Your punditocracy has spoken: Jay-Z’s partnership with Samsung was a technical disaster… or maybe it broke new ground for artists everywhere. Scratch that, it was a marketing coup only a dyed-in-the-wool mover like Jay-Z could’ve pulled. No, Samsung won the day. Er, both camps benefited equally?
Of course, there was never going to be a consensus on an arts marketing campaign this ambitious, but, a month after the fact, we can begin to discern certain commonalities in each side’s case. In particular, Jay’s declaration from the “Diamonds from Sierra Leone (Remix)” - ”I’m not a businessman, I’m a business, man” – has been popping up like crazy lately. The media’s fixation on this line makes one thing clear: the #newrules are going to reverberate in the world of commerce, not music. That’s because from the moment the Samsung deal was announced, Magna Carta… Holy Grail was destined to be treated more like an Apple unveiling than an album release.
The situation (in case you’ve been living in a collapsed coal mine): Let’s do this quick. On midnight July 4, Samsung Galaxy-users became eligible to download Jay-Z’s twelfth album free of charge via an app, a full three days before its retail release. The South Korean conglomerate acquired one million “copies” of the record from Roc-A-Fella for a cool $5 mil, thereby guaranteeing its platinum status before it even went on sale. Samsung got their mountain of hype, their customers scored free tickets to a marquee event, and Jay-Z walked away with five bucks per record (not bad compared to the $0.00 most musicians make).
The upshot: Jay-Z didn’t become hip hop’s greatest braggart just by rhyming luxury brands. At its best, his music weaves into verse the last relatable rags-to-riches story many Americans have left. The promise that any savvy outerboroughian can bootstrap their way into VIP boxes and corporate lounges is far more central to the Jay-Z mythology than his actual networth. So what if his share of the Nets was only a fraction of a percent, can you name any other non-Russian oligarchs who were in that boardroom? And who cares if his brief stewardship of Def Jam was a financial catastrophe? He ran the fucking East Coast hip hop label. In this regard, the Samsung deal netted Jay more than cash; it gave him a chance to resurrect his weightiest persona, the one he began cultivating all the way back on Reasonable Doubt: the shrewd hustler for whom the deal is everything.
The downside: The technical difficulties surrounding the app’s rollout were, by the artist’s own admission, “not cool.” Ya think? Bloggers are going to froth over minor inconvenience; nothing you can do about that. But when you’re out there presenting yourself as some hybrid of Frank Sinatra, Mohammad Ali, and Michael Jackson, you’d better not be the goddamn PC guy too.
The verdict: I keep returning to that line from the “Diamonds… (Remix).” In spite of his claims to the contrary, Jay-Z is so clearly both a businessman and a business. It was a businessman who kept his stash at 560 State Street, but it was strictly business when he announced his comeback album in the form of a Budweiser ad. The businessman launched his own sports agency. Posing in Reeboks? That was just business, man.
It goes without saying which of these sides of the entertainer-entrepreneur is the more authentic. The question is, which Shawn Carter showed up at the Samsung meetings? If the trajectory of Watch the Throne was any indication, Magna could have been Jay-Z’s Trojan Horse, his opportunity to stick it to corporate America on their dime. Instead, on his twelfth album, his impulse toward agitation, never his strong suit, is muted. Even more alarming is the pervasive sense that there’s nothing left for him to reach for. Where once the world was not enough, on Magna, Jay seems more at home among his palatial surroundings than ever, comforted by all the things a multimillion dollar deal with Samsung can buy. On Big Art Event “Picasso Baby” he actually whines: “I want a Rothko, no I want a brothel.”
Later, when he warns, “You can turn up your nose, high society/Never gonna turn down the homie,” he’s onto something. His latest effort gives neither blue bloods nor anybody else a reason to respect his artistry. Still, no CEO with half a brain would pass on the opportunity to print “JAY Z” (recently rebranded sans hyphen) on their crap. Perhaps the hungry striver we know and love will reappear the next time around, but, as far as Samsung and Jay-Z go, it’s business as usual.