Justified But Ancient
This should really have been Justin Timberlake's week. A halftime performance at last weekend's Super Bowl to coincide with the triumphant release of his first studio album in just over four years. That's some dynamite promotional coordination.
Yet depending on where you look he was also the subject of more than his fair share of poor optics. Justin Timberlake was the topic of the moment for anyone wanting to flex their writing credentials and so ended up on the receiving end of a large number of online hot takes. Carefully worded deconstructions of some of the more negative aspects of his character resulted, whether it be his constant negging of Britney Spears a decade and a half after they broke up or maybe the perception that he escaped unscathed compared to Janet Jackson from the rather laughable backlash which resulted from the 2004 Super Bowl show featuring the pair. Then there was the fact that he'd committed the crime of attempting to be woke in his use of hashtags but not quite being woke enough. Or so I read on Twitter. The BBC even published an article to try to sum it all up.
But that's just in the online bubble. Everyone else left in the real world surely only cared about what his music sounds like, right? Well there you see was also the problem. Because reviews of his new album Man Of The Woods were lukewarm, to say the least. It is not that he's made a bad record, just one that appears to lack any truly standout moments. Perhaps in the past, this wouldn't have been such an issue. He's Justin Timberlake after all. He's allowed the odd muff. But that was then. In 2018 he may carry A-list status as far as gossip columns are concerned, but musically he's now very much a legacy act. A man whose career dates back over 20 years. Whilst he danced from the CD to the download era of pop music with some style, his challenge was to make one more leap and find a way to be relevant to the streaming generation. And there's a feeling he hasn't managed that with this record.
So how did he do in the final reckoning? Number 2 as it turns out. Man Of The Woods was naturally the biggest new album of the week and flies comfortably into the runners-up slot, frustratingly short of giving him a fourth chart-topping album, matching instead the peak of his last full release, The 20/20 Experience 2 of 2 which charted in October 2013.
The new album also gives an uplift to its hit singles. Last week's fresh release Say Something rises to Number 24 whilst the misfiring Filthy creeps back into the Top 40 at Number 34. The album's title track becomes its permitted third chart hit and enters at Number 91.
So in all that isn't too terrible, right? Well until you consider the numbers. OK, he's a big fish swimming in what is now a much smaller pond compared to the past. But let's just note that whilst Futuresex/Lovesounds opened with 90,985 copies in its first week on sale in September 2006, and the first volume of The 20/20 Experience moved an even more impressive 105,888 back in March 2013, Man Of The Woods limps into life with a mere 19,302 sales and equivalent streams. That's really the only hot take you need to consider.
Keep On Rolling Up
So what stopped JT from storming to the top of the album chart? Almost needless to say it is the Greatest Showman soundtrack which spends a fifth week at Number One with a sale more than double that of Man Of The Woods. Whilst a long way short of the 13 weeks that the Grease soundtrack spent at the top in 1978, this is now the most successful chart run of any movie soundtrack - musical or otherwise - in recent chart history, beating the four weeks total enjoyed by the Les Miserables cast recording in early 2013.
Taking a step back for a moment, this is a quite extraordinary story. Although the songs feature some pleasantly modern production this isn't a pop or rock album as such, but the musical score from a film set over a century ago. Yet here it is spending the winter outselling every other long-playing record on release. It is almost as if the albums market has shrunk so much that we have returned to the days of the 50s and 60s when mainstream pop stars struggled for attention compared to the demand from older and more affluent music buyers. That resulted in the rather odd chart statistics which flow from the very early years of the album chart, when the South Pacific Original Soundtrack Recording spent 70 straight weeks at Number One and the Sound Of Music Original Soundtrack Recording spent the period between 1965 and 1968 alternating almost at will with albums by The Beatles, Bob Dylan and The Rolling Stones at the top of the Record Retailer album chart.
That said, the success of the musical can't be entirely put down to it being the domain of older people. All three of its chart eligible singles continue to more than hold their own and grow ever more popular on the streaming tables. Keala Settle's This Is Me reaches a new peak this week of Number 6, the choral romp from the movie having totally obliterated the more 'pop' take on the track from Kesha which was intended to be the soundtrack's chart hit. Meanwhile, Zac Efron and Zendaya ease up to Number 16 with the more obviously commercial Rewrite The Stars whilst The Greatest Show featuring all three aforementioned performers plus lead actor Hugh Jackman holds firm at Number 21 for a second week, this after spending three in a row at Number 23.
Really this deserves more mainstream attention than it is getting. The throwback Hollywood musical which somehow has a stranglehold over the pop charts that even its producers could never have anticipated. And it is worth noting that under the old chart rules there would still be no less than eight songs from the movie floating around the Top 40. It really is that popular.
Don't Let It Go To Your Head
So yes, singles. About time we dealt with those. Nothing shifts Drake for now at the top of the Official UK Singles chart. God's Plan enjoys a third week at Number One. There's still no video nor even an official audio cut online, although YouTube is littered with plenty of unofficial ones which get zapped by the copyright police in short order.
So the most interesting chart single of the week is the record at Number 2. These Days from Rudimental continues to make good on its promise and explodes up the listings in a manner which suggests its true destiny is to be a Number One hit. Just that Drake is clogging things up for everyone with streaming numbers which are out of the park and beyond the reach of everyone else.
