Jim Carroll

Music, Life and everything else

The business of Jay-Z

The rapper’s new album is as much about his business acumen as his skill in front of the microphone

Watching you watching me: Jay-Z

Mon, Jul 8, 2013, 09:07


No-one can say they didn’t see this coming. Jay-Z himself prepped this situation with that “I’m not a businessman; I’m a business, man” line. At every single step of the process as he made his way up hip-hop’s food chain and when there was cash to be made from the association, Jay-Z put his hand up and got the people at the other side of the table to add another zero to the cheque.

The list of business tie-ins goes on and on, covering everything from sports agency, bars and batteries to musicals, cars and truffles. There’s probably even a few ventures missing from that above list. Other rappers might have had their success stories – Fiddy’s vitamin water boom, for example – but few have gone so wide and deep and have done so as consistency as Shawn Corey Carter. Of course, nappies be expensive, yo, but we’re a long, long, way from the Marcy Projects nonetheless.

The latest venture, though, takes the biscuit (Jigga Chocolate Hob-Nobs?). Jay-Z’s tie-in with Samsung around the release of new album “Magna Carta Holy Grail” sees the rapper and the mobile company making nice to the tune of $5 million dollars so that a million Samsung users got their hands on the new album first. A fiver per download? That’s rich, canny business in this day and age and makes you wonder if Jigga was so hard-chaw when it came to inking digital deals when he was behind the big desk at Def Jam a few years ago.

Such deals, though, are part of the new paradigm and they have just got bigger and more outlandish in recent times. Tech and telecom companies tap established acts with large audiences and hand over large chunks of change to do business and gain from the association or enjoy some exclusive enhanced content. The acts, most of whom really don’t need the extra cash (seriously, how much money do you need to have a good life in this day and age? A philosophical question for another day), send in their reps and people to get the best possible payday. Everyone wins! It is, as Eamonn Forde succinctly notes, a long way from Groove Armada jumping into bed with Bacardi a few short years ago.

But the Jigga/Samsung tie-ie is not just about a straightforward business deal and many quibbles have been noted. David Emery’s timely blog post makes the bigger point that while there is nothing wrong with the idea of making money – or lots of money – from art, but “if the commerciality affects the art, or how people can consume it, then you’re selling out”.

Meanwhile, there are ghosts in the machine and they’re watching. Jon Parales points out that the new album is Jigga’s own Prism, with the “ugly piece of software” digging into the phone user’s contacts and social media accounts to do some highly intrusive data-mining. “If Jay-Z wants to know about my phone calls and e-mail accounts”, Parales asks, “why doesn’t he join the National Security Agency?”

And all of this is before we get to the meat of the album. Like much of Jigga’s recent output, “Magna Carta Holy Grail” is the sound of a man in transition, working out how to turn the things that are making him go hmmm right now (parenthood, faith, history, charity etc) into tunes which will resonate with the people who actually buy rap these days.

When hip-hop was getting off the blocks, few expected fortysomething rappers to be grappling with what to say in front of the mic, never mind hugely successful and very rich fortysomething rappers with huge, valuable brands to protect. In one way, this is cool because you can make things up as you go along. But in another, given hip-hop’s historical ties with the street and stance and pose, can you really appear sensitive and unsure in front of your peers? Now, there’s something besides the cheque from Samsung to try to get your head around.