Why Born Sinner outsold Yeezus
June 18th marked a big day for all hip-hop fans as two of its biggest artists were set to release albums on the same day: Kanye West with his sixth studio album, Yeezus, and J. Cole with his second album, Born Sinner. Since Kanye is a well-established artist and J. Cole is a relative up-and-comer, it would be logical to predict that Kanye would sell more albums than Cole. However, predicting album sales is not that simple.
While critics lauded Yeezus with universal acclaim, by the third week after both albums released, Born Sinner surpassed sales of Yeezus, and was the first to go certified Gold (500,000+ records sold). Even though Born Sinner only received “generally favorable” reviews from critics, it was a major hit with hip-hop fans.
Using Crimson Hexagon’s ForSight platform, we examined the social media conversation surrounding both albums in the period before and after their release, in order to understand the way social word-of-mouth drives album sales and why Born Sinner resonated so well with consumers. In today’s environment of media consumption, events and the way they are discussed and handled on social media, including word-of-mouth marketing, can have a significant influence on album sales, which was the case with the simultaneous release of Yeezus and Born Sinner.
We analyzed 549,267 relevant posts about Born Sinner and Yeezus a month before the albums released to understand the buzz about each album. Immediately, it is clear to see that Kanye generated more hype for his album with 42% of the conversation focused on those who were excited for Yeezus, compared to 18% for Born Sinner. It also seems clear that more consumers express that they intend to purchase Yeezus, as conversation around purchase intent for Kanye’s album is 10% compared to only 3% for J. Cole’s album. However, analyzing the illegal download intent we can see that just as much of the discussion surrounds consumer’s intent to illegally download Yeezus (9%) as they do to buy it legally, while the disparity is greater for Born Sinner (3% vs. <1%). Diving a bit deeper, perhaps we can try to explain why this is so.
Taking a look at this visualization which breaks down the proportion of conversation for each day we can match significant events related to each album with increases in purchase intent. For example, on June 6th J. Cole hosted a listening session via the Born Sinner phone app, where users in select cities would download the app and be able to listen to the album in full at a designated location. On June 6th, purchase intent jumped to 10%, doubling the conversation from the previous day (5%). The very next day, Born Sinner leaked online and unsurprisingly the intent to illegally download the album increased from less than 1% to 6%. However, purchase intent also doubled from the previous day from 10% to 20%. What could explain this marked increase?
Thank you for the love. Rather than acting like the leak didn't happen, here's the official album stream for those who haven't heard it.
— J. Cole (@JColeNC) June 7, 2013
The above tweet from J. Cole himself can possibly shed some light on this. Rather than ignoring the leak, Cole acknowledges it and even goes as far as offering a free stream of the album on his website. Looking at some of the fans reactions to this, it is clear that this tactic worked in Cole’s favor and generated even more loyalty for the artist and most importantly, an increase in purchase intent.
I'ma buy J. Cole's album even though it leaked.
— Janay Nicole (@EmergentRose) June 12, 2013
I love J Cole I'm ashamed I'm listening to his cd already!
People were even feeling guilty for giving the leak a download or listen, but they still expressed their intent to support J. Cole on June 18th, when the album would finally be released. Contrast J. Cole’s approach, with this tweet about Kanye’s thoughts on a potential leak and it is clear that their opinions differ greatly. So when Yeezus finally leaked on the 14th, what happened?
— Brian A. Hernandez (@BAHjournalist) June 11, 2013
Intent to illegally download Yeezus on the 14th jumped to 16% of the conversation compared to 13% who expressed intent to purchase and by the 16th the disparity was even larger at 15% compared to 5%, respectively.
Now since Yeezus leaked, half of Kanye West's fans won't buy it.
— A-Turf (@ADashTurf) June 14, 2013
When confronted with a leak J. Cole’s approach of acknowledging the leak and offering the album to stream on his own website is more effective as it drives traffic back to his website where ads promoting the album can be shown, whereas Kanye’s approach may have encouraged fans to illegally download his album. Through all of this, loyalty appears to be the message that J. Cole fans express and it is something that Cole has tried to foster as well. To promote his album and show his appreciation to the fans, Cole announced “A Dollar and a Dream” Tour where fans could see the MC for only $1. The catch was that the show’s location would be released the day of the performance via Twitter and it would be first come, first serve, rewarding J. Cole’s most loyal fans.
There's something real special about this Dollar and A Dream Tour and the connection Cole builds with the people
— Ibrahim H. (@KingOfQueenz) June 24, 2013
Thus, loyalty is one of the biggest factors that drive purchase intent versus piracy of music for consumers. Another factor, of course, is the quality of content. We wanted to see how consumers reacted to each album so we analyzed the 426,733 relevant posts surrounding consumer conversations after Born Sinner and Yeezus were released.
Immediately, we notice that consumers overwhelmingly express negative sentiments towards Kanye’s album (over 60% of total Yeezus conversation), with the most common criticism focusing on fans missing the “Old Kanye” (18%). While many critics lauded Yeezus for pushing the boundaries of the hip-hop genre, only 4% of the total consumer conversation was about this topic. Furthermore, consumers explicitly stated their preference for Born Sinner over Yeezus which garnered 9% of the conversation compared to the opposite preference which had only 2%.
Looking at the conversation surrounding Born Sinner it’s clear that consumers loved the album as only 3% of the total conversation (13% of Born Sinner conversation) is about criticisms of the album. Interestingly, general praise of the album is also only 3% as fans expressed their positive opinions in distinct themes that we were able to capture. Both surround J. Cole’s ability to relate to the everyday consumer, with 9% of the conversation focusing on how Born Sinner is a part of their everyday life and 2% about the authentic quality of the rapper.
Taking a look at our word cluster visualization, the highlighted words point to how fans interact with the album in their daily lives whether they are at the gym, in bed, or hanging out. J. Cole’s lyrics resonate with the consumer on a personal level and that drives the conversation on social media, which fuels positive word-of-mouth, fosters loyalty, and increases purchase intent for Born Sinner.
Ultimately, consumers, not critics generate the word-of-mouth buzz that leads to album sales. Using the ForSight platform we were able to uncover what drives purchase intent in the music industry, see how events changed purchase intent in real time, and understand the distinct reactions that consumers expressed about each album.