This returns Rudimental to the Top 3 for the first time since their Ed Sheeran collaboration Bloodstream also made Number 2 in April 2015. Rapper Macklemore hasn't been this high up the charts since his own Thrift Shop reached Number One exactly five years ago this week. But the true winner here surely has to be co-singer Jess Glynne. The flame-haired British star was easily the most exciting new talent to appear during this decade, appearing on no less than five Number One singles in 2014 and 2015 thanks to her own work and also her career-defining turns on singles by Clean Bandit and Route 94. Her last chart appearance of any kind was her own Take Me Home which reached Number 6 in November 2015. Two years out of the public eye isn't necessarily a career halter (just ask Rita Ora), there was still always the chance that her comeback (when it finally came) would require her to remind people all over again just what was so special about her.
That's why These Days is so significant. Front and centre on someone else's guaranteed smash hit means she has effectively enjoyed the second soft landing of her career. A new Jess Glynne solo album won't be from the lady who was famous a few years back. It will be from the voice of These Days. Which almost, needless to say, is the best pop hit of 2018 so far. However much it resembles Macklemore's own Same Love from five years ago.
Not Tired Of Feeling You Still
It feels positively luxurious to report on two and a half new arrivals to the Top 10, particularly when the second of these is Feel It Still by Portugal. The Man which continues its inexorable rise. A 13-9 climb gives the single yet another new peak on what - it is still important to keep reminding people - is now its 28th straight week as a Top 100 hit single. Mind you, the single dates further back than that. As its metadata on the iTunes store will confirm, Feel It Still was first made available for purchase in this country on March 3rd 2017. Meaning it is effectively almost a year old. All good things come to those who wait.
Why "two and a half" new entries to the Top 10? Because the third has been here before, Never Be The Same from Camila Cabello rising to Number 10 three weeks after it first peaked at Number 7.
Let's Go To The Movies
The Greatest Showman isn’t the only movie whose soundtrack is making chart waves at the present time. It is the world of celluloid which spawns the highest brand new entry of the week. Pray For Me from the superstar pairing of The Weeknd and Kendrick Lamar features on the soundtrack of the forthcoming release Marvel comics release Black Panther and serves as its first bit of mainstream promotion. A more diverting production than you might imagine, the track weaves a compelling narrative even without the benefit of accompanying visuals. A chart comeback of sorts for The Weeknd, this is his most significant chart entry since I Feel It Coming reached the Top 10 in December 2016. Kendrick Lamar meanwhile has his biggest hit since Humble climbed to Number 6 in April last year. This technically isn't the first time the pair have duetted on a Top 40 single, although 2016 collaboration Sidewalks was just a cut from The Weeknd's Starboy album which charted at Number 30 in the week the collection was released.
Pray For Me is actually the second track from Black Panther to chart. The other is another Kendrick Lamar cut, the SZA collaboration All The Stars which lifts itself to Number 28 this week.
Watch Me Whip
More soundtrack hits now, and I speculated when it first charted that the potential of the Fifty Shades Freed soundtrack hit For You would only be fully realised once the movie was fully released. That seems increasingly to be the case. Originally charting at Number 11, the Liam Payne and Rita Ora duet had plunged as low as Number 29 a fortnight ago before gaining a second wind. This week the single rises for the second week running back to Number 18, its highest chart placing since its debut. With the movie out just in time for Valentine's day, it could well go higher, regardless of the lukewarm reception the critics have given the final part of the trilogy.
Little by little the British grime takeover appears to be gathering pace. Barking by Ramz remains Top 3, Not3s have two simultaneous Top 20 hits and Mist made his chart debut last week with Game Changer. This week it is the turn of B Young to step into the spotlight. The alarmingly sexy Jumanji has been circulating since the tail end of last year and finally hit the online stores with an official release in early January. Now after a four-week wait, the single finally penetrates the Top 40, jumping 43-27 to become one of the more compelling new entries of the week. The darkest, earthiest aspect of British musical culture can be hit and miss at times with some of its offerings hard to love. This one is quite the reverse, Jumanji destined to lodge itself into your brain.
There's more where that came from too. 21-year-old Afrobeat star Kojo Funds made his breakthrough chart appearance at the end of last year as the guest star on Mabel's Finder's Keepers. This week he debuts as a lead artist with Check which makes a solid enough new entry at Number 33. Continuing the interconnectedness of just about everyone the track features a vocal turn from Raye, this making him the third act on whose hit she has guested hard on the heels of Jonas Blue and Jax Jones a year ago. Her own hit Decline holds firm at Number 20 this week, three weeks after peaking at Number 15.
Finally, let us note that the all good things come to those who wait rule doesn't just apply to funk-rock collisions. Hailee Steinfeld's Let Me Go has to date spent a full 15 weeks on the Top 100 already, without coming within a sniff of the attention of this column. Now in week number 16 (for reference, making it the same age as Rita Ora's Anywhere to name but one) it finally breaks through as well, a three-place climb to Number 39 to finally give the singer and actress a third Top 40 hit following on from Starving and Most Girls.