My favorite part of Jay Z’s latest album Magna Carta Holy Grail was the campaign. It came out of nowhere, striking (If I may borrow a phrase from C.S. Lewis) like lightning from a clear sky. The initial brilliance was in its surprise. Because there hadn’t been a single nor any other type of fanfare, the public was sucker punched with a glut of information where they pieced together any information they could glean. The commercial wasn’t an overt advertisement. It was a black and white faux studio session Not only did it further break down the barriers between creatives and fan, it enticed them with implied promises. Jay Z was using several of the biggest producers in Hip-Hop, minus the noticeable absences of Just Blaze and Kanye West. Jay Z was going to announce the album and just drop it right away so the fans could have it instantly. To top it off Jay Z inked an enviable deal with Samsung.
The deal was such that anybody that had a Samsung smartphone could get the album for free as Samsung had already purchased a million copies of Magna Carta Holy Grail. In a move of marketing brilliance Jay Z followed up the album’s release with a question and answer session on his twitter making sure to put emphasis on a certain question: is it’s possible to have a platinum album before the album is even released. The original answer to that question was an offended no, but thanks to Jay Z that answer has changed. Throughout the whirlwind of hype and fan interaction, Jay Z presented radical idea after radical idea before whimsically leaving the twitter hash tag #NewRules. The results were expected. Many were charmed. Even those that weren’t were caught up in the buzz and the general consensus was that Jay Z had done it again; proving that Jay Z is in fact both a business man and a business, man. But was that his true agenda?
Why would a superstar like Jay Z go through the trouble of getting a deal with Samsung? Just for the money? Is Jay Z only about the bottom line? Just to prove he’s the biggest name in rap music? He already has a proven existing model. He could have just released the album and it would have sold to a great degree. He could have released a single and radio stations across the country would have given it continuous spins. He could have done any of the established methods within music industry and he would have achieved similar results. So why do something to radical? I think he’s bored.
There is only so much a person can achieve on earth before they set their eyes on literal stars. Jay Z has arguably the biggest rap career of anybody living. He will be touted as a hip-hop legend for generations. He is married to one of the wealthiest and most beautiful women on the planet. He is friends with the first Black President of the United States. He rubs elbows with the likes of Warren Buffet and jets off to France to collect fine art left behind by the masters. That is Jay Z’s life. He does that all the time. Being on the outside we tend to only see the luxury, but I’m certain that there is redundancy even in decadence. Redundancy is of course a reactionary truth. It does not exist without human perception. Perhaps it is a biological coding that forces us to seek out variety, but as far as we know it exists no matter what your status. And status is something Jay Z has in spades. I believe that status has given him extraordinary foresight.
I could be snarky and say that Jay Z can see the future. That of course would only be snarky if I did not believe it, if not literally. Successful businessmen develop an ability to recognize trends in their given field. They are then able to view their findings and determine the best course of action to give them the most gain. They are in essence the best psychics in the world. So what would they do if they saw that their industry, the industry that gave them their entire fortune was dying?
Bear it me for a moment and entertain this ‘what if’. You are Jay Z. Yes you. You wake up early in the morning and stretch out on your luxury mattress stuffed with the deceased remains of auto-tune. The sun shines on you from your skylight as you stretch. After you give Beyoncé a loving kiss on the cheek you sit at the breakfast table and flip through your investments on your ipad. Liquor is up. Clothing is up. Art and film is up. Hip-Hop however, is flat. It hasn’t fallen, but it’s teetering over such a steep cliff that if it falls, it will break every bone in its body. You turn off the ipad and think. This was not what you were expecting to see this morning. You’ve just signed three new athletes: one NBA player, two MLB. You were supposed to have a conference call with a gentleman from a popular Manhattan restaurant. You were going to discuss ideas about his restaurant into a chain. Expansion and growth is what’s on your mind, but no matter where you look you see the dying dried out plant of hip-hop. Hip Hop has given you everything and now you’re wondering if you should arrange for its inevitable hospice care. You sip on your grapefruit juice, contemplating.
OK. That was a bit much, but is it really that far farfetched? What if Jay Z saw a problem down the line, and decided that his next album wasn’t for him. What if he decided that it wasn’t even for the fans. What if Magna Carta Holy Grail is for rap music itself, a clever ploy to push the genre out of the path of looming clouds.
