Ever since the announcement of his game-changing arrangement with Samsung Electronics, most of the conversation about Jay-Z's forthcoming studio album, Magna Carta Holy Grail has revolved around the nature of the deal, not the any of the coming music. Even as the project is being rolled out via in-studio video clips and scavenger hunts and lyric sheets, the focus remains on the logistics of the album, its delivery and its meaning for the music business.
It's no wonder. Almost immediately, the Wall Street Journal reported that Samsung paid $5 a piece for one million copies of the album, to be given away free to owners of select Samsung devices. Granted, Samsung, which is worth over $200 billion (with a net cash position of $28.5 billion), essentially has enough money to buy the entire Vatican a couple of times over, so $5 million to them is probably like thirty bucks to the rest of us. Yet how many of us would pay thirty bucks for a Jay-Z album in 2013?
But Samsung didn't just pay for the album; they paid for a seat at the cool table. And considering that the company's Chairman Lee Kun-Hee is the richest man in South Korea — with a personal net worth of $12.6 billion — it's like, fuck it, yo. Samsung is estimated to spend some $20 billion dollars a year on advertising, marketing and promotion and is seen as the most viable hardware challenger to Apple's dominance of the smartphone market. It appears they got Jay-Z on the cheap.
It's all heavy-handed, top-down maneuvering of the sort that could only be pulled off by a handful of artists and companies in the world. (By contrast, Drake, in an effort to remain part of a discussion that has become all about Yeezus and Magna Carta Holy Grail, released four songs in one day and no one cared.)
It's almost a forgone conclusion that this deal is a loss-leader for Samsung — unless the Jay-Z association somehow translates into $5 million worth of smartphone and tablet sales, which would be pure magic. Jay-Z may be one of the most well-known living musicians on the planet, but his last two albums, The Blueprint 3 and Watch The Throne combined didn't sell one million copies in their respective first weeks. And, as he noted in a tweet (which did not come from an iPhone) this won't either.
See, not only is Billboard not counting these “sales” towards chart position, the app, despite being free, has been downloaded by less than 500,000 users so far. Still, the sound you hear right now is Jay-Z not giving a single fuck. His next album, Nicene Creed Immaculate Conception will probably come via a pair of Beats by Jay headphones and feature a tossed off aside about how he not only rules the Billboard charts, he changes them.
In the three-minute ad which made the whole affair public, Jay said the album is “about this duality, of how do you navigate your way through this whole thing, you know, through success, through your failures, through all this and remain yourself.” This describes every Jay-Z album, ever. The clip prominently features Timbaland, Rick Rubin, Pharrell and Swizz Beatz — all guys he's worked with in the past. True, he's made some of his best songs with them, but one beat played in the commercial sounded much like “So Ghetto” (above) from 1999's Vol. 3… Life and Times of S. Carter. Apparently, Jay's making the album he would have made anyway, just for $5 million extra dollars. If he's not a hustler, what do you call that?
(The game five announcement was exceptionally shrewd — between Jay's Brooklyn Nets ties and ownership of Roc Nation Sports — setting off this venture during the NBA Finals makes more sense than during say, the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Though you can bet that if Jay and his Korean partners knew that Bron-Bron was going to lose the headband and force a game seven, they would have all waited.)
It's worth noting that $5 million is the same amount that Jay-Z reportedly paid for the Blueprint 3 after a lost coin-toss with then Universal Music Group leader Doug Morris. But common sense says that how the negotiations for such things go are incredibly complex, as is subtly alluded to in the heavily-redacted promotional website. While it's safe to assume that Samsung didn't just gallop over to the Roc Nation offices with $5 million in duffle bags and walk out with a receipt, we pretty much all imagine Jay-Z staring blankly during the talks and finally nodding when he heard a number he liked.
Whether that really happened or not doesn't matter. What Jay-Z did was (once again) position himself as a power player to be revered in the business arena while getting a free minutes-long commercial which painted him as a thoughtful and progressive music artist. And the fact that so many of us are still talking about the album without talking about the album says everything about everything.