
Review Points (Weighted): 12.2

Average Streaming Position: 189.6
Streaming Score (Weighted): minus-17.74

YouTube Rating: 0.07
YouTube Points (Weighted): 0.01

General Buzz Points (Weighted): 8.4

Meme Deduction: 0.02

Total Score: 27.75

Ahh, there we go. In conclusion: Plaid-driven albums do not resonate in 2018. At least Justin Timberlake can confidently assert his dominance the next time he bumps into Mayer on the frontier.