As hard as it is to put album sales figures into context these days, it's generally not good when you go from 481,000 to 310,000 in debut weeks for consecutive albums. The former was the number of units moved by Beyoncé's I Am...Sasha Fierce in its first week of sales back in 2008, while the latter was the final tally for 4, released last Tuesday. It's the lowest first-week sales number that the pop megastar has posted for any of her solo releases, and nearly a quarter-million less than her peak of 541,000 for B'Day back in 2006. Is it time to press the panic button on Queen B's latest being a flop?
Well, not really. Beyoncé's first-week number is still the year's third-biggest—well higher than those of anticipated blockbuster releases from Britney Spears (276,00) and Chris Brown (270,000) and over three times more than this week's other best-selling new releases, Big Sean's Finally Famous and Selena Gomez & the Scene's When the Sun Goes Down. Label exec Rob Stringer is even declaring victory over the album's first week, pointing to the worldwide figures, including in the U.K. and Brazil, where sales are well ahead of the pace of previous Beyoncé albums.
You could also argue that the deck was somewhat stacked against 4, given the (somewhat undeserved) poor reception for lead single "Run the World (Girls)," the album leaking three weeks ahead of schedule, and the rumors circulating that the album's release date was going to be pushed back so the label could make some last-minute edits. With all that working against it, 300,000 is a pretty respectable number, even if not quite indicative of the triumph that Stringer is trying to put it forth as. Not mentioned by Stringer, however, is the album's strong reception amongst critics—review composite site Metacritic has 4 netting an average score of 73 out of 100, the highest number for Queen B to date, and 11 higher than the 62 for I Am...Sasha Fierce.
Even though the album has yet to spawn a real Beyoncé-sized hit—"Run the World" stalled at #29 on the pop charts, and follow-up "Best Thing I Never Had" is in a slow-crawl up the Hot 100, currently nestled at #58 in its fourth week—it seems to us that rumors of 4's demise have been at least mildly exaggerated. It may not be a blockbuster for Ms. Knowles, but for an album that seems to reflect a shift in priorities for the Queen B—parts of 4 seem designed to be almost explicitly anti-commercial—that might not be the worst thing in the world. And with Stringer alluding to Beyoncé's planned "18-month campaign" to promote her new album—and a couple potential smashes-in-waiting still ripe for the plucking from the tracklist (COUNTDOWN COUNTDOWN COUNTDOWN)—4 might still move a couple more copies before all is said and done, anyway.