Stagnation is one of the worst things that can happen for an artist. While fans claim that they want an artist’s new works to be similar their previous, that is not how they generally react. To reiterate, redundancy hits human beings very hard. We get bored despite ourselves, and end up confused as to why we aren’t experiencing the same elation we felt from the initial project. A recent example is with Jay Z’s wife Beyoncé.
Beyoncé is one of the greatest vocalists of all time. She has classics for days, but her most recent Album 4 did not have the explosive appeal that her previous albums had. While her general presence is enough for her to sell an astounding amount of copies worldwide, and the music was of a very high quality, she did not have the one breakout hit with Single Ladies from her album I am. . . Sasha Fierce. While it is understandably doubtful that she could duplicate that particular phenomena, she did not seem to have the same amount of traction with her single Run the World (Girls). In my estimation, the problem was not the quality of the piece, rather the redundancy of the sound. Her album 4 did not have as great of a shift as it could have and because of this –maybe on a subconscious level—the fans did not respond in as grand a manner as they have in the past. They might have felt that Beyoncé had become predictable. Then she released Bow Down.
The Song Bow Down struck a chord in the music world. The response to the song was more intense anything previous Beyoncé track since Single Ladies. My question is, why? This was not a typical Beyoncé song. It’s exudes a very in-your-face mood while bragging phrases stab the melody with a hip-hop-similar ferocity. Bow Down is more a rap song than the typical affair fans have come to expect from Beyoncé. And that is even before she starts to rap on it. The subject matter is vastly different, and it instantly forces people to readjust their expectations of her as an artist. She even acquired a track from hip-hop producer Hit-Boy, the mastermind behind the Watch the Throne smash hit, Niggas in Paris. But once again why is this significant?
The casual observer might think that it’s normal for Beyoncé to put out another song that resonates with people. If they said that, they would be ignoring the fact that the hit should not have resonated with her fans, at least not according to general consensus. The general consensus is that people want what they have been given before. This is almost a half truth. People on some level do what they have been given before but not for very long. They will grow tired of the same. If not right away, then soon. The fact is that people want something new. Not so that their reminiscence will be taken for granted but because people crave innovation. It is novelty that strikes us. Novelty plus quality over familiarity equals exhilaration. That is what Jay Z pursues. That is what he peddles. Only he is seeking to do it for everybody.
Jay Z is trying to bring the rap community along with him, where he feels it needs to go. By establishing the phrase #NewRules on twitter, Jay Z is attempting to set a new standard to challenge the current context of Hip-Hop. By doing so in such a public manner he sets the example for all other rapper to follow while simultaneously creating a safe space where people who roam off the beaten path won’t feel ashamed for doing so. If rappers are leaders, than Jay Z is the leader of leaders. He is the voice that gets other rappers to pay attention whether they agree with him or not. His hope might be that his methodology will force artists to see another way of doing things.
What’s more, the album is disguised by the typical brag-language that rappers are famous for. Lacing songs with phrases like “A million before the album drops” from the track Somewhereinamerica creates a false sense of recognition. The true nature of the album is in the experimentation; in having a like Beach is Better that’s under a minute long, or in sampling Biggie vocals on a song about his newborn daughter. We see rhymes about money, cars , and models and we think we are getting what we have but somewhere deep down we are see that the entirety of the work is slightly eschew. In the song Oceans he states ‘Black card go hard when I’m shopping’ mere phrases after he talks about societal turmoil and the BP oil spill. He then lays that up against a frank ocean chorus that might be a beautiful metaphor for African American Struggle. It’s like Jay Z is intentionally distracting us; reading from the Songs of Solomon with his right hand, while jingling the keys to his maybach with his left. That’s prestidigitation with a purpose. The end result is a curious concoction where scores of people are all very into the album, maybe. They’re not quite sure. They think they just listened to a Jay Z album, but every so often they feel like they might have caught a glimpse of something more.
If I drew two eyes, a nose, and a mouth, would you call that a face? What if the parts were rearranged so that the eyes were sideways and the nose was where the mouth should be? Would you call that a face? Would you call it anything at all, or would you stand in front of it and try to make sense of it.
“I just want a Picasso” Picasso Baby, Jay Z 2013
The thoughts of this article resonates the authors thoughts, not a general consensus of the website (unless otherwise stated).