Jay-Z's Magna Carta Holy Grail is--well, I haven't listened to it yet. (iPhone 3GS users are actually barred from owning it until they upgrade to a newer device.) This isn't a review of the album, except to say that I think "BBC," with its bizarre, layered production and conciliatory Nas verse, is really great. This is a review of his self-consciously forward-thinking marketing campaign, from its Samsung Galaxy S4 integration to its weird attempts to gamify itself.
And its marketing campaign is gross. Have you ever wondered what it would look like if one of America's most respected pop artists used every single trick that turned Facebook into a user-hostile minefield of automated invitations to play Bejeweled knock-offs?
You probably haven't, but here it is.
The New York Times went to the trouble of summarizing the JAY Z Magna Carta app for those of us with tiny pockets.
In short: It started by logging into your Facebook and Twitter accounts. From there, you could unlock lyrics--Jay-Z's famous verses, the ones that made him an icon--by tweeting about using the new app.
"Unlocking" the lyrics required a post on Facebook or Twitter. I used Twitter, where hitting the "Tweet" button brought up a canned message: "I just unlocked a new lyric 'Crown' in the JAY Z Magna Carta app. See them first. http://smsng.us/MCHG2 #MagnaCarta." The message could be altered, but something had to be sent. No post, no lyrics -- for every song. Users were forced to post again and again. And frankly, a lyric that is going to show up almost immediately on the Internet isn't much of a bribe for spamming your friends.
This is right out of the social-gaming playbook, and it sucks. It's turning your fans into billboards because you don't trust your product enough to build organic word of mouth. It's doling out rewards piecemeal, in the most addictive, hollowly "productive" way possible, because people have discovered, through painstaking research, that their customers will waste more time and money on their big dumb free-to-play game if they feel like they're winning something every couple of minutes
It's a guy whose persona is built around being above the rules--doing things most people wouldn't dream of doing, skipping what they wouldn't dream of skipping--giving up control of his image to a social media intern who sits up all night researching MBAs and watching TED talks about being an Innovative Synergistic Web 2.0 Thought Leader.(This video has about 1,600 hits on it, as of Monday night.)
Coming after Kanye West's aggressively minimal, individualized Yeezus--no album art, no big-name guests, no cross-promotion or product placement--the product Jay-Z and Samsung actually came out with looks not just impersonal but cheap, out of touch. In a year that's seen both music and the music industry dominated by weirdness and novelty, Jay-Z's auto-tweets and information gathering make him look like a pushy uncle selling Amway detergent.
It's the kind of thing someone who hopes to become Jay-Z would do--and he'd be making a mistake, too. People like you and me are supposed to gamify ourselves, worship buzzwords, just plain do stuff we don't like for money. I've used the word "gamify" without disdain-quotes; I've spent hours on search-engine optimization. I've done all the stuff Jay-Z's app does, only less successfully. But what makes Jay-Z such an exciting figure is his ability to constantly avoid doing that--to force other people into that position.
Making a deal with a phone company isn't what's weird about this; the Samsung promotion itself was classic Jay-Z, pushing his way atop the sales chart because the normal sales chart rules don't apply to him. Jay-Z, unlike most pop stars, is supposed to sell out; his shrewdness with how he sells his image is the whole point of that image.
He's been on the record about being a business, man, for years now; it's his last, best subject.
But the subtext has always been that his business is not only cool, but an arbiter of cool. When he became a label executive, he made the label into a family unit, something you might aspire to join. When he became minority owner of the bland, technicolor New Jersey Nets he pushed them to Brooklyn and helped orchestrate their dramatic monochrome redesign.
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So when--why--did Jay-Z become such a tacky business? Having accomplished everything he could possibly accomplish, what could he possibly gain by turning himself into hip-hop's Zynga?