The release of Jay-Z’s new album, Magna Carta Holy Grail, has been hooked around the slogan “we need to write the new rules” — but the experience has been just another case of old privilege. Hov’s new rules involved promoting and releasing the album via an app available on Samsung phones, for which the electronics company pre-bought a million copies of it for a reputed $5 a pop. So Jay goes platinum before the project’s release date and users get a new and exciting experience. Except the July 4th release didn’t go as planned, as MTV News points out, and the whole venture has a distasteful whiff about it. Here’s a breakdown of what the new rules really entail.
1. New Rules, Same Old Privilege
By having Samsung pre-purchase a platinum-certified bucket-load of copies Magna Carta Holy Grail, Jay-Z is meant to have hit on a new way to sell music in the digital age. But this only works if you’re already a worldwide megastar. Samsung bought up a million copies because they were confident Jay-Z’s profile would create an acceptable level of interest and publicity in the ruse. They paid the rapper to promote a product. This is no use for the upcoming indie artist or even anyone yet to achieve star status. Going pre-release platinum in this way is less an indication of a future solution as validation of how Jay is capitalizing on having forged his fame during an earlier era.
2. New Rules, Same Finicky Technology
The midnight release of Magna Carta Holy Grail didn’t go quite as planned: Twitter was rampant with reports of users being unable to download and install the app to the point where the name of a certain popular file-sharing site was bandied around as the best tech support remedy. (User reviews of the app during the pre-release period were also littered with reports that many couldn’t get beyond the age verification screen.) For all the hullabaloo about Magna Carta Holy Grail being an innovative way to listen to music you’d fairly expect the app to actually work, especially for those who stayed up until midnight to cop it.
3. New Rules, Same Old Payola
Rap albums are often (still) judged to be a success or failure by virtue of their first week sales. This has led to certain slated albums reporting suspiciously high first week sales numbers — which usually involves rumors that the artist’s record label has bulk purchased them to boost sales figures. Samsung’s pre-purchasing of Magna Carta Holy Grail is the same disingenuous industry gambit — it’s just been promoted as something new and innovative.
4. New Rules, Same Old Data-Mining
One of the most common criticisms about the Magna Carta Holy Grail app is the way it wants permission to access a user’s personal data, including phone call records. (Insert Illuminati quip of choice.) It also wants to spam your Twitter and Facebook feeds FarmVille style with updates every time you interact with the app. If you download the Magna Carta Holy Grail app, are you being treated as a loyal fan or a marketing stat? The fact the app’s free should give you your answer.
5. New Rules, Same Unfulfilling Digital Experience
Physical music sales might still be plummeting, but no one has yet managed to come up with a digital way to listen to music that’s as enjoyable and immersive as the olden days of sitting there with a vinyl record or CD in hand while perusing the liner notes. Magna Carta Holy Grail doesn’t bring us any closer to a solution, being that the app is largely a bunch of lyric sheets (with the curse words redacted). It’s gimmicky, not fulfilling.
6. New Rules, Same Old Branding
If you didn’t own a certain Samsung phone then you couldn’t partake in the Magna Carta Holy Grail festivities on July 4th. The phone’s manufacturer presumably see this as a way to boost interest in their product, but it’s a pretty crass way to exclude the majority of Jay-Z’s fans. Dictating what brand of cell phone you’re allowed to listen to a new album on is a graceless form of exclusion.
7. New Rules, Same Old Commerce
Nearly all of the discussion about Magna Carta Holy Grail involved talking about commerce and marketing issues, not the music. This is not something hip-hop needs any more of. It’s a genre already clogged with artists who see interviews as little more than an excuse to talk about their shoddy new business venture. Jay is in a position to shift the debate back to the music. Instead, he chose a five mil check to keep the conversation about the business not the art.
8. New Rules, Same Old Shawn
The most depressing part about the Magna Carta Holy Grail saga is Jay-Z’s continued lackluster approach to making music. He’s in a position to craft a totally uncompromising album based only on his artistic whims — after all, he doesn’t have to worry about whether anyone actually pays for the project. But over Magna Carta Holy Grail’s 16 songs he stays creatively conservative. Timbaland contributes the most daring moments, so why not hand the reigns over to him to produce the entire project? Lyrically, Jay too often sounds like someone who knows he’s better than 95% of his competition, but also that he doesn’t have to rap at much more than a walking pace to prove it. Magna Carta Holy Grail comes off like its author mustered up some initial excitement for the venture and then got bored and was content to tread water. And this is the biggest problem with the new rules ruse: Real change scarcely comes from the establishment, and right now Jay-Z is as establishment as it gets. New rules are rarely made by those who benefit from the old ones and Jay-Z’s just been paid five million big ones to prove it.