Despite major backlash against both his art and his business, Jay-Z keeps winning. The numbers are in and his latest album, Magna Carta... Holy Grail, the one that's not very good and carried the stinky whiff of that Samsung deal, had some of the best first-week sales of the year.
Generally, if an album does half a million in first-week sales today, with this music industry, and in this economy, it's seen as a smashing success. Jay-Z's Magna Carta is no different: pushing 528,208 physical copies sold is a huge accomplishment. That number obviously doesn't include the 1 million Samsung Galaxy users who were able to download the album early for free, or the people who downloaded a leaked version from the darker corners of the Internet. Few performers can command such strong box office presence today, and Jay-Z just did it by announcing the album weeks before its release and no lead single. One of the only other people would be Jay-Z's tour-mate Justin Timberlake, who pushed 968,000 copies in his first week with The 20/20 Experience. (Not coincidentally, Timberlake has the strongest selling album of the year so far.)
But Jay-Z's expectation-exceeding triumph does come as a bit of a surprise. When the album landed last week, it sounded more like a dud than a hit. Critics were generally unimpressed with the music. Magna Carta was ranked behind some of his most mediocre past work. And the backlash from that Samsung deal—the one that gave the album out for free—was swirling around the release. People were upset the album seemed like art demanded by contract stipulation instead of honest expression.
Jay-Z's first-week win also puts him another step ahead of his friend/rival Kanye West. Despite having a critically beloved album and an unintentional leak, West only moved 327,000 copies of Yeezus in its first week. Jay-Z's shadow is long and money green.